Compost raises concern State officials consider regulation


Gil Wildes wouldn't mind living next door to the cutting edge of waste recycling -- if only it weren't so sharp.

"When it smells real bad, it smells like it might if you stuck your head in a garbage can," he said as he looked out over piles of compost on a field near his Mount Airy home.

The material comes from a new trash processing plant in Baltimore that F&E; Resource Systems Technology Inc. (FERST), the Maryland Department of the Environment, and the nation's second-largest waste hauler are betting can turn trash into gold. Or at least into good, tillable dirt.

"I'm sympathetic to the idea of getting rid of the waste -- this material -- it's got to go somewhere. But I'm also concerned about my well and what's in it," said Mr. Wildes, who's lived on the Mount Airy property for 20 years.

What's important to Donald Stirn, who owns and farms the test site next to Mr. Wildes, is that progress is being made in agriculture and waste management.

"We think, over the next four years, this will help the fertility of the ground. Maybe, if we can work this out, we can cut back on the nitrogen," he said, pointing out that such a move would reduce pollution of streams that feed the Chesapeake bay.

Mr. Stirn discounts the complaints about the smell.

"These people are going to bellyache no matter what new thing comes around," he said. "I've seen the [compost] off of trucks when it comes from that plant, and you could lay in it and there's no odor."

To counter the complaints about odor, FERST instructed Mr. Stirn to plow the compost into the soil immediately instead of stockpiling it as he had been doing.

The compost site at the Mount Airy farm is the only one of about 50 test sites -- all within 45 minutes of the Curtis Bay plant -- known to have generated a complaint, said Ronald W. Pickett, president and chief executive of FERST, which opened the $45 million plant in January.

But that complaint has revived debate among county and state officials about whether the new product is safe and how it should be regulated.

While Baltimore-area governments agonize over prices for recyclable materials that have dropped roughly 50 percent since 1988, landfills that are full or are leaking toxins, and moratoriums on incinerator construction, FERST believes it has developed a way out.

Recycled trash may be sold

Under one roof, the company is sorting, recycling and composting. If everything works as planned, only 10 percent of the trash it receives will end up in a landfill or an incinerator. The rest will be sold, either as raw materials such as glass or metal for recycling, or as compost for farms, gardens and lawns.

Workers at the FERST plant pick out recyclable material such as plastic, aluminum, glass and office paper from the trash as it moves along conveyor belts, and magnets remove steel cans and other ferrous metals. Workers also remove other nonorganic objects, such as appliances, clothing or carpet made from synthetic materials.

What remains is food and low-grade paper, mostly newspapers, which are shredded, mixed with water and put into 20-foot wide, 75-foot long tunnels. In 18 to 20 days, the material emerges from the moisture-and temperature-controlled enclosure as compost.

Temperatures of at least 150 degrees Fahrenheit, created by the decomposition process, must be sustained for three days in the tunnel to ensure that disease-carrying organisms are killed.

The product will help improve parched soil's ability to retain water during dry seasons, he said. It is not, however, a fertilizer like sewage sludge.

Corn grown with the compost at another Howard County farm was a "bit shorter," than corn grown without it, but drier months of late summer are likely to show the compost's advantage, Mr. )) Pickett said.

The compost's true usefulness won't be known, however, until after it has been tested for three seasons, he said. By then, he expects that farmers and nurseries will start paying for it.

What farmers should do with compost is a question that officials such as state delegates Donald Elliott and Virginia Thomas have been asking.

Mr. Elliott is a Republican who represents Howard County's western tip and is a member of the House Environmental Matters Committee. He asked Maryland Department of the Environment officials "to support their position that they could spread this material without any regulations." Last week, two weeks after the request, Mr. Elliott said he is still waiting for a written response explaining the policy.

Ms. Thomas, a Columbia Democrat who is vice-chairwoman of the committee, sponsored the 1992 legislative act authorizing trash composting. The act gave regulatory authority for the material's use to the state Department of Agriculture, which is still working on regulations.

Howard County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, himself a farmer, said he would like to see compost's application come under the same regulations that apply to sewage sludge, which also is spread on farmland. Those regulations require that the material be turned into the soil immediately upon delivery, and that lime be applied to reduce the odor.

Mr. Feaga said he has also asked John O'Hara, chief of the county's environmental services bureau, to look into the application of trash compost.

Michael Sullivan, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment, said the state agency has closely monitored the compost plant's development.

"We have, in the past, analyzed the product that they're producing. We don't think it's inherently harmful," Mr. Sullivan said.

Mr. Sullivan said that informal guidelines being followed by FERST are based on sludge regulations, which include a prohibition on "nuisance odors" that extend beyond property lines.

A national model

The new technology is promising enough to have won a long-term contract with the nation's second-largest waste hauler, Browning-Ferris Industries. BFI pays FERST between $50 and $60 a ton to dump trash at the new Curtis Bay facility.

The Curtis Bay compost plant was designed to handle up to 700 tons of trash daily, but is now taking about 500 tons collected from BFI's commercial clients, such as hotels and office buildings.

"It's all just general waste stream; there's no medical waste, no hazardous waste," Mr. Pickett said.

The company hasn't tallied the amount of trash it is processing, but its goal is to recycle 25 percent, compost 65 percent and bury in landfills or incinerate the remaining 10 percent.

Some industry analysts are skeptical, however, that FERST can be profitable at a time when the value of known and tested recyclables, like metals, plastic and paper, is so low. Local government recycling programs -- Howard County's included -- which once received money for materials they recycled, must now pay recyclers to take most of their bottles, cans and newspapers.

But FERST executives predict that the plant, the first of its kind in the nation, will be a model for other facilities.

G; "This is an exciting program for us," said Mr. Pickett.

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