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Public outcry delays industrial sludge proposal for seven Va. counties

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GOOCHLAND COUNTY, Va. -- In March of last year, Goochland County restaurant owner Trey Alley said he lost a lot of business when a local dairy farmer spread sludge over several acres of farmland just a few feet from his business.

Sludge refers to residual waste from industries, including animal waste.

The foul odor caused by the sludge, Alley said, lasted at least two weeks and consumed his restaurant and nearby home.

Alley made such a stink about the smell and potential environmental impact, the sludge was not reapplied this year.

However, a Baltimore-based company is now seeking a state permit to spread industrial sludge on more than 16,000 acres of farmland in seven Virginia counties, including Goochland, Hanover, New Kent, King and Queen and King William counties.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch lists those numbers, sourced by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) list the proposed acreage by county:

  • Hanover: 131 acres
  • Goochland: 307
  • New Kent: 713
  • Prince George: 864
  • Surry: 1,181
  • King & Queen: 4,819
  • King William: 8,159

Synagro Technologies has been spreading sludge in Virginia for years, but social media and a longer and open permit issuing process through the DEQ have given opponents a stronger voice. In fact, the response from residents in multiple counties has slowed the process for these recent permits. A vote once scheduled for June has been pushed back to a tentative September 29 date.

The Boards of Supervisors in Goochland, King and Queen and King William counties have all contacted the DEQ in opposition, so have several home and business owners.

“We’ve had over 100 on this particular permit,” Bill Hayden with the Department of Environmental Quality said.  “It’s something that generates a lot of interest, a lot of concern among the public.”

The DEQ maintains that state regulations are in place to make sure sludge is properly treated to reduce pollutants and that it’s spread at least 100 feet from property lines and 200 feet from houses.

Besides emitting a foul odor, sludge can contain heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead.  Critics said they’re concerned about water contamination caused by runoff.

The sludge would be derived from a Tyson Foods poultry plant,  the RockTenn Co. paper mill, and the Smithfield Foods pork  plant; all Virginia companies.

Proponents, who say sludge doesn’t pose a health or environmental threat,  argue it recycles waste and provides rich nutrients to the soil.   They argue it also provides free fertilization for Virginia farmers since industries pay to have the sludge hauled away and distributed.

Hayden said it could be a few more months before the DEQ makes a decision on issuing a permit.  The agency said it is responding to each complaint and concern.

Trey Alley said he can understand both sides of the issue, but hoped the DEQ considers the proximity of many farms to homes and business districts.

“The waste has to go somewhere,” Alley said.  “It’s probably not a problem on 90 percent of the fields where there’s no runoff into the river or streams.  But here, in a neighborhood…it wasn’t a good place to put it.”