Note: This story appears in the Friday, Nov. 30 newspaper on Page A3.
The city of Athens has delayed its planned biosolid application on Hebbardsville-area land owned by Ohio University, though officials have yet to decide whether application will continue in the future.
The usage of the site, located off of Enlow and Hebbardsville Roads, has been the subject of controversy in recent months. Local residents have protested the proposed use of the field, saying they are concerned about possible health effects for area residents and for those living downstream of Margaret Creek — which runs through the land and also goes through nearby Morrison-Gordon Elementary School’s land lab.
The announcement of the delay came from an article published by OU. It stated that in October, city contractors drove empty tankers onto the field to determine whether application would be possible. The contractors reportedly decided that the ground quality was not acceptable due to recent heavy rainfall.
Residents of the area told Athens County Commissioners on Tuesday that the land “often floods.” They also noted the presence of Margaret Creek and that there are areas designated as wetlands. The residents informed the commissioners of plans to speak against the project to Athens City Council.
In September, city of Athens officials changed where Athens is disposing of biosolids (also known as sludge) from the wastewater treatment plant. Previously, the city had applied the biosolids property elsewhere but the fields became “saturated” with the nutrients gained from the sludge and must be farmed before further sludge can be applied.
The city entered into an agreement with OU to apply biosolids to the Hebbardsville land and received a permit from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency for the planned work in August.
The EPA’s stance on biosolids has changed since the permit was received in August. A report published on Nov. 15 by the agency’s independent Office of Inspector General is titled, “EPA unable to assess the impact of hundreds of unregulated pollutants in land-applied biosolids on human health and the environment,” and the text describes just that. In the report, the Inspector General Office found that pollutants in biosolids can contain controlled substances ranging from pharmaceuticals to flame retardants to steroids.
“The EPA’s controls over the land application of sewage sludge (biosolids) were incomplete or had weaknesses and may not fully protect human health and the environment,” the report summary stated. “The EPA consistently monitored biosolids for nine regulated pollutants. However, it lacked the data or risk assessment tools needed to make a determination on the safety of 352 pollutants found in biosolids.”
City officials have said that this application process has been used for decades, and is also implemented across the state. The officials have also noted the testing and precautionary measures that have been taken to mitigate any possible issues.
In an interview with The Messenger in late September, Robert Heady, director of public works and city engineer, said that one of the main concerns regarding the biosolids is the metals contained therein.
“All except two metals were single digits in the testing we do,” he said.
However, residents of the Hebbardsville Road area have claimed that applying the sludge still poses health risks to area residents despite the precautions taken, which have included keeping the material three times further away from residential addresses than required by the OEPA and monitoring the nutrients contained in the biosolids.
In the article published by OU, the university affirmed that the process has been in keeping with OEPA regulations. The article said that “effective biosolids management options” can help maintain recycling “useful” materials and prevent “harmful” materials from being exposed to the environment, water sources or people.