Ventura County Star
Change to sewage rules may be costly
Sen. Boxer wants concerns over safety of waste disposal addressed
By Cynthia Overweg
Thursday, March 13, 2008
A letter written by California Sen. Barbara Boxer to the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has
some officials in Ventura County concerned about possible new, costly federal regulations on the disposal of biosolids.
Camarillo Mayor Charlotte Craven is in Washington, D.C., this week to meet with legislators as a representative of the
Ventura County Regional Sanitation District, the city of Camarillo and the California Association of Sanitation Agencies.
She and others are concerned about possible Clean Water Act changes that could affect local disposal of biosolids, the
treated sewage waste that can end up as landscaping or agricultural fertilizer.
Officials on Boxer's environmental committee staff said Boxer is not yet calling for a revision of the Clean Water Act, but
wants to be certain that public health issues surrounding the use of biosolids are fully addressed. She is asking the EPA
to further explain contaminant issues, according to her staff.
Craven is attending a national conference on clean water issues and said she will ask for a meeting with Boxer,
chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
"We're not complaining about the Clean Water Act — it's done a great deal of good for our country — but if changes are
made, the cost of paying for them has got to be spread," said Craven.
Boxer's inquiries to the EPA prompted local and regional water treatment facilities — members of the California
Association of Sanitation Agencies — to send its own letter to Boxer suggesting she consider the benefits of properly
managed biosolids before changes are made to the Clean Water Act.
Last month, Craven organized a meeting in Camarillo to discuss the issue of biosolids with Adolfo Bailon, one of the
senator's field representatives. Craven also invited local officials and sanitation district managers, representing nearly
every city in the county.
"We had 25 people in the room. We wanted to send the message that we need to be collaborators if she's going to
revisit the Clean Water Act," said Craven, who added that in the past 15 years Camarillo has spent $36 million
upgrading its water treatment facility. Craven said the cost-to-benefit-ratio has to make sense for local agencies.
Trish Holden, an environmental microbiologist at UC Santa Barbara, said contaminants in the environment, whether in
biosolids or water, are a threat to public health.
"We have antibiotics all over the place, and pharmaceuticals are not effectively removed in wastewater treatment — this
is a huge health issue and it hasn't been studied enough," said Holden.
She said the public does not understand the enormity of the issue or its own culpability.
"We flush drugs, medications and harsh chemicals down the drain and toilet every day — there's only so much a
wastewater treatment facility can handle — we're all in this together," Holden said.
Waste is hard to dispose
The appropriate disposition of biosolids is an issue of growing significance because cities are running out of options on
how to dispose of it, and must find alternative ways that make sense economically and scientifically, said Thousand
Oaks City Councilman Dennis Gillette, a Ventura County Regional Sanitation District board member.
He said much of the county's sludge is hauled to a landfill in Kern County, but that option may not be available much
longer because Kern County voters have limited what can be dumped and want to stop accepting the waste.
Last year, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors approved the treatment and disposal of local biosolids at the
Toland Road Landfill near Santa Paula, where the treated sludge is applied to the ground as cover. But the operation is
a scaled-down version of what was originally proposed, and trucking the sludge is still necessary.
"No one will rest on their laurels and proclaim it's 100 percent safe in every direction, but what we're saying is the
current system we have will take biosolids and purify them to a point that these other pathogens and contaminants
simply can't survive," said Gillette.
Biosolids in agriculture
But others aren't so sure. It's the mere possibility of potential disease-causing pathogens in biosolids that keeps local
farmers from going anywhere near it.
"All the studies I've seen show that biosolids have metals in it and sometimes carry bacteria that aren't completely killed
off," said Earl McPhail, Ventura County agricultural commissioner.
"The EPA says you can use it on some crops like cotton or alfalfa, but I don't foresee a time when biosolids could be
used on edible crops as long as people are concerned about food safety," McPhail said. "I wouldn't use the stuff on my
The future of biosolids is a debate that may gain momentum as what's called "emerging contaminants" become more
understood, said Dana Kolpin, project chief for the U.S. Geological Survey, an arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In a recent study of land-applied biosolids, Kolpin said that earthworms — from a soybean field in the Midwest where
biosolids were used — were contaminated with pharmaceuticals and toxic chemicals from common household cleaning
"We know contaminants were in the waste being applied. We know the worms were contaminated — the research needs
to continue to see what this means to the worms, and what it means for a potential to go higher up the food chain," said
He said that while the use of biosolids can be beneficial because of the nutrients they provide to soil, there is also a lot
of catch-up research work that needs to be done.
"These compounds degrade into other new compounds that can end up in reclaimed water and biosolids," said Kolpin.
Striking the right balance between protecting human health and the environment with the potential cost of added
regulation is the central concern of all local sanitation agencies, said John Correa, general manager of the Ojai Valley
"There's a shampoo that's used to kill lice and the active ingredient is one of those things that doesn't come out of the
water — it's a proven toxic chemical that can't be removed in a treatment plant," Correa said.
The only way to keep such products out of the environment, Correa said, is to stop using them. "We need to be doing
everything we can to get them outlawed."
In 1995, he said, his water district got an $18 million, 20-year state loan to upgrade its treatment plant. "If you give me a
new mandate, who will pay for it?" he asked.
It's Tax Time! Get tips, forms and advice on AOL Money & Finance.