Maryland agriculture officials are weighing whether they should relax a 4-year-old pollution regulation aimed at reducing nutrient runoff from farms after farmers and some municipal sewage agencies complained about its cost and complexities.

The regulation, which took effect July 1, mainly affects dairy farmers and municipal wastewater agencies that generate treated sewage sludge, also known as biosolids.

The rule forbids spreading manure or biosolids after Nov. 1 on the Eastern Shore and after Nov. 16 on farms west of the Chesapeake. It also requires that the nutrient-rich material be incorporated into the soil when spread on fields so that it won’t wash into nearby waterways with rainfall or snowmelt.

The rule essentially requires farms and sewage facilities to build or expand storage facilities to hold their manure or sludge through winter until it can be applied in spring, when growing crops will absorb the nutrients. Many of the state’s 431 dairy farms have already complied, but some indicated to the department that they could not meet the deadline, which triggered an emergency meeting in early July.

Though the regulation was adopted in 2012, its effective date was delayed until this year to give affected farmers and wastewater treatment agencies time to build or expand storage facilities. Small farms and sewage facilities were given even longer, until 2020, to comply with the winter field application ban.

In July, Maryland Department of Agriculture officials briefed their Nutrient Management Advisory Committee on regulatory changes they are considering to address farmers’ needs. The committee is dominated by agro-industry representatives and has just one environmental group representative, from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

State agriculture officials said they intend to keep the 2020 deadline for small farms and sewage facilities. But for those larger operations that say they’re unable to stop spreading this winter, officials said that they would ease the rule and simply require them to comply as soon as possible. If the farms can show they’re awaiting cost-share money and have a plan, the department does not plan to penalize them.

Officials said they also are considering easing the rule in other ways:

  • Shortening the duration of the winter spreading ban, by moving the starting date to Dec. 15 for farms on both sides of the Bay Bridge;
  • Dropping the requirement that manure and biosolids must be incorporated or worked into the soil when applied in spring or fall; and
  • Eliminating a ban on emergency spreading, so that farmers or waste agencies may spread material under extenuating circumstances, such as if a manure storage lagoon is overflowing.

Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Bay Foundation and its representative at the meeting, did not oppose easing the rule. But Jeffrey Horstman, executive director of the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, did. Horstman, who was observing the meeting, spoke up to say the regulation had already been compromised enough.

“I know it’s not all about making it easy for farmers. It’s also about protecting our environment,” he said.

State agriculture officials did say they’re considering strengthening the regulation in one respect — requiring a 100-foot setback from streams and drainage ditches during spreading, to lessen the risk of nutrient pollution running off.

While dairy farmers mainly sought more time to comply because storage systems are expensive, representatives of the biosolids industry argued that the byproduct of sewage treatment shouldn’t be regulated the same as animal manure.

“History has shown that it is nearly impossible to site large storage facilities due to public opposition,” said Gary Gray, operations support manager at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, one of the state’s largest producers of biosolids. The WSSC had a processing plant in Burtonsville, but odor complaints from neighbors forced its shutdown in the 1990s, Gray said.

Often, wastewater treatment plants cannot provide storage onsite because they have used up available land building required upgrades to their facilities. If plant operators can’t spread biosolids on farmland in the winter, they will be forced to truck the treated waste to Pennsylvania and Virginia, Gray said. That adds expense and truck traffic, which increases vehicle emissions and the possibility of spills. It’s likely to be only a temporary solution anyway, he added, as other states tighten their biosolids rules. Besides, Gray notes, the states most likely to get Maryland biosolids shipments are still in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, so limiting spreading in one state won’t help the estuary that much.

Gray said the WSSC has been preparing for the new rules by building a $100 million bioenergy facility at its Piscataway Wastewater Treatment Plant. The facility will use biosolids to generate energy, reducing by about half the amount that would need to be spread on farmland.

But those preparations do not mean the WSSC likes the new rules; the utility has submitted numerous public comments on the hardship they would create.

“Yes, we want to be able to spread in the winter,” Gray said in response to written questions from the Bay Journal. “We are a Maryland utility, and good, sustainable practice would require recycling our biosolids locally.”

A lawyer for treatment plant operators argued that the regulation shouldn’t apply to biosolids at all.

“I think there is a serious question as to whether we should even be building these storage facilities,” said Chris Pomeroy of Aqualaw, which represents the Maryland Association of Municipal Wastewater Agencies.

Pam Kasemeyer, an attorney representing Synagro, one of the largest biosolids firms in the country, suggested her client wants unspecified flexibility.

“We are not here asking to be exempt,” she said at the committee meeting. “But I think there are substantial differences between biosolids and manure management.”

Though the nitrogen and phosphorus levels in biosolids are similar to what’s in animal manure, industry advocates maintain that the treatment process keeps nutrients from leaching out of the soil. Being able to land-apply biosolids is “an important part of the reuse and treatment process,” Pomeroy said.

Biosolids advocates contend they’re already sufficiently regulated by the state, and spreading treated sludge on farmland not only saves towns and counties money but benefits crop growth.

The Maryland Department of the Environment oversees biosolids, and farms that wish to use it to fertilize crops need a permit. The MDE has issued about 5,000 such permits since 1974, according to the agency, with about 43,000 acres on about 300 farms statewide now authorized to use it.

The department said there has never been a documented case of illness or water pollution tied to the practice. In accordance with EPA recommendations, the MDE regulates the content of biosolids to protect human and animal health, water quality and plant life from metals and other potentially harmful contaminants that may be in municipal wastewater. The state also mandates leaving buffer zones around treated farmland to protect streams. But until 2012, the MDE did not require storage, or prohibit spreading biosolids in the winter.

State regulators were already working on tightening biosolid regulations five years ago, when an administrative law judge threw out a $4,000 fine levied against a Worcester County farmer for storing a pile of treated sewage sludge near a drainage ditch that emptied into a branch of the Pocomoke River. The judge found that the MDE had only issued recommendations, not rules, requiring that biosolids be kept back from streams.

(The farmer, Alan Hudson, had been cited after the Waterkeeper Alliance erroneously identified the pile leaking into the drainage ditch as poultry manure. The environmental group later sued Hudson and Perdue Farms, unsuccessfully alleging that chicken waste runoff from the farm was polluting the Pocomoke tributary.)

One Eastern Shore town has complained that the new regulation will have an even more drastic impact on its wastewater treatment operation. Laura Allen, Berlin town administrator, told the state advisory committee that the rule also forbids the winter land application of wastewater, and not just biosolids. Berlin’s treatment plant sprays its processed wastewater on land rather than discharge it into surface water, where nutrients in the effluent could worsen pollution problems.

Allen said Berlin invested $25 million in the plant, and having to find alternatives to winter spray irrigation would costs ratepayers $2 million to $3 million a year.

“We have done what’s been asked of us, we have done what’s been required of us,” she said. “Now we ask for help to continue to protect the Chesapeake and coastal bays.”

In August, MDA officials said they are still evaluating the recommendations, though a spokesman said the agency has no plans at this time to exempt biosolids. Several advisory panel members suggested making accommodations for Berlin and other places that spray-irrigate all year. But MDA officials also said they had no plans at this time to exempt them.

“The July meeting served as a chance for us to get feedback directly from the stakeholders. Since the meeting, we have been working with the governor’s office to find a solution,” said Jason D. Schellhardt, the MDA’s public information officer. “At this point, it’s too early to say what, if any, actions will be taken.”