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Bread and butter issues 

Morro Bay should provide data to show whether composted biosolids from wastewater treatment do or do not present any hazards

click to enlarge Opinion-poop_toast0.jpg
I caught my first whiff of the potential for poop more than 30 years ago. I was riding my bicycle home from the ocean where, as was then the standard, industrial and human waste would eventually find its way.


We were taught not to give another thought to the stuff that comes out of our butts; just flush it downstream with all of the other “bad” stuff floating through the sewerage system.


Let someone else deal with it, and forget about it. That was the thinking then, which hasn’t changed much.


Effluent from our toilets and elsewhere was supposed to end up—after treatment at local waste facilities—at the bottom of the ocean, where no one had to think about it: out of sight, out of mind.


We learned to pee or excrete into a bowl full of perfectly good drinking water and send it gurgling down the drain. Indigenous cultures would view the way we handle our waste as downright stupid, especially in a climate where water is a precious resource.


We sent it, as today, to community-funded treatment plants, or as in the case of the truck that almost ran me over, into septic systems.


The finely arrayed septic truck, clean and shiny, brushed past me on a narrow stretch of the busy boulevard. (There were no bicycle lanes then; cyclists really did share the road.)


I was going to get angry at the driver for getting dangerously close—until I read the beautifully carved wood panel on the back of his truck cab: “Your shit is our bread and butter.” This guy’s proud of making money from poop! Such things leave lasting impressions on teenage boys, as it did me. I’ve never forgotten that motto, and today I try to incorporate it into my life as much as possible


 I use recycled, composted poop from Morro Bay’s wastewater treatment plant in my garden and, despite David Broadwater’s Sept. 23 commentary (“Sewage sludge compost poisons gardens”), still feel pretty good about using the stuff.


    Broadwater’s concerns about the application of composted biosolids in gardens and agriculture have been thoroughly addressed by the Environmental Protection Agency, which maintains rigorous standards and provides guidelines for safe home and agricultural use. His argument against using composted biosolids from the Morro Bay plant wasn’t backed with any specific details, reports, or studies from this area, as far as I know. He seemed to base his argument on generalizations from non-local data and applied it to our local circumstances.


   What are the specific “concentrations of toxic, carcinogenic, mutagenic, and infectious agents” that have been detected in Morro Bay’s composted biosolids? Supposedly, the lab tests run by the facility on the finished compost cover more than 150 different agents. What isn’t being detected?


In light of Broadwater’s complaint, the City of Morro Bay needs to reassure the community that our local composted biosolids are safe for both agricultural and garden use. Are Morro Bay’s composted biosolids safe or not?


Dr. Chip Appel, Cal Poly associate professor of earth and soil sciences, seems to think so: “I have applied biosolids from the Morro Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant to my own home garden,” he said recently in an e-mail, “and have thoroughly examined their biosolids data (generated after careful analysis from a certified environmental testing lab).”


Appel says, “The biosolids generated by the MBWWTP have very low concentrations of heavy metals and the metal levels are much lower than the USEPA limits.”


Additionally, the uptake of metals by plants grown in soils amended with composted biosolids is minimal because, according to Appel, “many heavy metals are extremely reactive with soil minerals.” Moreover, he said, “Application of composted manures (animal, human, etc.) presents, in my opinion, an excellent and viable use of a waste product.”


They sure do, and this year’s homegrown tomatoes were the best ever—sweet, juicy, and delicious.


Composted biosolids provide other benefits as well, Appel maintains: They increase organic matter in soil, which increases its water-holding capacity, improves soil structure, plant health, and decreases erosion. Biosolids, he said, add essential plant nutrients “(especially nitrogen and phosphorus) to the soil, which in the end decreases (and could eliminate) the need for” the “application of synthetic fertilizers,” which “require a great extent of fossil fuels for their production.”


What better way to educate people about safely reducing impacts than for the city to show how it’s done, on a large and small scale? Once residents can get over the “ick” factor that Broadwater seems to induce with his generalizations from non-local data, they might be more inclined to use composted biosolids as soil amendments.


If doubts remain, let’s run some tests on Morro Bay’s composted biosolids to see just how dangerous or safe they may actually be.


Let’s take the guesswork out of the equation and arrange to have such qualified scientists as Dr. Chip Appel from Cal Poly review the data, conduct their own tests, and offer a definitive report based on fact rather than alarmist generalizations.


Stacey Warde is an award-winning author who lives in Cayucos. He’s a former managing editor of New Times and past publisher of The Rogue Voice. Send comments to the editor at



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