County sewage sludge rule to stay in place until 2017

The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously agreed to extend their interim ordinance governing the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer on farmland.

The extension, adopted after the county’s staff recommended it, will extend the current local law until 2017.

The extension will allow time to develop an environmental review of a new ordinance, and enable county planners to absorb several government studies into the environmental effects of sludge – also known as biosolids – that are now being undertaken.

These studies are looking at not only the accumulation of metals and toxins, but also are examining the potential health effects of pharmaceuticals, over-the-counter medications and personal care products in biosolids, according to a health agency staff report.

Use of sludge is controversial because it can contain lead, mercury and other toxic heavy metals that are not removed in the sewage treatment process. The county’s rules are so restrictive that no application of more than 5 cubic yards of sludge has occurred since the temporary rules took effect in 2004.

The sewage sludge controversy in the county began in 1998 when a waste company sought to apply as much as 50,000 tons a year on ranchland near San Miguel. Public outcry stopped that proposal, and the county took over regulating the use of sludge from state water officials.

The county adopted its interim ordinance in 2004 and has extended it several times. Efforts to develop a permanent ordinance have been hindered by the estimated $200,000 cost to do an environmental review.

County staff approached operators of wastewater treatment plants to see whether they would be interested in sharing the cost of doing the environmental review; however, the operators of those facilities said they are concerned that a new ordinance would be too restrictive to warrant sharing in the cost.