Residents worry as Capital Regional District prepares to spread sewage biosolids at Hartland Landfill.
THERE’S A GUT REACTION to the idea of spreading processed human poop on land, whether to grow bigger trees, better tomatoes, or cap off a landfill. Suspicions remain even after sewage sludge is treated to remove pathogens and pollutants.
Following sewage treatment at the Capital Regional District’s new McLoughlin Point Wastewater Plant, “residual solids” in the form of sludge are piped to the new Residuals Treatment Facility at Hartland Landfill. There, the sludge is treated by anaerobic digestion, dried, and turned into Class A biosolids, a granule-like substance, along with biogas which is used onsite.
The new Residuals Treatment Facility at Hartland Landfill
The CRD has developed a plan to spread the biosolids on about five hectares of the Hartland Landfill, contrary to an earlier commitment to prohibit land application. While CRD staff insist the plan is safe, residents near Hartland are increasingly anxious that, despite treatment, toxins flushed down Greater Victoria’s toilets and drains will blow on to nearby properties—or leach into fields, gardens or wells.
Some living in the area of scattered small farms and acreages are worried that chemicals such as flame retardants, PCBs and other hormone disrupters will find their way into the environment. A particular concern is PFAS—per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances found in items ranging from frying pans and rain-jackets to dental floss—known as “forever chemicals” because they are almost indestructible.
Hartland Landfill, location of new Residuals Treatment Plant, forested area and surrounding neighbourhood and lakes (click to enlarge).
A group of citizens in the vicinity of Hartland formed the Mount Work Coalition. It has condemned the lack of consultation around the reversal of the CRD’s previous ban on spreading treated sewage residual on land.
In 2011, the Capital Regional District voted to prohibit spreading such biosolids on land, because of concerns it could contaminate farmland and food with chemicals, heavy metals and pharmaceuticals. Directors reaffirmed that decision in 2013.
But earlier this year, with a new $775-million sewage treatment system on the verge of completion, the CRD board, somewhat reluctantly, agreed to partially lift the biosolids ban.
The change of heart allows about 700 tonnes of biosolids to be spread on closed areas of Hartland Landfill as a short-term contingency plan starting in 2021. For between four and six weeks a year, the biosolids will be mixed with wood chips and sand and used to fertilize trees and as a dump cover to help capture methane gas, which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The rest of the year, biosolids will be trucked to the Lafarge cement plant in Richmond and used as fuel in cement kilns, with the CRD paying the company about a million dollars annually. The plant shuts down for maintenance twice a year, which is when the biosolids will be distributed on land at Hartland.
The CRD had planned to simply landfill biosolids while the cement plant was closed, but that proposal was nixed by the Province which told the CRD to find a beneficial use for the product.
With provincial grants at risk, the board opted for land application at the dump until a better solution is found—ideally a local “beneficial use” of the product.
The current plan was approved by the Province in September, and the CRD is working on a Long-Term Biosolids Strategy, which will require provincial approval by June 2024 and “will include comprehensive public consultation,” said a ministry spokesperson.
Hugh Stephens, a Willis Point resident and spokesman for the Mount Work Coalition, scoffs at the idea that the land dispersal is a temporary solution. “Once you spread it, it’s spread. No one is going to get down on their hands and knees and put it back again,” he said, suggesting alternate solutions such as sending the biosolids to a biochar plant in Prince George or using mines or remote areas for disposal.
CRD director Mike Hicks, who represents the Willis Point area, voted against the plan to spread biosolids on land. “I don’t support it and I am not alone. I thought we could store it for a couple of months, but I was told it was too explosive to store,” said Hicks who is concerned particles could become airborne. “Absolutely there’s a concern and as the crow flies, Butchart Gardens is totally within striking distance,” he said.
Hicks admitted it is difficult to assess which of the scientific studies bear the most weight. “But, I adopt the attitude of ‘why risk it?’” he said.
BOTH SIDES POINT TO SCIENTIFIC STUDIES bolstering their viewpoints, and there seems a startling lack of research consensus.
For example, a 2016 “Open Letter on the Danger of Biosolids,” from four scientists emphasizes the lack of information about many of the chemical contaminants that remain after sewage treatment. The scientists conclude that the supposed benefits are more than offset by risks to human and environmental health: “An unimaginably large number of chemical and biological contaminants exist in these materials and they persist in the product up to and after land disposal,” says the open letter from Sierra Rayne, John Werring, Richard Honour and Steven Vincent.
“Governments are playing Russian roulette with sewage sludge. Over time, there is a high probability this game will be lost at the public’s expense,” they conclude.
Their letter was quickly followed by a rebuttal from four Canadian university professors, with backgrounds in biosolids research, who accused the opponents of stoking fear and equating chemicals, at any level, with unacceptable risk.
“As any thinking individual knows well, any chemical can be harmful to humans if exposure is high enough; two acetaminophen tablets can cure your headache, but too many taken at once may harm or kill you,” it reads. “The weight of evidence, when examined fairly and from an unbiased perspective, does not support a moratorium on biosolids. It would simply be wasteful to disregard the benefits that can result from responsibly and safely recycling this important resource.”
