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Farm groups speak out in favor of using biosolids

WHEATFIELD – State and local farm organizations are speaking out in favor of the use of biosolids as fertilizer and against the push to allow individual towns to ban their use.

The statements from the Niagara County and New York State farm bureaus come as Quasar Energy Group is suing the Town of Wheatfield to try to overturn its biosolids ban, while several towns are asking the State Legislature to allow them the power to pass such bans, too.

Although Wheatfield has passed a resolution in favor of such a “home rule” law, Town Attorney Robert J. O’Toole said at last week’s Town Board meeting, “We also believe the Town of Wheatfield has the authority to enact the law it did without further authority from the state.”

Quasar, whose anaerobic digester in Wheatfield produces plentiful biosolids as a byproduct, disagrees and has filed suit in State Supreme Court seeking to overturn the law on the grounds that it exceeded the town’s authority.

The original suit was filed in Erie County, but the town was successful in having the venue shifted to Niagara County. However, as of last week the case had not yet been assigned to one of the State Supreme Court justices in Niagara County, O’Toole said.

The state Department of Agriculture and Markets, which sent the town a complaint about the law last fall, wondering whether the Wheatfield law impinged on the right to farm, has not yet made any response to the information the town sent in reply.

The position of the state and county farm bureaus is that any regulation of biosolids should come from Albany.

“The Department of Environmental Conservation and Ag and Markets are the appropriate regulators,” said Steve Ammerman, spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau. “They have the skills and abilities to make that determination.”

The state Farm Bureau’s 2015 policy priorities say, “We support the education of both farmers and the public on the benefits of using biosolids as a source of fertilizer. … Municipal prohibitions restricting the use of biosolids should not be allowed.”

James J. Bittner, a Somerset fruit farmer and president of the Niagara County Farm Bureau, said, “Biosolids have been safely and widely used in agriculture for decades. Farmers should have the right to choose whether or not to use it on their land.”

The farmers’ position is not monolithic, though. The Oswego County Farm Bureau wrote in a newsletter to its members that it dissented from the state Farm Bureau’s position in favor of spreading biosolids.

“Biosolids” is a fancy word for manure, including, in this case, processed human waste.

Quasar’s plants in Wheatfield and West Seneca are designed to use microbes to convert food waste and sludge from sewage-treatment plants into methane gas. The gas can be used to drive a turbine to produce electricity the company can sell into the New York power grid, or it can be processed into compressed natural gas, suitable for operating some types of vehicles.

But the watery byproduct left behind, which the company calls “equate,” is the main issue. The material is high in nitrogen content, and Quasar offers it to farmers to inject into their fields just beneath the surface as a fertilizer. The company’s policy is to offer it to farmers for free at first in hopes they’ll be willing to buy it later.

The DEC insists that biosolids, when used properly, are safe and don’t pollute the fields or the food grown there. Critics insist that the material contains anything that anyone sends down into a sewer, which could include pharmaceuticals and other chemicals as well as human waste.

“Water-treatment plants treat raw sewage every day and turn it into a product that’s safe for release,” Ammerman said.

Bittner said, “This is done all over the country. This is an approved agricultural practice. What really worries me is, if the towns do this, what’s next? Can they prevent us from spreading (animal) manure?”

Julie J. Otto, one of the Wheatfield residents who has been most vocal in opposition to biosolids, said local regulation is appropriate because each town’s conditions are different.

“There may be localities in New York where biosolids are acceptable,” Otto said. Wheatfield’s types of soils and the high water table, with groundwater close to the surface throughout most of the town, weigh against the idea of injecting biosolids into the soil, she said.

Bittner said, “Farmers are intelligent and informed. Many of them have been farming the same land for generations. Their land is their livelihood and their legacy. They wouldn’t consider using any produce that could jeopardize it.”

A report last summer from Matrix Environmental of Orchard Park detailed the soil types in the town and concluded that only 168 acres in Wheatfield are suitable for biosolids use under current DEC regulations.

But that didn’t stop the DEC from granting a permit to Milleville Bros. Farm, a Wheatfield operation that owns land in several Niagara County towns, to use biosolids.

Much of the soil in Wheatfield is silty clay, a soil type that the DEC says should not be allowed for biosolid use, according to the Matrix report. In July, the DEC sent Matrix an email asserting that the silty clay loam is safe for biosolids use but was inadvertently left off the list of permitted soil types when the agency compiled them in 2003.

That assertion brought a chorus of derision from officials and spectators alike at the July 28 meeting at which Wheatfield passed its biosolids ban.

Otto, who has been to Albany before to lobby on the issue, made another trip earlier this month to try to persuade legislators to vote for the home rule bill. “Once we explained about water tables, that seemed to drive it home for them,” she said.

Meanwhile, Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe said he received a copy of a letter that State Sen. Robert G. Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, recently sent to DEC Commissioner Joseph J. Martens, asking for a study of the safety of anaerobic waste for commercial application, including their impact on water wells, groundwater, and the short- and long-term impact on human health.

Cliffe said similar letters were sent by Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin, R-Clarence, and Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma. Gallivan’s district includes Marilla, where a biosolids controversy similar to that in Wheatfield is going on. The Marilla Town Board is suing the DEC to try to overturn a local farmer’s state biosolids-storage permit.

Other towns are weighing in, too. Wilson passed a law banning biosolids use in the town and supporting a home rule bill in Albany. Pendleton has instituted an elaborate local permit process for biosolids with large buffer zones between fields in which they may be used and homes and bodies of water. Lewiston imposed a moratorium on biosolids use in that town.