"If sludge is so good, why don't you spread it in Columbia County?" one Jefferson County resident asked, as several more echoed they didn't want to become the "bathroom of Augusta."
Sludge recovered from the Columbia County Waste Water Treatment plant could be sent to Jefferson County.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
That was the consensus of the vocal portion of the nearly 75 people who attended a recent meeting and public hearing about the possible land applications of Columbia County's treated sewage sludge as a nitrogen supplement on a Jefferson County hay farm.
Representatives from Georgia's Department of Environmental Protection Division and Columbia County's water treatment department met with residents to illustrate the basics of the proposed sludge application plan and invite comments.
A similar meeting was held five years ago when the same site originally was permitted to receive sludge from Richmond County's treatment plants.
Jeff Larson, the manager of the Permitting, Compliance and Enforcement Program for EPD's Watershed Protection Branch, served as moderator for both hearings and said he was not surprised about the opposition.
The proposed plan includes adding six groundwater monitoring wells across the site, an addition not required in the previous permit.
Larson and EPD Environmental Engineer Mark Beebe said there are additions to this plan that do not appear on similar sludge sites in the state. The additions were prompted by concern about the site being over an aquifer recharge area and by a desire to be "conservative," they said.
In addition to the wells, the plan includes reducing application rates by 25 percent below the normal agronomic rate and designating certain fields for sludge from each of Columbia County's treatment plants to further monitor the source of any potential contaminants.
EPD and Columbia County representatives explained that the sludge produced from the predominantly residential county shows levels of dangerous metals significantly below the required thresholds, easily meeting all state and federal regulations.
Billy Clayton, the director of the Columbia County Water Utility, said commitments included testing, industrial pretreatment monitoring and environmental stewardship.
He said his plants discharge treated water back into the Savannah River above the intakes for Columbia and Augusta's drinking water.
Many area residents weren't satisfied.
They questioned the location of the site and expressed concern for drinking water because the fields are located over an aquifer recharge area that supplies water for residents throughout southern Georgia and into northern Florida.
They also questioned the accumulation of metals from previous Augusta applications and the potential presence of sinkholes on the site.
"Why, if you already knew of all the issues in our county - the river, the watershed, the aquifer recharge area, the nearby school and churches - why would you still bring it here and not find a place in Columbia County for it?" asked resident Geary Davis.
Larson responded, "Because it's legally all right for them to do this."
Residents asked EPD to deny the permit or revisit elements of the plan.
Larry Hodges, of Louisville, Ga., said he witnessed sludge running off the property through ditches and into Rocky Comfort Creek.
He said the plan has no environmental impact statement and does not take into account local bald eagle or woodstork populations, which are within two miles of the site; address soil testing or wind drift; test for all toxic chemicals; or mention surface water runoff.
Other residents said the plan does not account for drain tiles that could carry sludge directly into neighboring waterways.
Ogeechee-Canoochee riverkeeper Chandra Brown said the sludge should be monitored on a more frequent basis than the plan allows.
"This is not fertilizer," Jefferson County resident John Lewis said. "If it is spilled on the side of the road, it requires toxic cleanup."
Lewis challenged Columbia County to improve its treatment facilities to the point that it could produce a Class A biosolid sludge, which is considered much safer.
He and others called the distribution of Augusta and Columbia County waste products "economic discrimination."
"Jefferson County is one of the poorest counties in the state and Columbia County is one of the fastest growing," Davis said. "Why can't you fix your own problems?"
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