Bell Township residents embroiled in biosolid sludge quagmire
BELL TOWNSHIP — Brian Gould stood on a windswept ridge in Clearfield County and pointed to the sloping, freshly plowed field near his home.
A sign nailed to a nearby tree warned him not to walk through the field, which is part of the 15,000-acre state game lands No. 87.
Access restricted, the sign reads. Biosolids application area.
“Whenever they spread it, the valley fills in with a fog,” said Gould, 30, who recently built a home on property that borders the game lands. “We’re at the highest point around. The wind is always blowing. Whatever they spread up here is going to be carried all around.”
Gould and other residents want the state to stop spreading biosolids, or sewage sludge, close to their homes. They complain that the sludge reeks and makes them ill.
State officials say biosolids will enrich the soil, allow vegetation to grow on a former strip mine site and improve the overall health of the land and animals.
The two sides collided on Saturday at a heated town meeting, attended by about 100 people, in the Mahaffey Volunteer Fire Department hall.
“The people here pay your wages, and we don’t want it,” Bell Township Supervisor Dave Kauffman yelled at three Pennsylvania Game Commission officials who agreed to answer questions. “Pull the permits!”
WeCare Organics, a waste management company in Jordan, N.Y., received a permit to spread the sludge over about 50 acres. The state is not paid for accepting the sludge, officials said. Company president Jeffrey Leblanc did not respond to emails or phone calls.
Mahaffey fire Chief Dan Wright told the officials that if a fire breaks out near the sludge, he will not send his men to fight the flames.
“You can’t guarantee it’s safe, so I won’t send them in,” he said, rising from his chair and jabbing his finger for emphasis.
Colleen Shannon, the Game Commission’s North-central Region land management officer, said she never experienced such “hostility” when speaking to residents who live near areas where biosolids have been spread.
“We’ve had some complaints about odor, but nothing like this,” Shannon said after the nearly three-hour meeting. “We thought we were doing right by the community by doing this.”
The project began in the fall and will resume in spring, officials said. The sludge comes from Toronto and Binghamton, N.Y., officials said.
State officials said the sludge will spur vegetation growth, as it has in other parts of the state.
“Biosolids contain nutrient-rich organic materials,” said Daniel Spadoni, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s certainly nothing new. This has been going on in Pennsylvania for 20 years.”
He said DEP officials inspected the Clearfield County site five times and found no violations.
Yet residents worry whether the sludge could affect their long-term health.
Brian Gould’s wife, Allison, said she was hospitalized with “bronchial spasms” when the spreading began. The doctor said such spasms, which feel like a heart attack, can be caused by airborne irritants, Gould said.
“I’m 27. I’ve never had asthma or any respiratory problems,” she said. “But that night, I had an elephant sitting on my chest. … What is this stuff going to do to our families, to our kids?”
The Environmental Protection Agency defines biosolids as “organic materials resulting from the treatment of sewage sludge … which can be safely recycled and applied as fertilizer to sustainably improve and maintain productive soils and stimulate plant growth.”
Environmental advocacy groups such as The Sierra Club say biosolids can contain pathogens and contaminants, pollute groundwater and wells, and harm animals.
“Biosolids is a euphemism for sewage sludge,” said Tom Richard, director of Penn State Institutes for Energy and the Environment. “Before we started spreading them on our land, we used to put them in landfills and dump them in the ocean. That didn’t work out so well, because some of it would wash up on the shores of New Jersey, and people didn’t like that.”
He said the EPA studied biosolids since the 1970s and determined health risks to be “low.”
“But unfortunately low is not zero,” he said. “It’s not zero risk for all the things they’ve tested, for heavy metals, pathogens, etc. Anyone who tells you it’s zero risk doesn’t understand the way the risk analysis was conducted.”
Many people at the meeting complained of chronic headaches and nausea. The Goulds and others are testing their water to establish a baseline to determine contaminations.
“It can’t be good for you,” said Ryan Smith, 32, who owns property near the site. “I mean, it smells like dead animals. You can sit in our living room and feel like you’re eating it.”
“It smells like if you took 40 Porta-Johns and kicked them over in July,” Brian Gould added. “And that’s being nice.”
Barry Zaffuto, the Game Commission’s North-central Region diector, will meet with residents in March, before WeCare continues work. He told residents that biosolids are safe and responded to a hunter’s claims that freshly killed deer this fall smelled rancid by saying: “I’ve hunted on lands where biosolids were spread.”
State Rep. Tommy Sankey said he will take residents’ concerns to Harrisburg.
“Listen, you’re getting a raw deal,” he told them. “I’m glad it’s not by my house. I wouldn’t want it either. … But if they followed the permitting process, you can’t stop it.”
Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.