BioCycle Magazine

Biocycle Nationwide Survey: The State of Biosolids in America

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

 The State of Biosolids in America

TAKING the pulse of biosolids management practices in the United States yields a combination of hard data and valuable insights. Between survey responses and telephone conversations, state biosolids coordinators around the country paint an overall picture of progress with the beneficial use of biosolids, along with a dose of reality about political, economic and regulatory pressures that may hamper future advances. The year 2000 was certainly an interesting one in the annals of biosolids management, including a Congressional hearing, an Inspector General’s report on the U.S. EPA’s biosolids management program, a rash of negative coverage in the national media, a NIOSH report on worker exposure to biosolids followed by a decision by EPA to commission the National Academy of Science to perform a “definitive study” to evaluate the risks associated with biosolids and make recommendations to strengthen existing programs, and consolidation in the industry after the acquisition of BioGro by Synagro Technologies. Along the way, the National Biosolids Partnership forged ahead with its Environmental Management System (EMS) program, signing more wastewater treatment facilities up to test implementation of an EMS and defining strategies for verification and oversight of programs.

So how are biosolids faring amidst this hustle and bustle. In a nutshell, beneficial use programs are holding their own. BioCycle’s 2000 survey of state biosolids coordinators found that almost half of the states reporting recycled more than half of the biosolids generated. Eight states — Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Oregon and Wyoming — beneficially use over 90 percent (with Indiana hitting the 100 percent mark). Biosolids quality appears to be improving. The onslaught of bans and ordinances restricting beneficial use seems to be abating.

To conduct its annual survey, BioCycle sends a questionnaire to biosolids coordinators in all 50 states. In 2000, five states (Idaho, New Mexico, North and South Carolina and West Virginia) did not respond to the survey; Montana and Texas responded, noting they did not have the data available. BioCycle editors extend their appreciation to all states participating in this year’s survey.


State coordinators are asked to provide trend information as well as specific data on management practices. One of the questions asked every year is if states are seeing an increase overall in the beneficial use of biosolids (Table 1). In 2000, out of the 43 states responding, 20 states answered yes and 22 answered no (one didn’t know). Eight of the 22 states answering no said there hasn’t been a decrease, but instead no change from the previous year. Others cited specific reasons for the lack of growth, including Alaska (regulations and monitoring requirements are too complex for communities with small volume wastewater treatment plants and limited staff); California (county restrictions and bans); Connecticut (costs and environmental problems); Kansas (restrictive rules causing facilities to move toward landfill disposal); and New Hampshire (poor public acceptance is driving increased, costly regulations).

State coordinators also are asked if they are seeking delegation (authority) for EPA’s Part 503 biosolids management rules (Table 1). To date, of those states applying, only Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin have received delegation. Seven states are seeking delegation for the entire Part 503 rule, seven are applying for partial delegation (i.e. only for certain programs) and 25 are not applying at this time (seven did not respond).

Sixteen states have one or more counties and/or towns with restrictions, bans or ordinances on land application of biosolids (Table 1). California (16), New Hampshire (40) and Virginia (29) have the greatest number, and seem to be feeling the most negative impact on beneficial use programs. New Jersey notes that state law preempts any local bans or ordinances.


The BioCycle survey asked states a number of questions about pathogen reduction levels and biosolids quality — both in terms of tracking and improvements (Table 2). The question on pathogen reduction was phrased as follows: “Using the EPA Part 503 definitions for pathogen reduction, estimate the following (by percent): WWTPs with a Class A biosolids product and WWTPs with a Class B biosolids product.” Because the question did not specify WWTPs using beneficial use management practices (land application, composting, lime stabilization and heat drying/pelletization), some states based their percentages on all wastewater treatment plants. The footnotes in Table 2 provide clarifications where states provided them.

Based on those responses, the bulk of biosolids products are treated to Class B levels. Only three states — Delaware, Maine and New Hampshire — have a higher percentage of facilities with Class A products. Further exploration into these responses is necessary to draw any conclusions based on this data.

