Ban upheld on use of sewage sludge as crop fertilizer

The San Luis Obispo County Government Center in San Luis Obispo.
The San Luis Obispo County Government Center in San Luis Obispo. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo County’s virtual ban on using sewage sludge as fertilizer for food crops will stay in place for two more years, and work on crafting a new sludge ordinance has been halted.

After a contentious two-hour hearing Tuesday, a divided San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors decided the current interim ordinance is working just fine and it is premature to begin work on a permanent set of rules for land application of sludge, also called biosolids.

“I think our timing is really off on this,” Supervisor Debbie Arnold said. “There is no problem. I would be inclined to extend the interim ordinance when the time comes.”

The use of sludge is controversial because it can contain toxic heavy metals and other contaminants. Many speakers at Tuesday’s hearing urged the county to look at alternatives for the use of sludge that doesn’t involve land application.

Others, including Greg Kester of the California Association of Sanitation Agencies, urged supervisors to adopt a land application ordinance to give the 20 wastewater treatment plants in the county options for disposing of their sludge.

Supervisors Arnold, Lynn Compton and Frank Mecham voted to retain the interim ordinance until it expires in 2018. They also voted to have county planners stop the preparation of an environmental impact report.

“We are looking for a problem that does not exist,” Mecham said.

Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill disagreed. The interim ordinance has been in place too long, and it is time to replace it with something permanent, Gibson said.

Dan Buckshi, the county’s administrative officer, said interim ordinances are, by their nature, meant to be temporary but the sludge ordinance has been in place for 12 years.

“We have kicked this can down the road for years and years and years. We have to look to the future, and I think continuing with the EIR process is the way to do it,” said Gibson, using an acronym to refer to the environmental impact report.

In 2004, the county adopted the interim ordinance that limits the amount of sludge that can be used as fertilizer on agricultural crops to 1,500 cubic yards a year. For the 12 years the ordinance has been in place, no one has applied to use any sludge, partly because of the restrictive nature of the interim ordinance.

County environmental health officials were in the process of drafting a permanent sludge ordinance and were about to begin the process of preparing the impact report to cover it.

Mecham said the cost to do an impact report was a concern. Ellen Carroll, county environmental coordinator, estimated the cost of preparing the impact report to be between $200,000 and $300,000 with $200,000 already budgeted.

“I beg you to look at alternatives,” said Linde Owen of Los Osos. “The contaminants that come out of the waste stream are just that — contaminants.”

Others urged supervisors to find a way to use sludge locally. Currently, three-quarters of the 12,000 tons of sludge produced in the county each year is sent out of the county to composting facilities in Santa Maria and the San Joaquin Valley.

In addition to land application, sludge can be used for a variety of other purposes including as fuel in cogeneration plants or as compost when mixed with green waste. Composted biosolids sold in 40-pound bags are available at most retail nurseries and home improvement stores.

“Biosolids are a resource and a very valuable resource,” said David Hicks, wastewater manager for the city of San Luis Obispo.