Sludge bill stationary in N.C. General assembly

Published 12:10 am Saturday, February 28, 2015

Discussion over sludge being spread on farm fields has moved to the North Carolina General Assembly.

Filed in early February, a bill sponsored by three Republican state legislators could give more local control to county governments when outside entities request to spread biosolids on farm fields. Numbered House Bill 61, it’s got three primary sponsors — Reps. Carl Ford, R-76, Larry Pittman, R-82, and Michael Speciale, R-3. Ford and Pittman represent Cabarrus County, while Speciale is a house representative along the coast. One day after it was filed, the bill was referred to the Local Government Committee, which Ford is a chairman of. No action has been taken on it since Feb. 10.

A portion of the bill could require entities looking to bring biosolids, or sludge, into neighboring counties to incinerate the waste before spreading it on farm fields.

Pittman specifically cited opposition about a Charlotte Water — formerly Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities — proposal to expand its permit to spread biosolids on farm fields as a reason for the bill.

“The bill is meant to allow county governments to address the public health concerns of their citizens in regard to the land application of potentially harmful substances in their community,”The bill is meant to allow county governments to address the public health concerns of their citizens in regard to the land application of potentially harmful substances in their community. “Presently, the local government authorities’ hands are tied. This bill does not require anyone to do anything, but simply allows county governments the option of taking action to protect their citizens if the citizens request that they do so and they are willing to do so.”

Pittman said he originally considered filing a local bill that specifically pertained to Cabarrus County, but was later told it his bill would have to be state-wide.

It was filed just days after Charlotte dropped its expansion permit after a farmer set to receive biosolids was cited for environmental violations by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Resources. Instead, the city chose to only continue with it’s application to renew land currently permitted to receive biosolids, which are a processed by-product of sewer water. Biosolids are mostly used by farmers as a free alternative to paying for fertilizer.

Throughout the process, Gold Hill residents repeatedly raised concerns about chemicals in the biosolids. One of the most vocal opponents during the process, Lance Riley, who has a Ph.D. in aquatic science and family that live in the Gold Hill area, helped Pittman and was also involved in crafting the bill. Riley said incinerating biosolids, as mentioned in the bill, would reduce the amount of pathogens present. Even then, Riley said materials such as heavy metals could still be present in the biosolids.

Ford, whose district covers the Gold Hill community, expressed doubt at the potential success of the bill because of farmer opposition.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen because there are some legal problems,” he said.

Some hesitation among legislators exists, Pittman said. One question Pittman said he’s heard is an increased cost incurred by municipalities, if the bill passes. Public health, however, is more important, he said.

“There are those who consider the bill controversial.  Some other legislators, when I have explained it to them, have not necessarily gotten on board, but are a bit more willing to give it some consideration once they understand that it is giving an option, rather than a mandate,” he said. “Cost to municipalities is a concern they raise, which I understand. However, which is more important, cost to municipalities, or the health and safety of the public?”

Pittman added that private property rights may be another concern.

“While I recognize that farmers who are getting the sewer sludge applied to their land are concerned that I may be violating their property rights, and I am very sensitive to that because I am a property rights advocate, it seems to me that while exercising our property rights, we need to be very careful that we are not unintentionally doing harm to others,” he said.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246