In terms of biosolids quality, states were asked if they had data specifically on biosolids quality using the Part 503, Table 3 pollutant concentration limits. Out of 43 states responding, 30 have data, nine do not, and four answered “n/a” (not applicable). States answering yes to that question then were asked if there has been a documented improvement in the quality of biosolids generated in the past five years. Fifteen said yes, ten said no, and five didn’t have enough data to respond. When asked what the improvement was attributed to, the majority answered industrial pretreatment programs.

Finally, the section of questions on biosolids quality ended with the following: “In your estimation, could WWTPs in your state meet more restrictive (than Part 503) pollutant limits given improved biosolids quality?” This question grew out of several conversations about how US pollutant limits for land application of biosolids are less restrictive than other countries, and if biosolids quality was improving in the US, could pollutant limits possibly be lower. Fifteen states either didn’t know or didn’t respond. Of the other 35, 25 answered yes, six answered no and four said probably.


To get a specific sense of how biosolids are managed in the US, BioCycle asks states for data in two ways — facility by facility (Table 3) and percent of total biosolids managed (Table 4). Management practices are divided into land application, composting, lime stabilization, heat drying/pelletization, landfilling, incineration, surface disposal, lagoon storage and other (e.g. out-of-state disposal/recycling, oxidation/stabilization ponds). States also provide the total number of treatment facilities (Table 3) and total amount of biosolids generated (Table 4, in dry tons/year).

Changes in management practices between the 1999 and 2000 biosolids surveys were calculated for land application, composting, landfilling and incineration. By number of facilities, the data are as follows: Land application — ten states with increase, nine with a decrease and 27 report no change; Composting — six with and increase, seven with a decrease and 31 with no change; Landfilling — 12 with an increase, seven with a decrease and 24 with no change; Incineration — five with an increase, three with a decrease and 33 with no change.

By percent of biosolids generated, the breakout is as follows: Land application — five with an increase, 12 with a decrease and 26 with no change; Composting — eight with an increase, nine with a decrease and 23 with no change; Landfilling — eight with an increase, 13 with a decrease and 22 with no change; Incineration — eight with an increase, six with a decrease and 28 with no change.

For 2000, the data in Table 4 shows that the majority of biosolids are managed via beneficial use practices. Twenty-one states report that 50 percent or more of the biosolids generated are beneficially used. By comparison, only four states have landfilling rates over 50 percent, and five have incineration rates over 50 percent. Every state providing data for this table (40) manages some percentage of biosolids via beneficial use practices. Conversely, there is no landfilling of biosolids in five out of 40 states, and no incineration in 17 out of 40 states.


As one of the closing questions, biosolids coordinators were asked to list the top three pressures on biosolids recycling programs in their state. All but a handful of the states completing the survey answered this question. Hands down, odors are the number one pressure on biosolids recycling programs in the United States (Ohio voted for it twice!). Only a few coordinators specified what the odors were related to (composting, Class B biosolids, storage). Concern about pathogens was cited as the number two pressure (with one state mentioning the pressure to produce Class A biosolids). Suburban sprawl — both in terms of encroaching neighbors and decreasing availability of sites for land application — took third place on the list of pressures.

Several states mentioned negative media coverage, and one specifically mentioned the fact that local opposition groups have been bolstered by the negative media attention. Six states noted that costs are a pressure on beneficial use programs, with one citing the lower cost of landfilling. Concern with groundwater contamination was cited by five states. General public acceptance challenges were listed, as were negative public perception (one state mentioned the yuck factor).

Others mentioned were: Insufficient staff and training for program oversight; Stringent state regulations for siting, monitoring and reporting; Lack of political support at the state and local level; Metals levels in biosolids; Insufficient public education; Restrictions stopping mine reclamation programs; and More demand than supply for biosolids.

Taken in their entirety, these pressures cited by state biosolids coordinators are also felt by program managers at the local level. Fortunately, many are being addressed through odor and pathogen reduction research projects, field storage guidance, EMS initiatives and improved land use planning. One of the advantages that biosolids managers have in 2000 versus five to ten years ago is a much better organized communication network to share information, innovations and progressive policies. Another advantage is the increasing availability of data on management programs. What is needed next is a commitment of staff and budget resources to take advantage of these advantages!

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