VALDOSTA -- Georgia's Environmental Protection Division will audit the City of Valdosta's biosolids disposal program after treated sewage waste was spread on an unapproved site in Lowndes County.
Over the course of three days, Oct. 18-20, the city acknowledged that more than 60 truckloads of sewage sludge were deposited at a 147-acre farm located off Thompson Road in the county, creating what residents of a nearby subdivision said was an unbearable smell.
"We couldn't even sit out on our sun porch, the smell was so bad," said nearby resident Pat Pittman. "There's a field of horses near us, and one of our neighbors wondered if a dead horse was over there."
The 10-year old biosolids waste program allows the city to dispose of treated sewage by spreading it on farm fields approved by the EPD twice each year. The sludge is plowed into the ground immediately and there are regulations the farmer has to follow concerning the crops which can be planted over the next several years.
The city has seven sites in Lowndes County that are approved by the EPD, but the farm on Thompson Road was not one of them. The city had received an application from landowner Clay Moseley requesting to be a part of the program, but the approval process was not complete.
The Environmental Protection Division learned about the issue after nearby residents in the Oak Ridge subdivision off Highway 41 N. complained, prompting a meeting between EPD officials, City Manager Larry Hanson and Leon Weeks, the director of the Department of Utility Services on Tuesday, Oct. 26 in Atlanta.
EPD officials requested a 30-day audit of Valdosta's sludge management program to inspect approved sites as well as its solids handling treatment components. Any penalties or fines the city may face won't be determined until the completion of the audit.
"We're in a fact-finding mode right now," said Jeff Larson, manager of the permitting, compliance and enforcement program for EPD's water protection branch. "In essence, we will be going out and looking to ensure no conflicts occur in the future."
Due to excessive rain received during recent hurricanes which caused road damage in the county, Mayor John Fretti said the city was forced into an emergency situation when a scheduled land site became inaccessible.
Fretti said the biosolids were redirected by an employee in the utilities department to the 147-acre farm because the landowner previously requested to be added to the biosolids disposal program, although final approval was not yet obtained. No one in a management position with the city was notified, including Weeks and Hanson.
"That was a personnel matter that we'll have to resolve," Fretti said.
Starting Oct. 18, about 72 tons were deposited over 20 acres in 33 truck loads at the site, and on the second field, 35 truckloads were applied. Following complaints from nearby homeowners, 35 dry tons that had not yet been plowed into the ground were removed on Oct. 21.
Homeowners Shelba and Wiley Stephens said residents of the Oak Ridge subdivision weren't notified about the process, and that Weeks twice denied that the city was depositing anything on the site, even though one of the truck drivers told Stephens he was a contractor hired by the city.
"We didn't know what was in those trucks and that's what we were trying to find out. We wouldn't have pursued this if the city had been truthful to us in the first place," said Mr. Stephens.
Only after an inspector from Lowndes County visited the site on Oct. 20 at the Stephens' request and saw a truck with a City of Valdosta emblem on it did Weeks call the Stephens back and acknowledge it was sludge from the treatment plants.
Weeks told the Times that, based on the first phone calls he received, which asked if the city was pumping something into a creek, he denied the city's involvement. Only after investigating the phone calls did he discover that one of his employees had made the decision to redirect the trucks to the Thompson Road site without prior approval.
Weeks and Fretti said this situation will not be repeated as new procedures were immediately implemented to ensure that all proper notifications are made prior to the disposal of the biosolids every six months.
Fretti said the disposal program has saved the city about $1 million over the past 10 years. Due to homeowners' complaints about the stench, Fretti said the Thompson Road site will not be pursued as a future site for this program.
"This farmer's going to lose $40 an acre to buy fertilizer. We guarantee people it doesn't affect them negatively," Fretti said. "This is a natural occurring biosolid, there's no chemicals in it."
However, Larson said it's important that land is approved before biosolids are deposited to be sure the location is appropriate. Nearby residents said they were concerned since everyone in their subdivision relies on wells for their water.
"It's critical from a standpoint of proper soils and groundwater levels. All of those things make up evaluations of a site for sludge disposal," Larson said.
Although approval was not yet complete, Weeks and Fretti said the land application was consistent with regulations regarding distances from public and private wells.
On Friday, Fretti met with the Stephenses to address their concerns and agreed to send a letter of apology to homeowners in their subdivision and conduct a random inspection of the wells.
Managing Editor Kay Harris contributed to this story.