Burnside Township sludge spray plan raises stink, spurs groundwater concerns

Rachel Guenot moved to Pine Glen, the Burnside Township community where her husband grew up, eight years ago for quiet, rural living.

She’s still in the countryside. But these days, her neck of the woods isn’t so peaceful.

Guenot is among the township residents opposed to a company’s plan to spread biosolids, a term for treated municipal sewage sludge, on former mining land about a mile from Pine Glen’s main water source.

WeCare Organics, based in Jordan, N.Y., proposes bringing Canadian biosolid material to the property, stabilizing it with lime and mixing it in soil to help neutralize acid runoff and promote the growth of vegetation for mine reclamation.

The state Department of Environmental Protection recently approved the plan despite the concerns of township supervisors and residents that the biosolids could contaminate Pine Glen’s water supply.

WeCare Organic’s proposed project, covering about 150 acres of private property, falls in Pine Glen’s source water protection zone, though it’s in the farthest of three zones from the water supply, the Big Sterling Spring pumphouse.

Pine Glen’s water system serves about 300 people, according to its administrator, the Mountaintop Regional Water Authority.

David Bisko, the permits chief for district mining operations in DEP’s Bureau of Mining and Reclamation’s Moshannon District Office, told township supervisors in a Feb. 28 letter that the agency concluded after review that the biosolid plan posed “no potential to impact groundwater or private/public water supplies.”

Guenot and other township residents aren’t convinced.

They’re leading a petition drive to persuade township supervisors to file an appeal with DEP, and maybe convince the agency to change its mind.

Guenot said the petition has collected 70 to 75 signatures so far. A mother of three young children, the oldest 5, she worries her family and others might find themselves without safe drinking water in the future.

“The bottom line, I’m not willing to risk that happening,” she said. “Because there are zones to protect our water, and I want our water protected. Some people say this won’t happen. But there’s no guarantee.”

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, township supervisors will meet at the Pine Glen Volunteer Fire Company station to discuss a possible appeal, which must be filed within 30 days of DEP’s Feb. 28 decision. Guenot said opponents plan to show up and voice their dismay.

Any township decision to appeal will prolong a controversy extending back to last fall.

In October, WeCare Organics submitted a request to the state to apply sewage sludge to land owned by Robert Confer, who lives elsewhere in Centre County.

The company’s plan reportedly includes using land belonging to a local resident, Grant Etters, as a right-of-way. Company officials could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

But in a Oct. 9 letter to landowners Shane and Michelle Barnyak, whose property abuts the Confer parcel, WeCare Organics project manager Robert Reese wrote that “biosolids, acting as fertilizer, will provide the necessary organic material and nutrients to create habitat enhancement to support the growth of lush open grasslands and wildlife habitat.”

“The land application of biosolids will be conducted in accordance with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s regulations, as well as part of a program for nutrient management and soil conservation,” Reese wrote.

“These controls include strict analytical testing and site restrictions. The biosolids will be processed on site.”

Concern quickly arose in the township.

Responding to residents’ anxiety, supervisors wrote a Nov. 4 letter to DEP’s Bureau of Mining and Reclamation asking for a delay in granting a permit to WeCare Organic and noting “many unanswered questions at this time.”

Supervisors requested “sufficient time to investigate the issue.”

“As supervisors we are responsible for the health and welfare of our residents,” the letter read. “It is imperative that this land application of biosolids is 100 (percent) safe.”

Supervisors asked for a meeting, which DEP declined at first, said Wanda Guenot, township secretary/treasurer and Rachel Guenot’s mother-in-law.

DEP then reversed course and met with township supervisors and Mountaintop Regional Water Authority officials on Jan. 10 and local residents on Feb. 7, Wanda Guenot said.

Also part of the local opposition, she’s anxious about Pine Glen’s water.

“Definitely, the majority of people (here) are opposed,” she said.

If something goes wrong, she fears, sewage sludge might pollute the nearby trout streams of Boake Run and Sterling Run, which converge near Big Sterling Spring. Local residents, she said, don’t trust DEP’s assurances.

“As concerned citizens, it’s hard for us to buy that,” she said. “Once your water supply is tainted, it’s a long time till you get it back, if ever.”

Potential odors from any sludge also bother people, Wanda Guenot said. Already, she said, several people have told her nobody will have picnics at the township park close to the Confer property.

“People move to Pine Glen to live because they want clean air and quiet,” she said. “They don’t want to smell ammonia from sewage sludge. We’re just trying to protect our little area.”

Biosolids, the byproduct of sewage treated to reduce or eliminate pathogens, have been controversial for years.

According to the National Biosolids Partnership — a program of the Water Environment Federation, a nonprofit organization of engineers, academics and industries related to wastewater management and water use — biosolids are “a safe, beneficial agricultural product.”

But one opponent, the Kutztown-based United Sludge-Free Alliance, called biosolids “a toxic stew” that contains traces of pharmaceuticals, chemicals, heavy metals and pathogens and pose a significant “health and safety issue.”

In Bell Township, Clearfield County, last month, residents complained about biosolids applied by WeCare Organics to two sections of state game land. They pointed to a “rank” odor in the woods and harvested deer that smelled when gutted.

Biosolids are categorized as Class A, rated pathogen-free, and the cheaper-to-produce Class B, almost free. Rachel Guenot said it’s her understanding that WeCare Organics will bring in Class B biosolids, though that could not be confirmed.

DEP’s David Bisko, in his letter to the township, downplayed the risk to Pine Glen’s water from biosolids.

“Water supply resources are far removed from the spreading areas and hydrogeologically isolated from any impact from biosolids that might be spread or stored in that vicinity,” he wrote.

“The rate at which Class A and Class B biosolids may be applied is well within safe limits and poses no threat to wildlife and human health. Historically, following the use of lime stabilized biosolids on mine lands, water monitoring of these projects has shown improvement of groundwater quality impacted by surface mining.”

DEP, Bisko noted, directed WeCare Organics “to routinely monitor water resources close to the spreading areas to watch for potential impacts.”

As for potential sulfur and ammonia odors, Bisko wrote they’re “not hazardous” and that “the prevailing wind direction is away from local residences in most cases and should not impact outdoor activities.”

WeCare Organics, he wrote, would be responsible for correcting any odor problems.

The Centre County Planning and Community Development office, after counseling the township and attending the Jan. 10 DEP meeting, recommended a conditional approval for the biosolids permit.

“We recognize the need for society to manage the biosolids that are created every day by our municipal waste water treatment plants and understand they can be managed through the proper application into soils,” Planning Director Bob Jacobs wrote.

“However we feel there are many other locations where biosolids can be properly applied that are NOT located within source water protection zones, especially in regions of the county with limited water resources available due to past mining activities.”

The office suggested, among other recommendations, that WeCare Organics provide the regional water authority with funding to monitor water quality on a quarterly basis for one year, as well as annually for four more years.

But Rachel Guenot said she doesn’t think DEP or anyone else can make sure WeCare Organics follows the rules. She doesn’t trust the company with her children’s health, and that’s why she’s continuing to fight.

“I’m just not willing to sit back and say this is OK,” she said. “Because it’s not.”