About five years ago, just after Elvis Licul and his wife moved into their farmhouse northwest of Longmont, they detected the odor. It was coming from a field across the road to the west, where a farmer was using biosolids, or treated human sewage, to fertilize his land for growing hay.
Turns out, the stuff is free, provided to farmers by municipal wastewater facilities that are happy to “recycle” the highly diluted liquid (no more than 5 percent is sewer solids). After all, reusing it for growing crops is preferable to letting it pour into rivers, which is no longer allowed because of the possible health threats that its nitrogen, metals and other ingredients can cause.
But it can stink. “They were spreading for three weeks, and I was just beside myself,” Licul recalls. “I didn’t know what to do. … We were desperate at the time, the smell was so horrible.”
He complained to the state department that regulates the use of biosolids, but to no avail. Licul explored environmental angles, such as claiming that the treated sewage was a threat to the endangered Preble’s mouse.
Then, in September 2008, the farmer next door began spreading biosolids on fields directly to the north. Licul says he called his real estate agent and began looking for another place to live.
But his environmental research gained a toehold when he discovered a state regulation that prohibits the spread of biosolids on land where groundwater isn’t at least five feet below the surface.
Working with state and county officials, he successfully demonstrated that there were areas on the adjacent properties where the water table was higher than five feet, and the use of biosolids on those parts was suspended. On the farm to the west of Licul, biosolids use is suspended on 60 acres. In the case of the 80-acre property to the north, the state ruled out using the treated sewage entirely.
Since then, portions of at least a half-dozen other properties have been slapped with similar restrictions due to high groundwater levels.
Today, it no longer smells at Licul’s farmhouse. But he’s not done. Licul is still pushing for stronger enforcement of the five-foot rule, and this week county officials agreed to further tighten its regulations on the use of biosolids on county property, at his behest.
The biosolids debate
Licul is passionate about his cause, but he asserts that he is not an environmental activist.
“I didn’t start this because I’m an environmentalist,” he says. “I started this because it smelled.”
The New York native appreciates the open spaces of Boulder County, and simply wants the rules enforced, on principle. “I just want the regulations followed,” he says. “They are there for a reason.”
He doesn’t think having just one person at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to oversee the use of biosolids is enough to guarantee that the five-foot rule is being enforced.
“If a guy like me can bring out 1,000 acres in Boulder County, how many more acres are there in Boulder County?” Licul asks. “In Weld County? I don’t know. I just want them to test.”
The person in charge of the state’s biosolids use, environmental protection specialist Kenan Diker, acknowledges that Licul’s efforts over the past five years have prompted closer scrutiny of water-table measurements in that area of Boulder County.
“I would say it helped; we appreciate his concern,” he says, adding that it was Licul who began tracking groundwater depths using county septic-system records, which has become a valuable tool in the regulation effort.
Boulder County even has a website where the public can track those septic records: www.septicsmart.org. The website features the phrase, “Does fecal matter? Yes. You bet it matters.”
Diker extols the virtues of biosolids. Its nitrogen provides nutrients to plants, and its organic matter conditions the soil, helping it retain water better.
In addition, Diker says, Colorado’s five-foot rule is more stringent than the three-foot regulation suggested by the Environmental Protection Agency. “Tennessee is two feet; ours is five,” he says, calling biosolids “highly regulated and beneficial.”
At the same time, Diker acknowledges that there have been reports of health problems in areas where biosolids have been used, including cases of infants getting “blue baby syndrome” due to ingesting excessive nitrates in drinking water. The U.S. Geological Survey reported that biosolids can contain high levels of the household chemicals and drugs that are commonly flushed down the drain. Some cities and towns have banned the use of biosolids outright, due to the health concerns.
However, after reviewing the concerns about biosolids, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “the use of these materials in the production of crops for human consumption, when practiced in accordance with existing federal guidelines and regulations, presents negligible risk to the consumer, to crop production and to the environment.”
Diker says commercial fertilizer, which farmers are forced to buy when they can’t use biosolids, contains much more nitrogen than the treated sewer sludge, and there are no regulations on how much nitrogen is allowed in commercial fertilizer. He doesn’t think biosolids pose much of a danger to groundwater.
“Animals are going to pee and poop, and many tend to live in mud,” Diker says. “There’s probably more nitrogen coming from them than from biosolids.”
But Licul wants tighter controls.
“This is completely self-regulated,” he explains. “If Kenan doesn’t inspect, no one inspects.”
Licul takes a reporter on a driving tour of farmlands in the area, pointing out fields that have been used to grow sunflowers, hay and corn — and that were treated with biosolids. Several of them are bordered by cattail-filled wetlands, ditches, creeks, ponds and even a sizeable lake. Those are all clues that the water table is fairly high in the area, even in winter. “Why did nobody see this?” Licul asks. “I’m a college dropout. How did I find this? Why didn’t the state find this?” He questions whether the treated sewage could be seeping into the groundwater, posing a health risk not to himself, but to those who use well water.
“I’m on city water,” Licul says. “I’m not concerned about my own safety and well-being.”
The latest possible loophole allowing a farmer to get around the five-foot rule is evidenced by his own well, Licul says. He ducks into the small structure that covers his well and drops a tape measure into the pipe, revealing that the water is more than seven feet down in late winter, whereas in the summer it is higher than the pipe itself.
His point? There can be a fluctuation of at least seven feet in the water table. One USGS scientist told him that the level of groundwater can fluctuate by as much as 35 feet in some areas of Colorado, depending on the season. (Diker points out that the water table is 150 to 200 feet deep in some parts of the state.)
