The local controversies over land application of sewage sludge in recent years and permits for application of sludge in lieu of fertilizer granted by Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) are no strangers to Jefferson County. A new initiative by a local citizens group is attempting to ratchet the issue to the state level.
A Feb. 7 letter to EPD Director Harold Reheis on behalf of Concerned Citizens of Jefferson County Inc. (CCJC) requested that all permits for land applied sewage sludge within the 13,000 square miles designated as "Most Significant Groundwater Recharge Areas of Georgia" be revoked immediately.
A failure by Reheis to respond by March 7 will result in actions by the group that may result in a call for an investigation by state Attorney General Thurbert Baker and a class-action lawsuit, the letter said.
The impetus for the position stems from the granting of a modified permit to apply sludge within Jefferson County following a June 19, 2000 public hearing in Louisville conducted by EPD representatives. Attended by more than 300 residents, a large majority of those who spoke voiced opposition to the granting of a permit.
The Feb. 7 letter cited CCJC concerns specific to the granting of that permit:
"The process for this permit application was monitored and we were informed that the EPD staff was not going to recommend approval of this permit request. You can imagine our shock when we learned that the permit had been approved. It was reported to our group that someone at EPD's Assistant Director level stated that EPD's staff recommendation was not to approve the permit application when it was sent to your office."
The CCJC letter took the position of assuming that Reheis might not have been aware of the "political semantics" in granting permits for land application of sludge on lands identified by the Georgia Geologic Survey as "most significant groundwater recharge areas."
CCJC President Kay Heilig said Tuesday that the request to revoke permits across a wide area of Georgia stems from the basic need to protect citizens' drinking water.
"The Concerned Citizens of Jefferson County Inc. want to protect the groundwater recharge area that provides our drinking water," he said. "We believe the director of a program as big a EPD may not be aware of all the technical details and we have chosen to bring what we believe are the relevant facts directly to his attention. We made the request based on those relevant facts."
CCJC said its position on the need to revoke all permits tied to land applied sludge is based on a groundwater report from Georgia Geologic Survey (GGS), Georgia law surrounding land application of sludge and documents from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
The 1989 GGS report, Hydrologic Atlas 18, identified 13,000 square miles (or 23 percent) of Georgia's land surface as being included as "most significant groundwater recharge areas," with the highest concentration of such areas being in southwest Georgia and in an east-west band from Augusta to Columbus, including portions of Jefferson County. The CCJC letter tied the GGS report to Georgia law 12-8-25.3(c ), which states that "no permit of modification of an existing permit shall be issued for land application of untreated municipal sewage sludge located in an area designated by Hydrologic Atlas 18 prepared by the Dept. of Natural Resources as a significant groundwater recharge area including, but not limited to, those areas designated as probable areas of thick soil."
A central issue surrounding the use of sludge in lieu of fertilizer is the public safety issue. Georgia law addresses only the prohibition of untreated municipal sewage sludge for land application, yet reports from federal agencies indicate that municipal sewage sludge classified as Class B poses concern for human health and the environment.
Included in the CCJC position was an August 2000 NIOSH report on worker's exposure to Class B biosolids (sludge). The report said sewage sludge, as in the case of Augusta's J.B. Messerly Wastewater Treatment plant that supplies sludge to lands in Jefferson County, is typically treated to Class B requirements at sewage treatment plants using a variety of processes to significantly reduce the concentrations of pathogens. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Class B biosolids may contain pathogens in sufficient quantities to warrant restricted public access and special precautions for exposed workers, the report said. Also cited by CCJC was EPA Report No. 2000-P-10, stating that the agency does not have an effective program for ensuring compliance with land application of sludge and that EPA cannot assure the public that current land application practices are protective of human health and the environment.
Returning calls for Reheis, EPD's Water Protection Branch Manager for Permitting, Compliance and Enforcement Jeff Larson said Tuesday that the CCJC letter will be evaluated once it is received.
South Jefferson County's Sen. Hugh Gillis, who co-authored Georgia Code 12-8-25.3, said Monday that he believed he should withhold comment at this time given that the matter may result in litigation.