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SLO Supervisors stop EIR process for treated biosolids 

SLO County’s sluggish process of creating a permanent ordinance regulating the land application of treated biosolids is, once again, stuck in bureaucratic pipes.

The county Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 on Jan. 12 not to pursue an environmental impact report (EIR) for a draft permanent ordinance on the land application of biosolids. Instead, they directed staff to assess other, potentially less costly approaches.

The process kicked off in 1998 after an alfalfa grower in San Miguel wanted to use biosolids on his property. Since then, there’s been no interest in their use anywhere in the county, according to Supervising Environmental Health Specialist Richard Lichtenfels. In 2004, SLO County adopted an interim ordinance that all but bans the land application of treated biosolids, which the environmental health department defines as “nutrient-rich organic material after treatment of domestic sewage at [wastewater treatment plants].” In other words—highly treated human excrement. 

Since then, the interim ordinance has been extended three times while staff attempted to draft a permanent ordinance. During that time, the board directed staff to prepare for environmental review and budgeted $200,000 to do so.

Land application of biosolids—practiced in several California counties—is considered to be among the more economically viable methods to dispose of the ever-growing amount of human waste. Some in the agricultural industry consider it to be a beneficial soil additive—generally used on feed crops—that provides nutrients and enhances water retention. Others worry that the scientific jury is still out on its safety, and it could imperil contractual agreements between growers and buyers. For that reason, the SLO County Farm Bureau opposes its use.

Both the county’s interim ordinance and the draft permanent ordinance would place a de facto ban on land application by allowing only a limited amount of a highly treated subclass of biosolids that is not produced in the county. Currently, most biosolids created here are shipped out of the county; some are mixed with green waste and composted in compliance with strict standards. 

While the Board of Supervisors wasn’t asked to consider a policy toward the land application of biosolids, there was an apparent consensus that nobody wanted to see it permitted in this county.

“When you look at some of the data, it’s kind of scary to think about all the stuff and all the heavy metals that’s in it,” said 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton.

The question, however, was whether or not they wanted to continue the previously charted direction of pursuing an EIR.

Compton and 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold were wary of whether they wanted to spend an estimated $300,000 or more on that process.

“I’d hate to just call [the interim ordinance] a temporary Band-Aid, but I see what we have is working right now,” Comtpon said.

Second District Supervisor Bruce Gibson disagreed, however, saying that even though they might all ultimately agree on a policy for biosolids, the EIR process would provide valuable information and give the county more options in creating tighter policy.

“Should we keep kicking the can down the road, or should we really take a look at how this county managed biosolids?” Gibson said. “I don’t see any downside. We have exit gates here.” 

The 3-2 vote swung that gate closed after 1st District Supervisor Frank Mecham hesitantly decided to deny the funding for an EIR. Mecham said that he could only go for it if it cost no more than $200,000.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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