Local News Article Leads to E. coli Media Hype

On December 23rd, 2011, Channel 69 News WFMZ in Allentown, PA released an article entitled, “Residents Blame Local Farm for E. coli in Water.”  The author was Kimberly Davidow.  The article described a situation where the neighbor of a farm, that uses only Exceptional Quality (EQ) Biosolids as fertilizer, found E.coli in his well water and blamed the “human feces” that were spread on the field behind his house.


At first, the neighbor, Bill Schaffhouser, complained about the odors, but then found out that the fertilizer material was derived from “human feces.”  Mr. Schaffhouser, who lives in a new development on Broadtail Court, Lynn Township in Lehigh County, complained that, “the streets get littered with this and our kids walk through it.”


Following the Lynn Township Supervisors meeting on December 27, 2012, additional articles were published and television broadcasts aired. This time Channel 10 News also broadcast the story on the national news.  The newscast was viewable on the internet for several days after the original broadcast.  Many people commented online both for and against the use of “human feces” as fertilizer.


It is important to be aware of this situation so that if someone were to ask about the well contamination in Lynn Township (misidentified in some news broadcasts as the municipality of New Tripoli), a fact based answer can be readily available.


The Exceptional Quality biosolids was Granulite, a heat dried biosolids product manufactured at a Synagro-operated facility in Maryland.  Granulite is permitted as an EQ product for land application in Pennsylvania by the PADEP.  The material was delivered to the farmer who is responsible for land applying it at agricultural rates.  


After the neighbor’s complaints, the PADEP Northeast Regional Office Biosolids Coordinator, Tim Craven, inspected the site on January 3rd, 2012.  He found that the farm was in compliance and that Synagro had all the records and monitoring required in the permit and the sampling plan.


Local experts at Drexel University, Dr. Patrick Gurian and Dr. Charles Haas (1) asked if the well was structurally sound.  If the cap or well liner were breached then this would allow surface contamination to enter, whether or not the biosolids are the source of contamination. The remedy in this case would be to repair the well.  This possibility could be assessed by inspecting the well and analyzing the water for chloride, ammonia, total organic carbon and turbidity, which would be indicative of surface water influence on the well water quality. Testing neighbors’ wells for contamination could help assess whether this is a single well problem or a neighborhood wide problem. 


The following is a comment which Garvey Resources, Inc. posted on the Channel 10 News website as a comment on this article.  There is much more technical information which could be provided, however a comment that is too long or full of technical jargon will not influence the audience that needs the information most.


“This article is not based on fact but appears to purposely ignite an emotional response based on a lack of information.  Treated sewage sludge (biosolids) has been processed, tested, and beneficially used in agriculture in Pennsylvania for over 30 years, and in other areas of the country since the 1920’s in the form of a pelletized fertilizer trade named Milorganite.  The regulation and management of biosolids is designed to protect groundwater quality, soils, crops, human health, wildlife, and the environment.  Municipal wastewater containing ‘human feces’ is transformed through the wastewater treatment process.  It is decomposed by naturally occurring bacteria and the resulting solids are further treated to destroy E. coli through heat drying.  This product is then called Exceptional Quality biosolids.  


E. coli is a large group of bacteria, only some of which are disease-causing for humans.  In fact, pathogenic E. coli mostly live in the intestines of livestock (source:http://www.ecolilitigation.com/).  Products like Granulite undergo heat treatment which destroys pathogens, including E. coli.  We rely on heat to pasteurize our milk, to cook our food to make it safe to eat, and now we are relying on heat to destroy pathogens in the biosolids that are used as fertilizer.  This heat dried material is then methodically tested for pathogen indicator organisms to assure its safe use as a fertilizer.  


We feel badly for the families whose wells are contaminated but would urge neighbors and the press not to jump to conclusions and condemn biosolids outright.  They have proven to be a safe, economical, and environmentally-friendly means of recycling a natural product that would otherwise be sent to a landfill.”


(1) Drs. Patrick Gurian and Charles Haas have done research for the Water Environment Research Foundation on pathogenic organisms in biosolids and risk assessment of land application of treated sewage sludge.


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