DEP geologist answers biosolids issues at Bellefonte council meeting

Residents in Benner Township and Bellefonte have raised concerns in recent weeks about the borough’s practice of applying biosolids to farmland.

To allay fears and provide insight about water contamination, Bellefonte Borough Council brought in an expert on Monday to attest to the safety of spreading the treated municipal sewage sludge.

Mark Stephens, a geologist with the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the biosolids application program is designed to enrich soil and provide ways to recycle waste material.

“Waste goes through several different checks and samplings,” he said. “... It’s supplied in agronomic rates — it’s efficient for plants that take nutrients in. It’s much more regulated than agriculture.”

However, Stephens said that while biosolids application is heavily regulated, DEP does not require its reviewers to check that a source water protection plan exists for each location they visit. In this way, a biosolids application may be approved without considering the area’s protection plan.

This is a contentious point as Bellefonte-Milesburg’s own source water protection plan lists biosolids application as among the highest ranked sources of water contamination in the area where the biosolids are spread.

Residents have questioned Bellefonte on this discrepancy in past weeks.

On April 28, Benner Township Water Authority Chairman Thomas Eby wrote a letter to Bellefonte Borough Authority Chairman Joe Beigle stressing this exact point.

“We understand the practice of spreading this material is beneficial to agriculture areas and is a cost savings to your water customers,” Eby wrote. “However, when in doing so you clearly and willingly violate your own water source protection area, it causes our customers to question your willingness to ignore your own self-prescribed public safety measures.”

Residents seemed surprised that DEP did not consider the source water protection plan before issuing the biosolids application permit.

Jim Burtoft, a resident of Grove Park, asked the Borough Council not to rely on the DEP’s issuing of the biosolids permits to imply it is safe, as the source water protection plans are not considered by DEP policy.

“You can take into consideration what DEP may have not,” he said.

Stephens also said the biosolids regulations were developed “quite a while ago,” leaving residents questioning whether they need to be updated.

Residents have also voiced concerns about maintenance and regulation at existing biosolids application locations.

Burtroft said DEP has “zero oversight” of the biosolids sites once the permit is approved.

Stephens insisted biosolids sites don’t “go unmanned,” although he said Bellefonte Authority is responsible for maintaining and testing the sites and DEP takes a back seat.

“Every activity has a risk. The trick is to make sure we live with that risk,” he said. “Part of my job is to teach water systems about hydrogeology and risk management. The trick is to manage our land with the best possible intention.”

Greg Jeffries, of Bellefonte, said the borough cannot rely on DEP oversight alone to control possible biosolids contamination.

“The programs are getting better, but it’s not there yet,” Jeffries said. “The oversight isn’t there yet. They’re not watching.”

A group of Benner Township and Bellefonte residents released a statement after the meeting thanking Stephens and the council for answering some of their questions and hearing their concerns.

“DEP’s attendance at tonight’s meeting was crucial in bringing awareness to the Bellefonte Borough Council and validating the concerns of area residents,” the release said. “We were just as surprised as we think the council was to learn that there is no policy for source water protection plans to be taken into consideration when evaluating biosolids application sites.

“We will continue to urge the Bellefonte Borough Council to reconsider these applications in the interest of protecting our water and our food supply.”

The Benner Township Water Authority meets at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Benner Township Building.

Cate Hansberry: 814-235-3933, @catehans216