There are things we often don’t wish to think about that county leaders have to. What to do with all of the sewage generated by developments in Southern Maryland is one of these topics. Fortunately, or unfortunately for some, as the case may be, the Maryland Department of the Environment has a solution called Sewage Sludge Utilization in Maryland.
The program, officials explained to the Charles County Commissioners Feb. 3, allows sludge, or biosolids, the final product of wastewater treatment plants which breaks down into organic matter, killing disease causing organisms. The residue becomes rich organic natural fertilizer available to farmers throughout Southern Maryland. There is one caveat. It doesn’t smell particularly good.
Peter Aluoto, director of the Department of Planning and Growth Management and Charles Rice, program manager from the Maryland Department of the Environment, which regulates the program for the state, said the sludge has been regulated in Maryland since 1974, the distribution of sludge on farmer’s fields beginning in 1986. The benefits, he said, are obvious. For agricultural land, reclamation of former sand and gravel mines, even in commercial development sites. Plus, it keeps thousands of gallons of sewage out of landfills, where space is at a premium. On site, it is distributed with a manure spreader. Sludge can also be made into commercial fertilizer and made into a solid product that can be sold through hardware stores.
Sludge, when turned over into the soil, can take a field lacking in nutrients from years of chemical fertilizers and helps restore the soil. Thirty percent of the estimated 700,000 gallons of treated sludge generated annually is used for agricultural purposes. The majority is shipped out of state. There are fifty sites in Charles County designated at distribution sites. Thirty have active permits.
Commissioner Ken Robinson (D: District 1) wanted to know, “What happens when things go wrong? I’ve had citizens complain that it smells, that it draws flies.”
“The sewage sludge company is always quick to respond when we have complaints,” Rice said. “They will return to the site and apply more lime which helps to limit the smell.”
“Can we change the rules so we’re not applying sludge in residential areas?” Robinson wanted to know.
“Looking at this map of distribution sites, there are five or six sites close to Waldorf, close to residential development,” said Commissioner Vice President Reuben Collins (D). “There is no doubt this is impacting residents. What safeguards are in place to insure that there is no runoff?”
Rice responded that the application of sludge was “one of the most studied issues,” in their office, and that “it moves very little off site. This is one of the most regulated items in Maryland.”
There are two new applications for permits in Charles County and the board unanimously agreed to hold a public hearing, with Robinson making the motion and Commissioner Debra M. Davis (D: District 2) seconding the motion, to discuss the two new applications before they can be approved. The date and location of the hearing are still being determined.
Collins requested to “meet directly with the citizens and make sure, as commissioners, they’re there to take advantage of the opportunity to meet with the citizens directly and provide answers to serious questions.”