Gilmanton voters must decide whether to allow waste, including human feces, to be used as fertilizer
By GAIL OBER, LACONIA DAILY SUN
GILMANTON — Depending on who one speaks to, using bio-solids as fertilizer is the greatest thing since sliced bread or the the most dangerous thing since nuclear fission.
According to the 2016 Random House Dictionary, the definition of bio-solids is "plural noun 1. nutrient-rich organic materials obtained from waste water treatment and used beneficially, as for fertilizer: The application of bio-solids to land improves soil properties and plant productivity, and reduces dependence on inorganic fertilizers."
To bio-solid detractors, even the basic definition is skewed to paint a rosy picture, while those who use them would likely agree with the above definition.
In Gilmanton, there is a group of people who petitioned to ban the use of the bio-solids against the wishes of many farmers and their supporters who say the science shows that when applied and managed correctly, bio-solids are perfectly safe for the food they raise and the neighbors who can occasionally smell their fields.
A "yes" vote on Article 3 means a voter wishes to ban their use. A "no" vote means the voters wish to continue the use of bio-solids in town.
According to Michael Rainey of the state Department of Environmental Sciences, the use of Class A and Class B bio-solids is based on science that was settled in the late 1980s, which is that "if you treat bio-solids in a certain way, you are going to kill certain pathogens."
When asked about some of the common complaints about bio-solids, including many specific concerns raised by letter writers offering their thoughts and observations, Rainey said they do smell. He said if properly applied, the smell should last about two to three days, which is about the same for animal manure.
He said that some people are especially sensitive to smells. For example, he fielded a complaint from a few people who live across the Merrimack River from the wastewater treatment plant in Franklin who were getting headaches from the odors. He said he took a few of them on a tour of the plant and while most of them, including himself, felt fine, one woman looked like she was going to vomit.
Other opponents have said they have found needles in areas where sludge or bio-solids were applied. Rainey and Sandwich bio-solid opponent Dr. Carolyn Snyder said this is likely not true because needles are metal, which sink and would be removed by the filtering process at the wastewater treatment plant.
Snyder said she has been working for years trying to debunk what she calls the myth that bio-solids are not dangerous. She also said that the money communities and states recognize in savings in wastewater management is far too great to trust them for any reliable information.
"Our concerns are that there are toxic chemicals in bio-solids but only nine metals are regulated," Snyder said. She added that in New Hampshire every load is different, that it is impossible to tell when industry will dump their toxic waste, and that the state has a high and variable water table.
"We're turning good soil into long-term cleanup sites," Snyder said.
She said one problem is that the pH factor or acidity of the soil is managed only when the bio-solids are applied. She said lime must be applied to make a naturally acidic New Hampshire soil less acidic or metals will leach into the soil.
Snyder said with New Hampshire's cool and moist climate, "The state should absolutely not allow stockpiling." In New Hampshire, users of bio-solids can only stockpile up to two years, but she said many other states don't allow it. She also said it's not strictly enforced here.
But Rainey said there are multiple safety factors built into the state's standards surrounding bio-solids. As for metals, he said a person would have to be walking in the newly spread field for any exposure risk.
He said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency looked at 14 different pathways that somebody could be harmed. He said they involve the direct human consumption of plant material eaten by a child or the strictest standard. He said that once the base safety levels were established, the state took that number and multiplied it by negative 10 times 10 or 100.
"It's safety factors, safety factors, safety factors," he said.
Farmer Tim Towle has used bio-solids in his farm that is partially in Loudon, Gilmanton and Pittsfield for about eight years. He said he uses Class A bio-solids mixed with cow manure and fertilized a corn field for silage. His 150 dairy cows don't graze, so he doesn't use it with a hay crop.
Towle said he loads the mixture into his manure spreader. He described the consistency of the bio-solids as being like the child's toy Play-Doh.
"It's not soupy and it's not a brick," he said.
As for the smell, he said it's about the same as the cow manure and within a day or two the aroma evaporates away. Towle said he uses lime or wood ash as a buffering or anti-acidic component.
He said he wants people to know that the state of New Hampshire has some of the strictest requirements in the county regarding bio-solids. He also said farming and his cows are his livelihood and it wouldn't do him any good at all to do something that could harm his cows, the milk they produce or the land he uses to grow his corn.
But Snyder takes the opposite position. She said there is a case with a court ruling in Georgia where two herds of prime dairy cattle were wiped out by the use of bio-solids.
According to an Associated Press story published by MSNBC's online edition in 2000 and in his 45-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Anthony Alaimo said that along with using the questionable data, "senior EPA officials took extraordinary steps to quash scientific dissent, and any questioning of EPA's biosolids program."
Alaimo ordered the government to reimburse Andy McElmurray because 1,730 acres he wanted to plant in corn and cotton to feed his herd was poisoned.
She also noted that prions, minuscule abnormal proteins associated with mad cow and Creutzfeld-Jakob disease in humans, were picked up by plants and fed to hamsters that came down with brain disease. She said there is a possibility that prions, which are "absolutely indestructible," are not always killed in Class B bio-solids. Other scientists studying the same thing say "not so fast" and that the research is in it early state and not to be relied on at this point.
A recent Newsweek article cited a publication in the journal Scientific Reports that "something about sewer sludge was messing with the reproductive systems of the next generation of sheep while they were still in the wombs."
"There is a concern that by eating the meat from the sheep, we're taking onboard these chemicals," said the woman interviewed by the author of the article. While the article didn't say that the scientific investigations were conclusive, it did say that more research needs to be done into bio-solids.
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