Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Bio- Solids Rubicon, Part 3: Two Words - One Purpose

Black Diamond Mine, Indiana County, PA
Photo: U.S. National Archives 
1. The Second Word – Preemption

Our legislators, the regulators, and most importantly the profit-makers couldn't trust that a risk management decision of spreading bio-solids in rural communities would actually be successful on its own merits.  The quality of bio-solids might create a fuss, communities might refuse to allow it inside their municipal borders.   It wouldn't be enough to convince a community that this is a good solution to a long-standing problem of where and how to dispose of sludge. Choice had to be removed from the equation- and for good reason too.

To correct this potential problem, two words became instrumental to the success of the industry.  The two words are regulation and preemption.   The first was to regulate the sludge through the application of numbers – setting new standards for sludge based upon already established standards for contaminates in soil, setting standards for land application based upon geology, isolation distances, soil morphology, and the amount of contaminates in the solid waste- which was broken down into two groups of bio-solids to be applied: Type A and Type B.

The second word was taken from another law.  Pennsylvania’s industrial history is primarily based upon  coal mining.  When coal mining was the power industry that built our State, the last thing the industry would allow and the state legislators would permit was a local town, borough, or county interfering with coal mining.  Entire communities relied upon those dangerous mining jobs.  Written into the mining act of Pennsylvania was a special section called the Preemption Clause.

Preemption was simple. No community of any size or persuasion could write a law that conflicted with Federal and State law and those regulations written pursuant to that law.  Mining was off-limits to Nimby-Warriors.  That worked for several years and still is very effective.  By the 1980’s coal mining was  in full decline in Pennsylvania but strip mining for sand and stone was a growing industry and the exemption clause protected all types of mining.   Central Pennsylvania has never fully recovered from the decline.

In North Pennsylvania  the process of fracking, the process of fracturing shale to get natural gas is helping their depressed economy. Here is another temporary extractive industry bringing jobs and opportunity to a region starved for a real economy.  And this too shall pass once all the gas is gone.

Preemption protects the State from the occasional uprising of small communities who decide that their local needs are more important than the needs of the greater whole.  It is a minority opinion- the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many that small protest groups sometimes embrace.  Preemption is a stark reminder to local populations that their personal needs, while valid in thought and often in practice, are not paramount over the greater social good.

Local governments do not have the resources, technical or financial, to hire the professionals needed to create sound, scientific regulations that will best protect them.  Besides, even if a local government had retired EPA scientists living in their community who could write and even enforce tough regulations, what about the farm owner just across the Township line.

“Oh my, lookie what Farmer Brown is spreading and there ain’t no fancy-pants EPA guy living in our Township to regulate that mess. Oh my oh my, he just dumped a pile of radioactive turds right on his property line, right on the Township line, and right about 40 feet from our well.  Quick get the phone Sally, we gotta call our State legislator and demand they do something about this so it never, ever happens again."   Kind of reminds me of a song from Pink Floyd..Us and Them.

2. The First Word: Regulation

It is Martin Luther King Jr. day and I am sitting in an ethics class. My fellow students  are members of the Pennsylvania Septage Management Association.  Here are the men and women who pump out septic tanks in rural Pennsylvania and they are learning about ethical conduct. I find that to be very encouraging.  I've seen more than my fair share of homeowners drop a sump pump into their own septic tank and pump it into the woods next to their house.

Any other day these mostly young people are locating your septic tank lid, dragging a large suction hose across your yard, dropping it in that tank and sucking out your biological solids.  Then they drive away into the sunset, leaving behind a black odorous stripe of sludge in your yard from the suction hose that is now hanging on the side of their truck.   Except for that stinky stripe,  the sludge just goes away forever.

No it doesn’t.  It has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is usually in a farmer’s field, regulated by a State environmental agency.  Local contractors sometimes ask me, Do we really need all these regulators?  Why can't they just leave us alone?  The answer is simple- to protect us from ourselves, to protect us from greedy people who would dump pollution in our streams and rivers for a profit.

We need regulations to protect us from bandits who do not give a damn about who suffers , who gets cancer, or who passes along damaged genes to future generations..  We need regulations to solve environmental problems we create by living the life we all want to live- full of gadgets, computers, food networks, wedding  receptions, and fine restaurants.  Regulations are necessary  to keep at bay the hustlers, thieves, and pirates who would do us harm were the words of regulators not in their proper place.

 Regulations level the playing field.  Everyone plays by the same set of rules.  And in the case of bio-solids/sludge the regulations are written to solve a problem of disposal by using science- let me repeat that word because this is where we lose some of the Nimby-Warriors:  bio-solids regulations are written to solve the problem of disposal through the application of a SCIENTIFIC method to handle the metals, toxins, and other nasty viruses that may or may not be travelling inside the sludge.

We send our children to school to learn to be environmental engineers, specialists, botanists, soil scientists, and many other disciplines. Where are we expecting them to work?   Only a few people can make a living fighting for the environment by hugging trees, riding Greenpeace ships,  and  showing up at the local fire hall as an expert witness.  The bulk of the work for our professionals in the environmental field is within the regulatory process of allowing certain industrial processes. We can not allow these practices without regulations.  Remember Lake Erie of the 1960’s?

Bio-solids comes from human beings.  There are toxins in bio-solids because, in part, people will dump anything down their toilet and flush it away.   People do it in the city and people do it in the country.  Latex paint gets flushed down.  The only difference is there are more people in the city, so the concentrations are higher.    Yet the sludge from a septic tank is essentially the same as the sludge from a city treatment plant.  It is the waste product of human beings.   We generate it every single day.

You want an ultimate solution to determining where to dispose of bio-solids- stop flushing your toilet.  Please don’t flush your toilet.  Otherwise, learn the regulations and if you choose to fight them,  fight with a alternative solution using the sound application of a scientific method.  Oh, that's right, your community doesn't have the people to doit for you.   Not in my backyard is simply not intelligent enough an argument to withstand the battle of a long and unending war with the educated effort to find a scientific answer to an age-old problem- what do we do with the 1/4 ton of our own yearly crap we don’t want in our backyard.

Next in Our 5-Part Series:

The High Price of Peace in Small Town Politics

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