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Record-setting rain has created a biosolids problem for sewage treatment plants

Record-setting rain in the D.C. area has caused problems for local sewage treatment plants. (Robert Miller/The Washington Post)

Sewage treatment plants throughout the Mid-Atlantic are dealing with a smelly problem: The farmland that typically uses the material that remains after the treatment process as natural fertilizer is saturated from last year’s heavy rains.

That means utilities have to store the biosolids until the farmland dries — and some of them are quickly running out of space.

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) asked for emergency approval from its board Wednesday to accelerate its usual procurement process to quickly design, and possibly build, storage space at four of its sewage treatment plants.

Two companies in charge of hauling away 18 dump trucks worth of biosolids from WSSC sewage treatment plants daily usually deliver it to farms or, if the farmland is frozen or too wet, store it temporarily. However, the companies say months of wet weather have left their storage tanks in southern Prince George’s County and central Virginia 90 percent full, WSSC officials say.

Utilities throughout the rain-soaked Mid-Atlantic are looking for more room for their biosolids. The gunk, which has an odor, looks like damp dirt or mulch.

“We’re all dealing with the same problem,” said Gary Grey, WSSC’s deputy director of production. “No one has ever seen anything like this.”

WSSC serves nearly 2 million people in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

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Bill Brower, of D.C. Water, said workers at the Blue Plains treatment plant haven’t encountered such a problem in decades. They have found some temporary storage space on-site and have made other plans in case a rainy winter causes the contractor’s facilities to fill up, he said.

D.C. Water is fortunate, he said, because it can produce some Class A biosolids, which can be sold to landscapers and nurseries. The Class B biosolids that most utilities end up with may only be used for farming.

“We have more options because we have a really good material that people want to buy,” Brower said.

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Contractors typically have empty storage tanks as they head into the winter because they can usually spread the biosolids on farmland for most of the year. However, because of the heavy rains last summer and fall, the storage tanks were almost full as winter approached, WSSC officials said.

Grey said the temporary space will only be built if this winter is particularly wet.

“This is last-resort storage,” Grey said. “We hope the contractor can continue to limp along with some good weather.”

Neighbors of the treatment plants where the extra storage facilities would be built might smell them, said Jay Price, WSSC’s deputy general manager. Three of the plants — Piscataway, Parkway and Western Branch — are in Prince George’s, and one — Seneca — is in Montgomery.

“Wastewater plants tend to have a slight odor already,” Price said. “It may have a temporary smell, but we’re taking extra precautions to make sure any smell is minimal.”