The problem, Licul says, is that in many cases farmers and officials are basing biosolids decisions on measurements taken in the winter, when the water table is lowest.
“It’s like gauging avalanche danger in July,” he says. “It doesn’t make any sense.”In addition, they are only drilling down about eight feet. If the water level can fluctuate by seven feet in his neighborhood, wouldn’t it take a 12-foot hole in the winter to discover whether the water could rise to five feet in the summer?
Licul’s argument is simply that measurements of the water table should be taken in the summer, when groundwater is the highest.
His latest move has been to call on county officials to suspend the use of biosolids on any open space that hasn’t been drilled for a summer measurement, to ensure that the groundwater is at least five feet deep.
“Do the taxpayers, who fund that open space, want to have their corn grown with biosolids?” he asks. “Can you imagine if a farmer said he was going to use GMO seeds on a thousand acres? Why not make them drill in the summer and prove to us that there’s no danger?”
County comes around
Initially, county open space and water-quality officials contacted by Boulder Weekly downplayed the threat of biosolids and even the county’s ability to adopt stringent controls on its own open space, since the state regulates the use of biosolids.
“As long as state law is complied with, we have no power to affect how land is used,” Ron Stewart, former Boulder County commissioner and director of the county’s parks and open space department, told Boulder Weekly on March 12. “We’re not the experts on this. The experts are the health departments, and that’s where we’d go for advice.”
County Water Quality Program Coordinator Mark Williams also said on March 12 that while he sees the logic of measuring groundwater in the summer, he doesn’t see the urgency of placing a moratorium on the use of biosolids on open space until those high-water readings can be taken.
“I’m pretty comfortable with the data that has been presented to me thus far on open space,” he said. “I’m not that concerned about the impact of biosolids on groundwater. … It’s not a big enough issue for me to create a moratorium on someone’s livelihood.
“Better to use it locally than to truck it over to Blanca County. They wouldn’t take our prairie dogs, so why would they take this?”
Like Williams, Diker said dealing with each property on a case-by-case basis would probably be preferable to a moratorium on biosolids on county open space.
Williams said that groundwater — and how much it fluctuates — varies widely. “It’s hard to extrapolate from one quarter of a section to another,” he told Boulder Weekly. “And wells don’t behave the same way as land. There are so many variables, I can’t really make the analogy between Elvis’ well and agricultural land.”
In addition, Williams says city wastewater is treated thoroughly — removing most of the dangerous metals — before it is spread as biosolid fertilizer. He adds that most of the nitrogen “is uptaken by the plants. That’s why it’s applied.”
But after speaking with Williams — and County Commissioner Will Toor — Stewart told Boulder Weekly on March 16 that the county would no longer approve the use of biosolids on irrigated county open space until summer groundwater readings can be obtained showing that the water table is at least five feet deep. He says the new requirement would likely affect biosolids application at four open-space properties: Alberta Clark, John Clark, Warner and Darby.
“That’s great news,” Licul said when informed of the county’s decision this week. “I think that’s a great first step. … I hope it’s in writing somewhere. If it works out this way, it has restored my faith in the open space program.”
A farmer’s view
But not all are pleased with Licul’s efforts and the increased regulation he has caused.
Allan Anglund, another Longmont-area farmer, has used biosolids on his crops for about two decades, and was one of the first in the area to do so.
“We’ve been at this for a lot of years,” he says, listing the companies that he used to use before Liquid Waste Management got the contract to distribute biosolids from sewer treatment plants in Longmont and Loveland.
In the past, Anglund says, biosolids were injected into the soil, not just sprayed over the top. He designed plows that would slice open the earth to let the biosolid seep deeper, but the downside of that method was that it would tear up the hayfields pretty badly, he says.
Last fall, Anglund was informed that due to the height of the water table, he would not be able to use the treated sewage on 68 of the 140 acres of county open space on which he grows hay.
He attributes the decision, at least in part, to Licul’s whistleblowing.
“Because of that complaint, they’ve arbitrarily said that if groundwater is within five feet, you can’t use biosolids,” Anglund says. “They essentially took out half of our farmland.”
He says he’ll probably buy a minimal amount of commercial fertilizer for the areas on which he can’t use biosolids, likely increasing his costs by about $3,000.
He doubts that the biosolids seep down more than about two feet. “With our tight soil, I don’t think it would ever get down that deep,” Anglund told Boulder Weekly, adding that the bentonite soil in the area actually expands when it gets wet, giving it a sealing effect. For that reason, he says, it is often used to build dams.
Anglund says he has never noticed any biosolid residuals downstream, nor any unusual algae or other plant growth that would indicate that the treated sewage has made it to the water table.
He wishes officials would simply test the water downstream to see if there is, indeed, any contamination.
“That seems like a logical first step,” Anglund says. “They know the water’s there, but do they know whether it’s contaminated? What’s the soil type? If there were sandy soil here, it would percolate down and there would be a greater chance of contamination.”
He adds, “I’m disappointed that people didn’t look at all the facts and make an intelligent decision based on that. If we’re harming something — we don’t want to do anything that harms. But nobody knows if we’re harming anything. … Hopefully we can get some reason involved in this process.”
Licul concludes, “I’m sure there are a lot of farmers that don’t like me right now, because they get this stuff for free. … I still have to live around these people I turned in.
“I don’t want to be a rat, man. And I was feeling like a rat. But it’s not in my nature to let this go. … I can’t let it go. I wish I could.
“This water thing concerns me more than the smell.”