AUGUSTA — Every gardener knows that organic matter is important in the vegetable patch to keep nutrients and water in place.
But some Mainers are challenging a new way of providing that organic matter — the use of short paper fiber sludge left over from the industrial papermaking process.
“It seems that officials are for it, but ordinary people, some of them are against it,” Robert Weatherly-Bishop of Hudson told the Board of Environmental Protection on Wednesday.
Weatherly-Bishop and his wife, Florence, came before the board to appeal a decision by the Department of Environmental Protection allowing Bowater-Great Northern Paper to spread such wastes on 248 acres, including dairy pasture in Hudson and Bradford. They are concerned that the sludge could also include poisonous heavy metals or other toxics. “We have grandchildren, and [chemical in the sludge are] a direct pipeline to the children through the milk,” he said.
The couple also expressed concern about companies’ taking their own test samples, and told the board that random testing by the state would help keep everyone honest.
State rules limit both the concentrations and the total amounts of heavy metals and other toxins in sludge that is spread on farmlands. Tests of the Great Northern sludge show that it mostly contains lower concentrations of heavy metals — including mercury, arsenic, copper and selenium — than the lands onto which it is spread. The two mills from which the sludge comes use no chlorine, although the company still tests to see if dioxin is present in the relatively small amount of material sent to farms.
Because the material is mostly organic matter — high in carbon, low in nutrients such as nitrogen — it is especially useful on fields like those in Bradford and Hudson where high-nutrient sewage sludge has also been spread, said Rick Haffner of DEP. The carbon in the paper fibers helps keep the nutrients in the sewage sludge from leaching out of the fields and into surface or ground water, he said, where it can cause problems for aquatic life.
Bob Deabay, an environmental engineer with Great Northern, said Great Northern saves $3 to $4 for each cubic yard of sludge it does not have to send to the landfill, although the company ends up breaking even after adding the costs of transporting it to the farmers.
Roughly 75 percent of the sludge is paper fibers, he said. The rest is byproducts that come from turning old newspapers and magazines into new paper, including clay, inks and titanium dioxide, a whitening agent.
Eric Sideman, the technical services director for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said Wednesday afternoon that the organization does not approve the use of short paper fiber sludge on organic fields, although it does support recycling those wastes rather than putting them in landfills. But, he added, most of the sludge produced by paper mills could be acceptable in some circumstances because the processes are fairly clean and consistent.
The issue of greater concern, Sideman said, is sludge that comes from municipal sewage plants because what goes down city drains is unpredictable.
“I think that’s where the effort in a community should be placed, not fighting sludge but cleaning up the waste stream so what goes into the sludge is clean and usable,” he said. “The stand we took last year was there may be a place for it, but not on an organic farm.”
Despite MOFGA’s assessment of the relative acceptability of using paper mill sludge on farm lands, Sideman said he gets more calls about sludge spreading than about anything else.
So it is likely that there will be strong feelings when both issues come back before the BEP at public hearings on May 12 and 13. At the first hearing, the board will take testimony on revised rules covering the use of municipal and mill sludges on agricultural land. At the second, it will hear comments on nonagricultural uses of those wastes, such as alternative fuel, building blocks or fill.
The May 12 hearings start at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Pine Tree State Arboretum in Augusta. The May 13 hearing starts at 1 p.m. at the Holiday Inn-Ground Round in Augusta.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the board voted 7-1 to deny the Weatherly-Bishops’ appeal, since the couple’s concerns did not address the siting issue they could have reversed. And although the group did not act on board member Kathy Littlefield’s suggestion to require random testing at the two fields, board member Andrew Cadot did suggest that Great Northern allow the Weatherly-Bishops to come and take their own sludge samples.