Biosolids are widely used in the United States and the US Environmental Protection Agency has endorsed land dispersal, but, illustrating the ambivalence, the EPA is currently seeking applications from researchers to study “potential risk from pollutants found in biosolids” and to develop standards and policies for biosolids management.
Complicating the research, the effect of biosolids spread on land varies with the type of soil, amount of water and concentration. Moreover, jurisdictions have a variety of standards and use different chemicals to treat the sludge.
Glenn Harris, CRD senior manager of environmental protection, said land application of biosolids occurs around the world and problems rarely occur. He noted that organizations that have endorsed spreading biosolids on land include the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the European Commission on the Environment. “Globally, they all say that land application is safe if it is done properly,” he said.
Stephens of the Mount Work Coalition, however, said, “There are lots of studies to indicate that there’s potential for airborne pollution and it has been shown to be dispersed for up to 25 kilometres,” and notes that the dump is less than a kilometre from Prospect Lake School and from Durrance Lake, a popular recreational area.
They also worry about agriculture in the vicinity. Said Stephens. “These residuals get into the soil and there’s all kinds of documented cases of crops grown with polluted soil and how it gets into the food chain.”
Stephens said residents also fear that pollutants, ranging from pharmaceuticals and heavy metals to microplastics and dioxins, will get into the water table in an area where most homes rely on well water.
Fears were exacerbated in October when a temporary pipe failed and 130,000 litres of sewage sludge leaked from the Residuals Treatment Facility at Hartland Landfill and escaped through a culvert into Mount Work Park.
“The CRD says it has a membrane down, so it can’t leak, but that membrane has already leaked several times with leachate coming out and once it gets into the water table it will get into the drainage and then into Tod Creek or Durrance Lake,” said Stephens.
As the CRD has not yet started producing biosolids, the exact makeup of the sludge is not known, but decades of monitoring wastewater quality gives a pretty good idea, Harris said.
Concentration of most contaminants will be at a negligible level and environmental regulators have concluded that trace concentrations of contaminants such as pharmaceuticals do not pose unacceptable risks, Harris said.
UBC engineering professor Dr Don Mavinic, considered one of BC’s top experts on sewage treatment, told Focus in 2016, “The fact is that there really isn’t any effective technology out there in the marketplace yet to deal with these other contaminants [such as pharmaceuticals, caffeine and endocrine disrupters, the latter found in many household and industrial products]. It’s coming, but it isn’t there. This is a very young science…the jury is still out.”
Opponents to the CRD plan also point to the Halifax Project study, conducted between 2012 and 2015, that linked cancers to low dose exposure to chemicals in the environment. “There is no such thing as a safe amount of exposure,” says a fact sheet compiled by one of the Coalition members.
The CRD’s Harris admitted that metals are not destroyed or degraded through any treatment process. “However,” he said, “given the low levels of metals in our wastewater, the quality of the biosolids produced at the Residual Treatment Facility will more than meet Class A standards.”
Harris said ferric chloride will be used as a coagulant for treating the sewage at the wastewater plant (and some will remain in the sludge) and there is no anticipated risk as the material occurs naturally in the Earth’s crust.
“We see the benefit of this. We know it is completely safe,” said Harris, emphasizing the practice is widely used around the world, including in BC and other regions of Canada.
Land application of biosolids is regulated by the provincial Organic Matter Recycling Regulation and a graph on the Environment Ministry website shows some countries, such as Finland and Sweden, using 100 percent of biosolids for land application.
Hartland already has dust suppression measures and anything blowing off site would have such minute concentrations of pharmaceuticals or pollutants that they would be almost undetectable, Harris said.
Groundwater traps collect leachate from the dump, which is then collected in ponds and piped back to the McLoughlin Treatment Plant, he said.
“We have a pretty extensive monitoring program to ensure nothing goes off site,” said Harris, who believes the opposition comes from a perception of risk versus true risk assessment and risk management.
THE MOUNT WORK COALITION has concerns beyond the land application of biosolids, including a proposal to switch trucks heading to the landfill from Hartland Avenue to Willis Point Road and the expansion of the garbage pit at Hartland, which would mean logging and blasting about 30 hectares within the landfill boundaries over the next 80 years.
The CRD announced on November 18 that it is developing a new solid waste management plan to reduce how much material is sent to Hartland Landfill and guide how the region’s waste is managed.
The Coalition says the proposed expansion plans would remove the last stands of old-growth Douglas fir on the Peninsula, though the CRD describes the area as primarily a young, second-growth Douglas fir forest.
“Tree removal will begin in approximately 2030 to prepare this space for future landfilling unless the region significantly reduces its waste per capita rate or new technology for waste management emerges,” Harris said. The tree-removal will be offset by reforestation of closed areas of the landfill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he said.
The Coalition wants the CRD to look for more innovative solutions. Incineration, gasification and waste reduction should be top of mind, instead of digging a bigger hole, Stephens said.
Finally, given the exponential growth of Langford and the Malahat area, the Coalition has urged that a landfill closer to Westshore be considered.
For more information, check these relevant websites: https://www.mountworkcoalition.org and https://www.crd.bc.ca/project/biosolids-beneficial-use-strategy .
People can view the draft plan of the CRD’s new solid waste management plan at crd.bc.ca/rethinkwaste and provide comment using an online form until January 15. There will be a live-streamed information session on the CRD’s YouTube channel on December 14.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith