At first, Jeff and Kathy Lawson complained about the dozens of noisy trucks that began rumbling down their quiet country road in northern Harford County one day last month.
They and their neighbors grew more irked upon discovering that the trucks contained treated sewage sludge to spread on an 80-acre field in Susquehanna State Park, less than a quarter-mile from their homes on Quaker Bottom Road near Havre de Grace. The Lawsons and others complained about the odor and raised concerns about the potential impact on property values and the environment.
Now they are opposing a proposed expansion of the project to an adjacent field, arguing that sludge spreading, a common practice on privately owned farm fields, should not be allowed on publicly owned parkland.
"They ask us to leave this park just as we see it and not to even move rocks on the trails," Jeff Lawson said. "Yet the county wants to move tons of sludge in here. We are the park owners. We should have a say on what happens here."
Synagro Technologies Inc., a Dallas-based contractor, is seeking a state permit to spread treated sludge, a nutrient-rich biosolid used as a fertilizer, on about 50 acres of a second field in the park that is leased to a farmer. The parcel is across the road from the field already being treated.
At a contentious public information meeting Thursday night, more than a hundred residents turned out and peppered state, county and Synagro officials with questions and complaints about the proposal.
"If the state is allowing Synagro to dump in our park, how are we supposed to enjoy our park?" said Brian Eyer, a Havre de Grace resident. "This is our land."
Lori Will, who serves on the board of the Steppingstone Museum, a popular living-history attraction next to the fields, said she recalls occasions when the state would not allow cutting holly or picking mushrooms in the park.
"I never thought we would become a dumping site," Will said.
The hearing, which was held at Bel Air High School and lasted nearly four hours, is required for a permit.
Applying treated sludge on privately owned farm fields is a common practice. Farmers value the material as fertilizer because of its nutrient content, and because it holds water, improves aeration and reduces erosion. Synagro, one of several sludge-hauling contractors that operate in Maryland, has more than 900 farm customers in the state.
Government officials in many jurisdictions view the practice as a useful way to dispose of sludge that otherwise would be buried in landfills, incinerated, or trucked to other counties.
In Harford, the sludge is trucked in from the Sod Run plant in Perryman, which creates about 19,000 tons of the material annually. Harford's only county-run landfill will reach capacity late next year and a permit to expand the facility has been put on hold pending an appeal by residents.
The focus of the residents' ire has been the depositing of sludge on state-owned land. The Department of Natural Resources manages more than 450,000 acres statewide and commonly leases parcels for use as farmland so that it does not have to maintain it.
For several years, treated sludge has been applied on state-owned land leased by farmers on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland, state officials said.
But using treated sludge comes with provisions. Cattle cannot graze on fields for 30 days after an application and the area is restricted from use by people for a year. Three years must pass before crops such as carrots or celery that people consume raw may be planted.
"If this product is so safe, why no public access for a year, no livestock for a month and no raw crops for three years?" said Harford County Councilman James V. McMahan. "I know that it's treated to reduce disease-causing organisms, but I would be more comfortable if it eliminated them."
From treatment at the plant to application on a field, the process is strictly regulated, said Edward Dexter, the Maryland Department of the Environment's solid waste program administrator.
"You can't fill a truck with sludge and wander around the landscape looking for a place to dump it," he said. "We make sure sludge meets federal standards. We know where it is going and it's only going where we have permitted it."
The residents also expressed consternation that the fields at Susquehanna State Park are leased to a farmer who works for Synagro. The company is paying the lease, said Brooke Henderson, Synagro spokeswoman, and the farmer expects to plant a hay crop.
Not all the residents spoke against the procedure. Joe Koepper, a Harford dairy farmer, said residents are misinformed about potential dangers.
"I have been farming with biosolids for years," he said. "These people don't know the facts. They move out here from the city and want to run things. A lot of this opposition is just hype blown out of proportion."
Del. Donna Stifler, whose district includes the park, said the permit should not be issued until prominent warning signs have been posted and the state gives assurances that restrictions will be enforced.
Will, of the Steppingstone Museum, wondered how that would affect the crowds who come to the museum for concerts, family reunions and weddings.
"Your signs will say 'Danger' right at the entrance to the museum," she said.
Kathy Lawson said she believes the residents have made progress in their effort to raise awareness about the issue.
"We will keep the word out and keep talking to state officials," she said.
State officials pledged to consider the residents' comments, but said Synagro has met all the criteria for the permit.
"If the applicant can satisfy all the legal requirements, we are obligated by law to issue a permit," Dexter said.