Originally created 02/08/00

Sludge raises concerns



The city of Augusta wants to add 558 acres of Jefferson County hayfields to the list of sites eligible to receive sewage sludge from the Messerly Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The landowner, Ronnie Hudson, is delighted to have the sludge, which he estimates will help save $110,000 a year in fertilizer costs.

Some residents, however, aren't as eager to see the remnants of Augusta's sewage sprayed as free fertilizer onto fields in their rural county.

"You got a lot of irate people down here," said Geary Davis, who represents a group of citizens who fear the sludge could harm streams and aquifers that provide drinking water.

"We have nothing against them growing grass," he said. "But they could do the same thing with regular fertilizer. When you get right down to it, it's just a way for Augusta to get rid of the sludge."

Augusta generates 9,000 dry tons per year of sludge -- the solids that remain after sewage is treated. The material is mixed with water and sprayed onto about 4,000 acres of farmland in 30 locations.

Tom Wiedmeier, Augusta's assistant utilities director, said the Hudson farm is one of two new sites Augusta has asked the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to approve for sludge application.

The other site involves 86 acres in Richmond County, owned by Ralph Powell.

The city's sludge program, Mr. Wiedmeier said, is both safe and beneficial for the city and landowners. "We have a place to dispose of our sludge," he said. "The farmers get the fertilizer benefit of it."

The city pays a contractor, Synagrow, to haul and distribute the sludge, which otherwise would have to be landfilled at higher costs to taxpayers. The sludge is closely monitored for metals and other harmful substances.

Augusta's program has been under enhanced scrutiny since a 1998 audit -- triggered by two lawsuits filed against the city -- yielded concerns from EPD over whether Augusta's sludge meets environmental standards.

Two dairy farms are suing the city over unresolved claims their land and cattle were poisoned by toxic metals in sludge Augusta applied to their fields as free fertilizer. Augusta, which denies the claims, has spent more than $1 million defending the lawsuits.

Mr. Davis said the unresolved lawsuits are among the reasons residents are leery of having more sludge come to the Hudson farm, which is close to Rocky Comfort Creek and the Ogeechee River.

Mr. Hudson has been a participant in Augusta's sludge program since 1994 and already has nearly 1,000 acres permitted to accept the sludge. The permit request for a new site is for nearby land he bought last year.

"I'm going to be straight with everybody," he said. "I need it as a fertilizer. I can't see why they're objecting."

Mr. Hudson said he is willing to host a tour of the property, and the proposed sludge application sites, to demonstrate his compliance with environmental requirements and buffer zone restrictions.

He said he scheduled a similar meeting last year, but the only attendees were some Jefferson County commissioners -- not the concerned citizens. "I'm happy to meet with them and show them around any time," he said.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.