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    Bylaw proposed on use of sludge as fertilizer

    Faced with a recent flurry of complaints from residents, West Bridgewater officials have proposed a bylaw to regulate the use of treated human waste as fertilizer.

    The proposed bylaw would empower the town Board of Health to make rules for the proper use of such fertilizers, set limits on their application, and establish requirements for their storage. In addition, the board would be able to access tests and records of treated sewer sludge delivered to farmers and to enforce penalties for noncompliance.

    Just 30 miles south of Boston, West Bridgewater is home to about 25 farms covering almost one tenth of its acreage, said principal assessor John Donahue.

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    For more than a decade, said town health agent Robert Casper, local farmers have used processed sewer sludge, or biosolids, as a cost-effective manure substitute.

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    Last fall, though, there was a surge of sludge-related complaints, many coming from residents in the southwest corner of town and most reporting foul odors. To tally them, said Conservation Commission secretary Katherine Doherty, was tantamount to “counting mosquitoes.”

    Town conservation officer John DeLano says one farm in that area spreads the substance far too heavily, up to a foot deep. DeLano described the sludge at the farm, which he declined to name, as a “white pavement” spread “so thick that you could actually drive on it.”

    At a meeting called earlier this month to discuss the use of sludge, residents zeroed in on what they saw as environmental transgressions at a particular farm. But town officials, saying they need more information, have not flagged any violations there.

    “The bylaw,’’ DeLano told residents at the session, “will give us the information to report a violation.”

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    During the meeting, he outlined environmental and health concerns raised by use of processed sewer sludge as fertilizer, including the risk of hazardous runoff into streams or other bodies of water and the possibility of pharmaceuticals in the material.

    The dilemma, he said, is finding a compromise between a farmers’ right to farm and the community’s health, environmental responsibility, and sense of well-being.

    Most complaints received by town officials, said Casper, the health agent, object to the odor of such fertilizers. DeLano said farmers mix sludge with lawn clippings and food waste, accelerating decomposition and intensifying the smell.

    “Mix those three things together, and the smell is putrid,” Casper said.

    The proposed regulations would prohibit mixing sludge with these materials. Other complaints voiced at the meeting were that sludge was overspread and not tilled into the soil. Town officials say both complaints would be addressed by the proposed bylaw.

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    DeLano said the seven-point proposal released late last month and discussed at the meeting is designed to work in conjunction with rules established by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, the state authority on biosolid application. If the bylaw comes into conflict with state codes, he said, state Attorney General Maura Healey could reject it.

    ‘I’m not reinventing stuff. I’m using what’s out thereand crafting it to our town.’

    “You have the rights of the farmer under the [state] regulations,” DeLano said, “so you can’t arbitrarily take away what’s given to them.”

    The sludge used by West Bridgewater farmers is provided free by EarthSource Inc., a waste-water treatment plant in Raynham. Robert Kelly, the company’s owner and president, said the plant collects sewer sludge and food grease from surrounding communities to produce Type 1 biosolids, a class of sludge the state considers safe for land application.

    The raw sludge is treated with hot water to kill pathogens and lime to boost its acidity and deter flies, Kelly said, adding that the plant has always passed state tests and inspections since its creation in 2006.

    Complaints about farmers’ use of sludge in West Bridgewater date back to at least 2009. In 2012, West Bridgewater residents created a committee to investigate the use of Type 1 sludge as fertilizer. The town ultimately decided to allow it, said DeLano, who cochaired the committee, as long as farmers and distributors followed state regulations.

    His concern now, said DeLano, which he concedes he cannot prove, is that some local farmers may no longer be following state guidelines. The bylaw, he said, will give the town the foundation to monitor farmers and alleged violations.

    “Without some information that [the state] could rely on to initiate an investigation,” DeLano said, “I don’t think they’d like to hear someone call and complain about it.”

    Casper, who’s in charge of crafting the bylaw, said he is looking at laws on the books in other municipalities to design West Bridgewater’s regulations. “I’m not reinventing stuff,” he said. “I’m using what’s out there and crafting it to our town.”

    Although some at the meeting felt the proposed bylaw was weak, many applauded the town’s efforts to regulate sludge. Residents will vote on the proposition at the annual Town Meeting in June.

    Bret Hauff can be reached at bret.hauff@globe.com. Follow him @b_hauff.