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Another Voice: Use of biosolids is a normal agricultural activity

By Ned Beecher

In June, the state Department of Agriculture and Markets notified Wheatfield that its biosolids law runs contrary to the state’s “right-to-farm” law, which protects farms from arbitrary restrictions. Biosolids are treated and tested solids from wastewater that are used as soil amendments.

The state found “Wheatfield did not provide any new information demonstrating that the existing … regulations for the land application of biosolids in New York have not been adequate to protect the public health and safety.” The state Health Department concurs.

Unfortunately, the Wheatfield Town Board is challenging the ruling and defending the local ban.

In its response (available at the Wheatfield website), the board claims that Agriculture and Markets “ignored … evidence concerning the inadequacy of the federal and state governments’ outdated biosolids regulations and … failed to address … unfavorable local soil conditions.”

The town’s entrenched position is unfortunate and unnecessary. Decades of research at universities across North America, two National Academy of Science reviews and regular reviews of regulations have determined that regulated biosolids use is acceptable – and beneficial. And local soil conditions are addressed under New York regulations; if a local soil doesn’t meet the research-based requirements, then biosolids can’t be applied. (In contrast, manure applications can present similar risks if not properly managed, but are far less regulated.)

Rather than taking an absolutist – and costly – “no biosolids anywhere” stance, Wheatfield’s leaders could raise their concerns about local soils as they engage in constructive oversight of local biosolids use.

Public officials who focus on health and safety – those who operate wastewater treatment plants, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and every state environmental agency – accept regulated biosolids use. Biosolids compost has been used in the area for years and New York has had biosolids recycling for decades. Across the United States, about 60 percent of wastewater solids are recycled to soils as biosolids.

Wastewater solids have to be managed. We all contribute to their production. Regulated use on soils is often the best environmental option. Like manures, biosolids provide plant nutrients and organic matter that build soils, increase carbon storage and replace imported fertilizers – significant environmental benefits.

We urge Wheatfield leaders to facilitate more local dialogue with farmers, their neighbors, concerned citizens and biosolids producers. We’re glad to help.

Ned Beecher is executive director of the North East Biosolids and Residuals Association.

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