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County passes six-month moratorium on biosolids


It’s not certain if biosolids are the source of pollution at Blue Cypress Lake, but local governments are moving to block their use just in case while waiting for a slow-moving Florida Department of Environmental Protection to take action and give them direction.

The FDEP is the oversight agency that issues permits for the application of biosolids – treated human waste – on agriculture land.  The application of human waste to fields serves two purposes: It is a way for municipalities to dispose of the steady flow of biosolids coming out of their sewage treatment plants – 87,000 tons are produced annually in Florida – and farmers and ranchers, who are paid to absorb the material, use it as fertilizer.

Problems arise when the nutrients contained in the waste material – especially nitrogen – end up in rivers or lakes, where the chemicals can feed destructive algae blooms.

Several months after fears of pollution and toxic algae blooms at Blue Cypress Lake first emerged, the Indian River County Commission last month banned the hauling and application of “Class B” biosolids on unincorporated county land for the next six months. The ordinance also directs the County Administrator to coordinate with the FDEP to study the effects of biosolids application on water bodies and make recommendations in six months.

Fellsmere City Manager Jason Nunemaker said Fellsmere will likely pass the same moratorium ordinance this week, on Aug.  2. That would make the entire county biosolid-free, since no city in the county besides Fellsmere has farms that use biosolids.

In late July, The Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council passed a resolution calling on governments statewide to seek better ways to dispose of biosolids.

“We’ve put a lot of eggs in the eco-tourism basket,” Nunemaker said of his city’s expected action, “and we don’t want to be a loophole in this process while we’re trying to figure out what’s going on.”

Nunemaker added that he’s “optimistic” the FDEP will take timely and reasonable action – but others are not so sure.

County Commission Chairman Peter O’Bryan asked the FDEP six weeks ago what “marker” it would accept for ruling biosolids in or out. He noted scientific studies have used the artificial sweetener Sucralose and the pharmaceutical Acetaminophen as markers for septic system pollution. The FDEP has not answered his question, holding up county testing.

In the meantime, the county has sought to gain consensus for a biosolid ban. Utilities Director Vincent Burke and County Administrator Jason Brown met at the end of June with ranch owners, who agreed to the six-month moratorium.

During the public hearing on the moratorium ordinance last week, O’Bryan said only one party has objected to the ban. H&H Liquid Sludge Disposal, the company that applies biosolids at Pressley Ranch near Blue Cypress Lake, does not believe the waste material is polluting the lake.

“H&H respects Pressley Ranch’s willingness to participate in a voluntary 180-day moratorium and will stand beside them through the process,” Blake Hacht, one of the owners of H&H, said in the email, but it is “improbable that the land application of biosolids is affecting water quality in Blue Cypress Lake.”

Hacht asserted that FDEP inspections in 2018 “found no runoff of biosolids or algae growth near or in drainage ditches in and around application zones,” and said biosolids have “a low concentration of water-soluble nutrients that are available to leach/runoff, especially compared to commercial fertilizer.”