By CHRISTIN COYNE
PARKER COUNTY – A company using treated sewage product as an unconventional fertilizer has many near Springtown up in arms.
Area residents say they’ve been driven indoors and dealt with days or weeks of a foul odor sometimes carrying for miles with the wind. Some are concerned about the health and environmental effects of the stinky, dark sludge blanketing pastures and attracting large numbers of flies.
“Dumping of human waste” State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, called it in a statement released last week after his office received complaints.
But the company that applied the sludge – officially designated Class A biosolids – to approximately 200 acres of pastureland on Hutcheson Ranch near Springtown over the past couple weeks says there is a waiting list for the product.
At $20 an acre, farmers have found that it’s an environmentally friendly, cheaper and more long-term and effective way to fertilize their land, according to Ben Davis, manager of biosolids for Renda Environmental Inc.
The property manager leasing the land in Parker County had been on the waiting list for four years, according to Davis, who said Friday that Renda Environmental completed the project Thursday and left the property with no immediate plans to return.
Still, some area residents, unhappy to learn the process of putting treated sewage products on Parker County land is legal, are organizing to try to keep the stench away from their neighborhood for good.
What is it?
Renda Environmental has had a contract with the City of Fort Worth for about 20 years to handle the residuals management for water and wastewater treatment plants, according to Davis.
They handle the hauling, further processing, required testing and land application of the biosolids, or treated waste product, Davis said, adding that the City of Fort Worth has a permit allowing them to generate Class A biosolids.
Biosolids, or organic residual or treated and processed wastewater, must meet certain metal limits and certain pathogen and vector attraction reduction requirements to be considered Class A, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
No permit is needed to apply the Class A sludge, TCEQ reported. Instead, the state must be notified of the intent to use biosolids on the property.
It’s a slow-release fertilizer compared to other commercial fertilizers, feeding plants for several years and reconditioning the soil, Davis said.
“Its better for the environment. It’s doesn’t leach off,” Davis said, adding that the salts are bound up in organic matter, unlike most commercial fertilizers.
“Odors typically go away fairly quickly, usually within a couple days after application,” he said. Some are more sensitive to the smell than others, noting that the company’s employees work around it every day.
Though it was placed on top of pastures at Hutcheson Ranch, they recommend tilling the sludge into the soil to conserve nitrogen and help with the odor, according to Davis.
“It is a really great product,” Davis said. “There’s a lot of misperception about it and that’s understandable.”
Davis said he believes that calling it “human waste” is inaccurate because it is has been treated to eliminate bacteria and pathogens.
“It’s almost sterilized when we bring it out,” Davis said.
“It’s great for the environment,” Davis said. “It’s great for the soil. It really is a boost for the farmer.”
Though Renda Environmental has applied the sludge in Parker County during previous years, including last year south of Weatherford, it isn’t one of the primary areas they apply the treated sewage in North Texas.
They are more often in areas such as Johnson, Hill or Wise counties, according to Davis.
“We don’t go into Parker County very much,” Davis said, adding that it is difficult because of all the traffic lights.
Randy Williams, who lives on Arbor Trail, about a quarter mile away from the area being treated, said they noticed the smell the day after Memorial Day.
“It smelled like a hundred cattle died,” Williams said, adding that they couldn’t go out on the porch because of the strong, obnoxious odor.
The odor fluctuates with the wind, according to Williams.
Like others, Williams doesn’t believe the sludge is safe and is concerned about the runoff into Browder Creek, which cuts through the property.
“I can’t believe our government officials let something like this [occur],” Williams said, saying he wants the site remediated.
“This is a horrible thing,” Williams said. “Laws have to change.”
Parker County Commissioner George Conley has been working to stop the application after responding more than two weeks ago to a complaint from a down-wind friend, who lives north of U.S. Highway 199.
Following the smell about four miles south, Conley estimated, he found the source of the odor he described as smelling like a dead cow.
Conley said he called the county fire marshal and judge about the issue, only to find out the process is legal.
“I don’t like it,” Conley said. “I don’t think it’s safe.”
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reported receiving nine complaints from Parker County residents in recent weeks, while Conley said he received 50 to 100 complaints about the issue.
One TCEQ complainant stated that they couldn’t eat or go outside because of the unbearable stench, that the smell makes them feel sick and there were flies by the millions.
Another complainant stated they cancelled a planned outside event because of the smell.
A third complainant stated that the smell made them gag and compared it to the smell of a “dead body in a septic tank.”
“We take every precaution that we can to ensure that we’re not causing any odors or other problems,” Davis said, adding that they prefer the product to be tilled into the soil and try to be responsive to issues.
“It’s tough,” Davis said. “It’s naturally going to have some odor to it.”
Several complained of numerous flies that appeared to be attracted to the treated sewage. During a brief drive with open windows through a recently treated area, a Democrat reporter witnessed dozens of flies enter the vehicle within minutes.
Asked about the flies, Davis said that the product attracting flies was unlikely. He said quick lime is added to raise the pH level and deter the flies.
Conley noted vegetation in a field where the sludge was applied several days earlier appeared to have been “burned off” by the fertilizer, with small mesquite trees and other plants appearing wilted or killed.
However, Davis said he doubted the company’s product caused an issue like that.
“This isn’t material that’s considered hot,” Davis said.
“The DFW Region Office is conducting investigations based on receipt of nine complaints alleging nuisance odors from the land application of biosolids in an area of Parker County,” Andrea Morrow, spokeswoman for TCEQ stated. “The DFW staff made an initial onsite investigation on June 5, 2013. The primary focus of our investigation is odor. During an odor investigation, we assess the frequency, intensity, duration and offensiveness of an odor to determine if nuisance conditions exist. During the June 5th investigation, very light, intermittent earthy odors of biosolids were observed at the properties of two of the complainants. Our investigation will also include an evaluation of Renda’s operations to ensure all processing requirements are met.”
TCEQ also reportedly collected samples of the biosolids for testing.
The state agency received many similar complaints in Wise County last month, many in the Boyd area, records show.
“We did document odor nuisance conditions during our investigation in Wise County which resulted in a referral for formal enforcement action including an assessment of administrative penalties,” Morrow said of the Wise County investigation.
An individual landowner in Ellis County filed a petition with TCEQ last month to amend the sludge application regulations to prohibit land application of sludge in certain areas in or near cities.
The requested changes don’t appear to apply to counties such as Parker. The proposal targets counties with more than 140,000 people and adjacent to counties with populations of more than 2 million, such as Tarrant, Denton, Collin and Ellis counties.
The petition is expected to go before the TCEQ commission on Tuesday and a change could be considered in a process that includes stakeholder meetings, adoption and publication of a draft rule, and a public comment period.
“My office will continue to monitor this situation and stay engaged in the rule-making process as it moves forward,” King promised this week.
An outdoor town hall meeting to discuss the issue in Parker County has been scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday morning at the intersection of J.E. Woody Road and Hutcheson Hill Road. The Parker County Commissioner’s Court is expected to attend, according to an agenda published Friday and Conley said that TCEQ has also been invited to attend.