Synagro Technologies, a Baltimore-based waste management company, faces grass-roots opposition to its application to spread industrial waste as fertilizer over farms in seven Virginia counties.
As a result of the backlash — coming in the form of letters, phone calls and emails — the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has delayed signing off on Synagro's plans.
Industrial sludge is what remains after a business breaks down leftovers from processing products ranging from poultry to paper. Depending on its source, the sludge can be pulpy, mudlike and oozing, or resemble normal dark soil.
The sludge is typically rich in nitrogen, which can spur crop growth, making it similar to existing fertilizers manufactured for the same purpose, said Lorrie Loder, Synagro's senior director of technical services.
"This has attributes that are good for the soil," said Loder, adding that the practice is a common one that Synagro employs over 34 states, including Maryland.
Critics say industrial sludge can contain heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury that have been linked to health problems, and that it poses a danger to health and the environment, as well as a nuisance to the nostrils.
The stench should be residents' biggest concern, according to Greg Evanylo, a Virginia Tech professor who studies soil and waste management, who said state-imposed limits on the concentration of heavy metals in the sludge prevent any negative health effects.
"In this day and age, you hear 'industrial,' and you freak out," said Evanylo, adding that heavy metals occur naturally in the soil and only become a problem when they exceed safe levels or become soluble in water.
Adding carcinogens to the soil in any level concerns many residents. Thomas C. Rubino, a leader of the Virginia opposition from King and Queen County, said there is a safer, albeit more expensive, alternative: placing the sludge in lined landfills.
"People here are certainly concerned about this," said Rubino, who is worried about heavy metals leaking from the soil into the well on his property. "People are concerned about their children possibly drinking this stuff. No level [of heavy metals] is good, is safe, is healthy."
Virginia state regulations require that industrial sludge be at least 100 feet from property lines and wells and 200 feet from homes, which DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden said minimizes environmental impacts and health risks alike.
"The regulations are written in a way that is designed to minimize those kinds of impacts, but as long as the regulations are followed, there shouldn't be that kind of concern for drinking water," he said.
Hayden said he suspects the activism around the use of sludge on farms in the state — at least three decades after companies started doing it — reflects improved communication from the DEQ to state residents.
Opponents also took to social media to rally opposition, forming the Facebook group "Citizens Against Sludge."
In Maryland, the state's Department of the Environment regulates the use of industrial sludge as fertilizer. The agency requires companies to provide proof of the source of the sludge as well as periodic soil testing — usually every six months.
Because of the opposition, Virginia's DEQ delayed from June to September a hearing on Synagro's application for a one-year permit to spread sludge on farms.
Synagro said its sludge is environmentally safe because of the bacteria used to sanitize it before it is applied to farmland.
The company describes itself as the largest recycler of industrial and municipal organic waste in the United States. It went through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year in which it was sold by The Carlyle Group to EQT Infrastructure II, a private investment fund managed by EQT Holdings AB of Stockholm, Sweden, for $465 million.
Synagro employs 800 people in 34 states and serves more than 600 municipal and industrial water and wastewater facilities. It has a contract with Baltimore to operate and provide equipment at Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant on Asiatic Avenue and Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant on Eastern Avenue.
Loder said that landfilling sludge would waste its potential as a useful fertilizer.
"Landfills should be saved for real trash," she said.
Disposing of sludge in landfills also would be more expensive.
"It's not just a question of where to apply it on the ground," Hayden said. "It's a question of what makes the most sense for the company economically."