CHANNAHON, Ill. — There’s quite a bit of national controversy about the practice of using biosolids as fertilizer on farmland, and some Channahon Township residents don’t want it applied in the fields near their homes.
“What they are doing is making a toxic dump of our area. It’s disgusting,” said Canal Road resident Pat Budd.
Biosolids are derived from sludge that comes out of wastewater treatment plants. The sludge, which is mostly human excrement, but could include toxins such as industrial and pharmaceutical waste, is treated and processed to remove harmful chemicals and laid out to dry.
The result, according to proponents, is a nutrient rich organic fertilizer that might otherwise be dumped into landfills. Thirty years ago it was flushed into waterways.
Residents living on Canal Road, an unincorporated section of the village of Channahon, are surrounded by three fields where the biosolids are being applied by Stewart Spreading, of Sheridan, Ill. A total of 280 acres are treated yearly.
Residents say they have had an increase in health issues since the land application began in 2010. All of the issues at this time come from a cluster of four homes near the fields.
Budd was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer before any biosolids were applied in the adjacent fields. She worries that her immune system won’t be able to fend off toxic chemicals in any levels.
“I am susceptible to things,” said Budd. “I am doing amazingly well, but I don’t want to chance it.”
Neighbors fear chemicals in the biosolids have leached into their drinking wells and that field runoff will reach the I&M Canal that runs behind the homes and one of the fields.
“There’s so much rock (in the soil), it just runs off,” said Budd.
Mary Lou Bozich, who lives right next to one field, was diagnosed with a duodenum tumor this year.
There was no sign of the tumor during an endoscopy the prior year, she said.
“I just find it very weird that two years ago I had no problem,” Bozich said. “Is it from that (biosolids)? I don’t honestly know. How would they prove it one way or another?”
Neighbors are concerned about students at nearby schools, Channahon Junior High and Galloway Elementary, as well as the Channahon Park District. Students routinely jog on the road and have been seen running through the fields.
Jeff Hutton, Illinois EPA Environmental Protection Specialist, said biosolids do contain trace levels of chemicals, such as copper, cadmium and arsenic. But the treatment and processing of the sludge reduces them to non-toxic levels. Whatever level is deemed toxic for plants, the IEPA arbitrarily reduces their allowable level by 50 percent more, he said.
Hutton, who has been with the IEPA for 25 years and is considered the agency’s “sludge guy,” said biosolids were first regulated by the US EPA in 1975, and were used in agriculture before that.
“It’s probably been going on before the agency was in existence,” Hutton said. “It’s a good fertilizer. There are micro nutrients in sludge that are not found in other fertilizers.”
State and national studies by the EPA have found no evidence of toxic levels of chemicals leaching into water supplies, said Hutton.
Spirit Farms, which leases the farmland from Don Hammond, chooses to use the organic nitrogen found in biosolids as the nutrient source for their corn crop, said Michelle Stewart, owner of Stewart Spreading.
“Regardless of the farmer or farm, the soil needs to be fertilized each crop year in order to maintain or improve the soil quality and soil fertility,” Stewart said. “This is a standard farming practice in row crop agriculture, otherwise the crop yield would not be productive.”
When biosolids are applied the accompanying smell is unbearable, said resident Pearl Addington.
“I have asthma and I can’t even leave my house,” she said. “I am scared (because) I can’t breathe.”
During an application, about 70 trucks line up along Canal Road to dump the biosolids, said Budd. Each truck makes several trips.
Stewart Spreading targets between five and 10 dry tons per acre of farmland, said Stewart.
The EPA requires incorporating the material into the soil immediately to help with the smell. But it lingers and reappears during subsequent rains.
“There’s still going to be an odor,” Hutton said. “Odors are hard to quantify.”
After reviewing soil maps, the IEPA has decided to cut the amount of allowable biosolids in half in the field east of the neighbors because of the infiltration rate of the soil, said Hutton.
It’s the same field where the residents worry about flooding and run off.
Illinois municipalities combined produce 375,000 to 400,000 tons of sludge every year and 75 percent of it is used on land application for farming or land reclamation, Hutton said. In Will County 150 fields use sludge, he estimated. In Kankakee, it’s about 175 fields.
Spreading companies such as Stewart get paid around $15 per cubic yard to haul away the treated sludge from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago. Farmers benefit by getting free fertilizer, saving them thousands of dollars a year in costs.
Budd believes the biosolids industry has become more about making a profit than about using organic fertilizer and the health of local residents.
“There’s an enormous amount of money here,” she said.