Debate over use of sewage as farm fertilizer

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BRIGHAM CITY, Utah (AP) -- One man's land application of bio-solids to boost pasture yield is another man's spreading of sewage sludge too close to the neighbors.

A small group of determined opponents of the practice appear ready to fight on despite another round of government assurances of no danger.

"We've got about 10 other options to look at, all legal," Allen Riser, of Corinne, said after a meeting of the Box Elder County Commission.

Commissioners declined his request that they draft ordinances to stem the flow of bio-solids, also known as sewage sludge, onto Box Elder County fields as fertilizer.

The Environmental Protection Agency, Utah Department of Environmental Quality and other health officials say the practice of applying the effluent of sewage treatment facilities to pasture land is a common practice and safe.

Cattle rancher Joel Ferry reiterated that Wednesday as he handed the commissioners copies of letters from regulators attesting to the safety of the practice on the thousands of acres of Ferry fields around Corinne, just northeast of Brigham City.

But the scope is daunting.

Ferry, in an interview before Wednesday's anticlimactic showdown in the commission chambers, said his family runs "thousands and thousands of acres" of rangeland in north Box Elder. He wouldn't say specifically how many, as any business keeps such info confidential from competitors.

But so far, since October 2012, he said he's plied 600 acres with the bio-solid treated waste product from a Salt Lake County sewage treatment plant. He said they bring four trucks a day a few times a week, and up to 80 trucks a month.

Ferry said the Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility actually pays ranchers and farmers to take the stuff off its hands. Central Valley pays him about $75,000 a year to receive the bio-solids, which he said nearly covers his costs of applying it to his fields.

The bio-solids release micro-nutrients into his pasture land, he said. The black sludge is applied wet, several inches thick "but looks like potting soil when it dries out."

The trace elements that enrich the soil include stable nitrogen, calcium, zinc and many more, Ferry said. "It's exactly like a multi-vitamin for plants."

"It includes dioxin," Riser told the county commissioners Wednesday night. "Which causes cancer and birth defects."

Commissioner Stan Summers then asked at what level does the dioxin appear. "How many parts per million are we talking about? The USU guy was saying anything harmful ... only shows up at really low levels." Riser said he couldn't say exactly, since he's not a scientist. Riser runs a metal fabrication business in Corinne, and is known for his humanitarian missions to Africa to donate farm equipment.

Summers was referring to an April 10 meeting the Ferrys hosted in Corinne to calm the neighbors. More than 120 people showed up to hear from a USU expert and officials from the state Department of Environmental Quality saying land application of bio-solids is harmless.

Only Riser and wife Lorraine spoke against the bio-solids at Wednesday's commission meeting.

"I've been under siege all summer with sewage sludge. I can't do anything in my own backyard because of the smell," Riser said. Riser asked the commission to consider creating ordinances to limit bio-solid applications to only locally produced treated sludge or to ban its application to the land outright.

The commission declined.

After the meeting, commissioner Summers noted that the Corinne area, if not all of northern Box Elder, is entirely serviced by septic tanks in lieu of sewage systems. And it's common practice to apply septic waste as fertilizer, he said. "This isn't new."

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