Ensuring the safe use of biosolids on Michigan farms

Early this year, I was notified by residents and local officials about foul odors and terrible dust problems in our rural communities due to the spreading of a type of fertilizer known as biosolids.

I have been working with state and local agencies, elected officials, scientists, farmers and area residents to ensure the use of biosolids is safe and that the application on our farms is done intelligently with minimal impact to surrounding neighbors.

Biosolids are treated and processed human sewage sludge that, if used properly like manure, can be a beneficial and nutrient-rich addition to soil. The two most common alternatives to soil enrichment are incineration or landfilling, which are both expensive and wasteful.

Liquid biosolids have been applied to land in Michigan for decades, but recently we have seen a newer version of biosolids called “Class A Exceptional Quality.” That means the biosolids meet federal standards for low pollutants, are virtually pathogen-free and have been processed so they do not attract animals, insects or vermin.

The new biosolids being spread around southern Michigan come from a drying facility operated by the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) that provides sewer service to nearly 30 percent of the state, including customers in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties.

A robust pretreatment of waste before it enters the sewage system, combined with a multistage drying process, is used to prepare biosolids for land application that meets both state and federal environmental regulations.

Once the biosolids are ready, they are shipped to a field and spread. That is the point where most of our local concerns arise.

The excessive dust this year drew so many complaints that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in August sent the GLWA a notice stating they were failing to meet requirements for land application. State regulators have since met with representatives of the authority, and they have agreed on steps to get the dust and smell under control.

The Michigan Farm Bureau, state regulators and wastewater operators have also held a series of meetings to develop guidelines for better handling and application of biosolids.

The state should continue oversight and create better management practices that will work to address local concerns. These include limiting application on days with high winds, tightening controls on where the biosolids are spread, and additional soil testing to eliminate excessive nutrients that could enter drains and streams that run into Lake Erie.

We should stay vigilant in protecting our water resources for drinking and recreation. Clean water is a precious commodity, and I will do everything I can to protect it for future generations.