A Northern Virginia sewer authority that has strongly opposed plans by a private firm to dump sludge on farmlands that drain into one of the region's major sources of drinking water disposed of a waste product from its plant in the same area last year without the permission of state officials.
Officials of the Upper Occoquan Sewer Authority acknowledged this week that state officials last fall halted dumping of a lime-laden waste material from the authority's plant near Manassas on more than 3,000 acres of land in eastern Fauquier County. State officials said the disposal was improper and came without public notice or hearings last summer.
"They blatantly had gone out and done the very thing they accused us of doing," said D. Lyle Jarrett, spokesman for Bio Gro Systems Inc. of Annapolis, the firm that has tangled with the authority and Fairfax County officials over its plans to use sludge from a sewage treatment plant as fertilizer on farmland in Fauquier County. "It is an unfair situation," Jarrett said.
Millard Robbins, the authority's executive director, disputed those claims and said his agency believed its action was proper because it considered the waste material to be lime, not sludge, and therefore not covered by state regulations on the disposal of waste material.
"It is not the same as (the Bio Gro) proposal," Robbins said. "That's like comparing lime and manure. They're entirely different materials."
"They can call it lime solids, but we call it sludge," said Edmund D. Miller, an engineer for the State Water Control Board. "They had approval to bury the material in question but not spread it on farmland."
Fauquier County and the state have been debating the use of sludge as fertilizer on farmlands for eight months. Bio Gro has received permission from the state Water Control Board and the state Health Department to dump sludge from the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant in the District onto 800 acres of farmland in Fauquier. The District will pay Bio Gro to dispose of the sludge, which will be given free to farmers.
The Fauquier County Board of Supervisors has endorsed the plan and its chairman, John B. Adams, would be the first farmer to receive the free sludge. Adams has been accused of a conflict of interest in a lawsuit filed against the board in Fauquier County Circuit Court by Janice Traver, a member of the County Planning Commission. The suit alleges Adams would have a direct financial benefit from the implementation of the proposal he approved.
The Upper Occoquan Authority and Fairfax officials said they fear runoff from the sludge will pollute the Occoquan Reservoir, which supplies drinking water to 600,000 Northern Virginia residents.
Fairfax Supervisor Audrey Moore (D-Annandale) said she was surprised when she was told the authority had allowed its own waste materials to be dumped on land that drains off into the Occoquan. "Isn't that something?" she said. "I'll have to learn more about it."
Robbins said bacteria in the sludge from the Blue Plains plant would pollute the reservoir, while the lime material from the Upper Occoquan plant is similar to lime bought by farmers in stores.
He said the lime was used to clean sludge in the Upper Occoquan plant and was 50 percent water, making it easier to spread on farmland. The solid part of the material is 85 to 95 percent calcium carbonite and 2 percent phosphorous and contains magnesium, he said.
Health officials said, however, the lime material from the Upper Occoquan plant may be a health hazard. They said although the material does not contain harmful bacteria, it does contain a high content of phosphorous, which causes algae growth in water.
"Sludge has more pollutants than lime solids, but lime has potential problems in itself and phosphorous more so," Miller said.
Miller and Hugh D. Eggborn, a regional director of the State Department of Health in Culpeper, said they were unaware of any testing done on the Huntley Farm site along Rte. 55 where the sewer authority material was dumped or on the effects of the lime material on the Occoquan Reservoir.
Robbins said the authority did its own in-house testing and found no ill effects from the lime material.
Attorney John T. Hazel, whose family owns the 3,500-acre Huntley Farm in Broad Run, suggested the lime material be dumped on his farm as a test. "They had a lot of good phosphorous lime and an expensive way of disposing of it," he said.
Hazel said he paid an estimated $75,000 to have the material hauled and spread. Costs included purchasing the hauling and spreading equipment, Hazel said.
The lime material was spread over his property and up to the edge of streams. "It was too heavy to cart and hard to spread," he said. "But I was happy to be able to help test a new way to dispose of a public resource."
State officials learned of the dumping when a local health official spotted the material on the Huntley Farm. "We asked them to stop and apply for approval and they did," Miller said. "If they hadn't cooperated, I'm sure we would consider legal action."
The State Water Control Board and the State Health Department gave approval of a general plan to dump lime material from the Upper Occoquan plant on farmland, but spokesmen from both agencies say the sewer authority has not applied for specific site approvals.
Meanwhile, Bio Gro is completing an agreement with Fairfax County to resolve the county's concerns over possible contamination. The company has agreed to test a 300-acre site within the watershed area in Fauquier. The site will be monitored by an outside agency paid by Bio Gro and will have buffer zones around streams and property borders.
In its official statement, the sewer authority said it opposes the Bio Gro plan because of possible pollution to the Occoquan Reservoir. It is a charge denied by a Bio Gro spokesman who say the sludge is no more harmful than fertilizer and has been successfully applied to farmland in Maryland and elsewhere in Virginia.
However, minutes from the authority's April 21 meeting show that at least one member opposed the Bio Gro plan because, he said, an out-of-state firm should not profit in the Occoquan area when the Upper Occoquan plant customers pay some of the highest sewage rates in the country. "Everyone should feel what UOSA has to suffer," Fred Tate said, according to the minutes.