Buoyed by their recent success at ending the spreading of sludge in Susquehanna State Park in Havre de Grace, opponents vow to seek an end to the practice on parkland across Maryland.
The permit request for acreage just inside the park gate was withdrawn Aug. 24 and will not be renewed, according to the applicant.
"We are in this for the long haul," said Diane Rogers of Quaker Bottom Road, who lives a few hundred yards from the park entrance. "I want to see our parks stay public and not have fields shut down."
Her neighbor, Jeff Lawson, organized the opposition and lobbied state and county officials against the practice of applying sludge from Harford's Sod Run Wastewater Treatment Plant to farmland at the park.
"It would be ignorant to take care of something in our own backyard and then forget about it in parks across the state," Lawson said.
The treated sewage sludge was spread only once - this summer - at Susquehanna State Park, but preparation of the site took a while. Neighbors said they disliked the truck traffic, smell and noise.
Synagro Technologies Inc., a Dallas-based contractor, has permits to spread treated sludge, a nutrient-rich fertilizer, also known as a biosolid, on more than 900 farms across the state, as well as several public parks. In Harford, the company recently had obtained permits from the Maryland Department of the Environment to spread sludge in Susquehanna, Rocks and Palmer state parks.
Synagro began an operation on a farm field just inside the gate at Susquehanna State Park in June. Neighbors complained about the truck traffic, the noise and the smell. Since then, the company has abandoned plans for a second parcel in the park. Synagro is not applying sludge in Rocks and Palmer parks at this time.
"They did it in June, and it still stinks today," Rogers said.
Applying sludge as fertilizer on fields is a common practice. Farmers value the material because of its nutrient content and because it improves aeration and reduces erosion. But the use of sludge comes with restrictions. People cannot walk on the treated fields for a year. Cattle cannot graze for 30 days after an application, and three years must pass before crops that people consume raw, such as carrots or celery, can be planted.
"Allowing sludge in parks goes against everything DNR stands for," Rogers said. "They tell us this product is safe, but you can't walk on it, and animals can't graze on it. What about wildlife?"
Opponents have won official support. Del. Barry Glassman, a Republican who represents the area, said he will ask the General Assembly to start a task force that would look at leases between the Department of Natural Resources and sludge haulers. The same panel will inventory state parks that permit sludge applications.
"There could be a recommendation to change or discontinue the practice," Glassman said.
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 elsewhere.
Harford County pays Synagro $34 a ton to haul sludge from its plant in Perryman, which creates about 20,000 tons of the material annually, to anywhere the hauler has a permit. Within the county, 98 percent of the sludge has gone to farmers for the past 30 years, said Wayne Ludwig, county operations chief for water and sewer.
"There are hundreds of farm acres in Harford where there are permits for sludge," Ludwig said. "We have more acreage now than material. If we only had state parkland, we would be in a pinch, but that is not the case."
The DNR manages more than 450,000 acres statewide and commonly leases underused parcels as farmland. The agency entered into an unusual arrangement and leased the land at Susquehanna State Park directly to Synagro.
"It was unusual but certainly not unlawful," said Arnold Norden, a DNR planner. "The process was normal. No corners were cut."
The permit signatory is Jason Krankowski, a Synagro employee who said he planned to farm the acreage.
Sludge was spread on one field, but Krankowski, director of technical services for the company, withdrew the request for the second field, noting complaints by residents.
Glassman said he intends to propose a second bill that bans leasing state land to a hauler.
If the practice is banned at state parks, counties may have to resort to costlier methods for disposing of sludge, Norden said.
The DNR adds an intensive review to the permitting process when public lands are involved. The agency has denied permits for land used by hunters and land that is close to popular trails, Norden said.
"All the ag land we lease is considered productive and well-managed," he said.