Benner Township resident files suit in biosolids battle

A sign along Pine Glen Road in 2014 protests the spreading of biosolids in Burnside Township. People in Benner Township are now having a similar concerns about biosolids being spread on Spicer Family Farms.
A sign along Pine Glen Road in 2014 protests the spreading of biosolids in Burnside Township. People in Benner Township are now having a similar concerns about biosolids being spread on Spicer Family Farms. Centre Daily Times, file

A Benner Township resident has filed a civil lawsuit against Spicer Family Farms in an effort to cease the proposed spreading of biosolids on the farmland.

Renee Swancer is fighting Bellefonte’s decision to apply the Class B biosolids, a term for treated municipal sewage sludge.

Bellefonte’s wastewater treatment plant applied for and was granted permission to add Spicer Family Farms as a location to spread its biosolids.

The Bellefonte authority would supply biosolids to the farm, which contracted the borough for the waste. The borough received approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection on Feb. 29.

Swancer, whose property is located adjacent to Spicer Family Farms, said she aims to prevent this with her lawsuit.

She and other residents were upset that there was little public notification of the intent to spread biosolids. Owners of adjoining property were notified, but Swancer said the issue “flew under the radar” of most Benner Township residents.

Citizens took their concerns to Benner Township supervisors on March 7. The supervisors, however, don’t have the authority to prevent it.

Chairman David Wise said supervisors would pass the residents’ comments on to the Bellefonte Borough Authority and DEP.

After a failed appeal period, Swancer said she felt the need for legal action.

The lawsuit contends that the application of biosolids on Spicer Family Farms will result in contamination of public and private water supplies, including supplies to Benner Township Water Authority.

The lawsuit also contends that neither Bellefonte nor Spicer Family Farms properly determined how the application of biosolids will affect public water supplies, given that the borough identified the practice as a possible source of contamination in its source water report.

Borough leaders maintain that they have followed all DEP regulations and have been using biosolids safely for 25 years without issue.

Doug Saylor, a forester who has experience in the application of biosolids, said the process does not pose a threat of contamination.

Saylor has about 30 years of experience as a former DEP employee and as a consultant.

“My recommendation to the township and some of the locals was that since biosolids is a regulated activity unlike manure, that the responsible action for the DEP in light of the drinking water supplies would be to monitor the water prior to application and during application,” Saylor said.

However, DEP does not require the borough to analyze risks that go beyond the scope of DEP regulations, according to the lawsuit. Swancer said she is concerned that because not all conditions were evaluated, the biosolids application could have a higher risk of contaminating water supplies.

“Benner Township is prone to sinkholes and has an interesting geology,” Swancer said. “It depends on a lot of factors that they may not have tested for.”

In the absence of the extra testing, the township has performed its own evaluations on source water.

In 2015, the Benner Township Water Authority received a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop a source water protection plan for its municipal water supply.

Swancer said the township is trying to adopt this plan to protect the public wells that serve the community, particularly Grove Park and Hampton Hills. Grove Park is located about a half-mile from Spicer Family Farms.

Concerned constituents have prompted several legislators and local authorities to get involved as well.

State Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven, wrote to DEP on April 1 requesting a delay in the biosolids project until Benner Township could complete its source water protection plan and offer a recommendation. Burnside Township faced a similar issue of unrest in 2014 when biosolids were approved for a former mining site near Pine Glen.

“It is my understanding that the Spicer Farm is geographically situated above the Grove Park public water well,” Hanna wrote. “This well is a source of water, including drinking water, for many township households, causing a huge concern of contamination.”

Kenneth Spicer, of Spicer Family Farms, did not comment on the lawsuit but said he had no knowledge of biosolids being a possible contaminant.

“They’ve been spread all over the country, and there hasn’t been a problem,” Spicer said.

Bellefonte borough Manager Ralph Stewart declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Cate Hansberry: 814-235-3933, @catehans216

What are biosolids?

▪ Biosolids are the nutrient-rich organic materials from the treatment of sewage sludge. Biosolids can be applied to agricultural fields as fertilizer to improve soils and stimulate plant growth.

▪ Biosolids must meet specific criteria before land application.

▪ The application of biosolids is regulated by the state to ensure the material is treated properly and safely applied.

Source: Water Protection Plan, Bellefonte Borough Water Authority/Milesburg Borough Water Authority