Guest Column: The growing problem of managing biosolids 

  • The South Deerfield wastewater treatment facility FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 4/26/2022 12:56:44 PM
Modified: 4/26/2022 12:55:16 PM

I am writing out of concern for a potential environmental and economic disaster that is visible on the horizon. That disaster is the inability of Massachusetts wastewater treatment facilities to manage and dispose of their biosolids, the solid organic matter that results from modern wastewater treatment processes.

Wastewater treatment facilities have been a great public health and environmental success story. This is especially true since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, which brought all facilities up to the secondary treatment standard that has produced some amazing environmental results. The largest river in New England, the Connecticut, once described by Jo Beth Mullens and Robert S. Bristow in a 2003 research study as “The Nation’s Best Landscaped Sewer” is now enjoyed by boaters, fishers, swimmers, and other water enthusiasts. Many locations along the river are now homes to families of eagles and other wildlife. Rivers across Massachusetts have likewise benefitted and been remarkably improved thanks to modern wastewater treatment.

In order for wastewater facilities to do their job they must be able to manage the biosolids they produce. There are two major wastewater processes, primary treatment and secondary treatment that produce these biosolids. Larger facilities dispose of their biosolids daily while smaller facilities may dispose of theirs once or twice a week. Regardless of size, no facility can hold their biosolids for long periods of time. To do so would result in poor process performance and regulatory violations.

The amount of biosolids produced yearly by Massachusetts wastewater facilities is approximately 180,000 dry U.S. tons. Biosolids are typically 25% percent solids so on a wet basis that is approximately 720,000 wet U.S. tons or 1.44 billion pounds. To put that in perspective a typical tractor load holds 30 tons, so approximately 24,000 tractor trailer loads of biosolids are produced per year. Of this 720,000 wet ton total 28% is processed and disposed of in state while 72% is shipped out of state to Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Indiana, Virginia, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and Quebec.

There is a three-legged stool of biosolids management options for Massachusetts facilities — incineration, land application, and landfilling. Currently, the total capacity of these three options throughout New England is pretty much full — nearly equal with the total biosolids produced by wastewater facilities. There is currently little room for error. If one leg of the stool fails, the results would be devastating for our wastewater facilities.

At present, two legs of the stool — land application and landfilling — are being restricted due to concerns about PFAS compounds and landfill instability. “PFAS” is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Chemicals in this class of more than 5,000 substances are found in products like nonstick pans, food packaging, waterproof jackets, and carpets. They’re also used in firefighting foam often used on military bases and at commercial airports. Even personal care products like waterproof mascaras and eyeliners, sunscreen, shampoo, and shaving cream can contain PFAS. PFAS are so prevalent in our daily lives that it’s easy to see how PFAS compounds would also be in the influent to wastewater facilities. Wastewater facilities do not use or add PFAS; they are receivers of them. Some of the PFAS accumulate in the biosolids.

Prices for biosolids management and disposal have already increased at a rate much higher than inflation as those managing biosolids price in the liabilities of PFAS pollution and uncertainty and the capacity crisis. Costs to dispose of biosolids will continue to skyrocket as options dwindle. As those costs increase so will sewer rates and costs for sewer services across Massachusetts. Those not on public sewer systems will also be impacted since PFAS finds its way to on-site septic systems. Septage pumped from septic tanks is usually disposed at wastewater treatment plants. If PFAS and biosolids disposal limitation continue to impact wastewater plants many will have no option but to curtail acceptance of septage. What options are then available to homeowners trying to maintain their on-site systems?

Many environmental advocacy groups maintain that PFAS contamination at any level is unacceptable so that means neither landfilling, land application nor incineration is acceptable. If that is the case, where will Massachusetts biosolids go? As other states become more territorial through stricter regulations to prevent the “importation of PFAS” in out-of-state biosolids, Massachusetts stands to be the loser due to a lack of in-state options. We don’t seem to have any problem shipping our “problem” out of state — as mentioned earlier Massachusetts sends more than 72% of its biosolids out of state. With all of the smart minds and institutions in Massachusetts shouldn’t we be able to come up with a solution to this problem? Isn’t that the morally correct thing to do?

Mickey Nowak is executive director of the MA Water Environment Association in Monson.


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