Florida Water Resources Journal - June 2021

Page 52

The State of Biosolids Regulations in the U.S. and Florida: Can You Have Your Cake and Dispose of It Too? Nicole Cohen and Jody Barksdale Our understanding and handling (i.e., treatment and disposal) of biosolids are constantly evolving, as are the regulations that seek to safeguard public health and environmental well-being against potential risks posed by the nutrient content and other constituents found in biosolids. This article offers an in-depth review and explanation of recent biosolids developments by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as recent and upcoming biosolids laws and regulations specific to the state of Florida.

Environmental Protection Agency Biosolids Developments As defined by EPA, biosolids are “nutrientrich organic materials resulting from the treatment of domestic sewage in a treatment facility. . .that can be recycled and applied as fertilizer to improve and maintain productive soils and stimulate plant growth.” Amendments to EPA’s 1987 Clean Water Act (CWA) set the precedent for biosolids regulations, which were subsequently formalized and adopted in 1993 by the 40 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 503 (503 Rule), Standards for the Use or Disposal of Sewage Sludge.

Last updated in 2015, the 503 Rule federally regulates biosolids disposal and land application by establishing standards for general treatment, handling, and disposal requirements; pollutant limits; management practices; and operational standards. The regulation also sets forth requirements to reduce pathogen and vector attraction in biosolids that are land-applied or placed on a surface disposal site. Although Florida is not delegated under the 503 Rule, any regulatory changes at the federal level must also be met to be in compliance with the 503 Rule. In June 2017, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) reviewed the effectiveness of the 503 Rule, which falls under the domain of EPA’s Office of Water (OW), in protecting human health and the environment, given the nation’s current biosolids treatment and disposal activities. Published on Nov. 15, 2018, the OIG’s report, “EPA Unable to Assess the Impact of Hundreds of Unregulated Pollutants in LandApplied Biosolids on Human Health and the Environment,” contained 13 recommendations to improve and further enforce the OW’s rules. The OW and the OIG resolved many of the report’s recommendations; however, five remained outstanding for some time, primarily because, as the OIG noted, “the EPA’s controls

Table 1. Office of Inspector General Recommendations and Target Completion Dates

over the land application of sewage sludge (biosolids) were incomplete or had weaknesses and may not fully protect human health and the environment,” and “[EPA] lacked the data or risk assessment tools needed to make a determination on the safety of 352 pollutants found in biosolids.” As such, the report ultimately recommended that the OW declare the following: S E PA cannot determine the safety of biosolids. S Current statements on EPA’s website that imply a level of safety must be revised until this determination can be made. On May 30, 2019, the OW sent a memorandum to the OIG with revisions and final resolutions for the remaining recommendations, which the OW accepted, but nevertheless made a point to indicate that the OIG’s report is “biased and raises alarm due to the use of narrowly selected studies and examples, and information that is taken out of context or that is not relevant.” On July 25, 2019, the OIG sent a second memorandum to the OW confirming that all recommendations were now resolved and that the resulting corrective actions would be tracked. The latest completion date for the recommendations is Dec. 31, 2022. Table 1 briefly describes all 13 of the OIG’s recommendations, along with their estimated completion dates. Following the publication of the OIG report, many organizations voiced their support for the OW’s biosolids program. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies issued a statement on Aug. 14, 2019, announcing that it was “pleased to see the Office of Water’s strong response letter defending the program.” Subsequently, the Water Environment Federation (WEF) organized a national biosolids meeting in November 2019 to bring a variety of stakeholders together to discuss biosolids and urge EPA to reinvest in its biosolids program, while increasing regulatory oversight and compliance activities with respect to the Part 503 rule. Finally, on July 23, 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture Research Committee W4170 rebutted the OIG’s stance regarding EPA’s data and risk assessment tools, stating that, “Overall, sufficient data and research are available to conclude biosolids regulations are protective of human health and the environment.” Continued on page 54

52 June 2021 • Florida Water Resources Journal


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