Going to waste?
A proposal to spread treated human waste on fields near Sams Valley Elementary has raised a stink among residents of this rural corner of Jackson County that sits near the base of the Table Rocks.
Bright yellow warning signs have sprouted up along Highway 234 proclaiming, “Septic waste site coming soon.”
“There is no safe sewage,” said Grace Skudlarek-Gladin, a 75-year-old whose property sits across the street from the proposed waste fields. “It still has pathogens in it.”
About 100 residents showed up for a recent public hearing held by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Most spoke in opposition, voicing a variety of issues other than just bad smells.
The DEQ is scheduled to make a decision on whether to authorize spreading the treated sewage by the end of March or early April.
“What they need to do is stop this,” Skudlarek-Gladin said.
In the event the DEQ decides to proceed, residents have suggested ways to mitigate the effects, including building berms to contain runoff and testing wells for contamination.
Brian Thompson, owner of Merlin-based Clearwater Technologies, said the sewage is safe, has little smell and will fertilize the soil. The waste comes from portable toilets and septic systems mostly in Jackson County.
Thompson owns the 148-acre property at 14412 Table Rock Road, which is at the corner of Table Rock Road and Highway 234.
Clearwater has undergone extensive independent testing over the years to ensure the treated waste is safe, Thompson said. Currently he’s applying about 2 million gallons to land in the Josephine County area, but wants to be able to apply it in Jackson County to be closer to the source.
“It’s 95 percent pathogen free,” Thompson said. The waste is treated with a lime material to help kill pathogens, he said.
He said the small amount of pathogens in the treated waste that is applied to the land is insignificant compared to the high levels of pathogens in leach fields for septic systems.
A residential septic field distributes more than 100,000 gallons of wastewater over about a quarter-acre. He will be applying about 9,500 gallons over the same-sized area in the summertime.
Thompson said the Sams Valley school has a large pond that is a holding pond for septic water.
“They’ve got an open sewer pond next to the school, but they’re not concerned about it,” he said.
Thompson said he’s willing to work with neighbors and possibly make some adjustments to ease some of their concerns.
“They haven’t given me a chance to talk to them as a group,” he said.
Thompson said he believes the treated biosolids will have only a slight ammonia odor, but he could potentially plow them deeper into the soil to minimize any problems.
Another field about three miles down the road has had applications of treated human waste without any issues, Thompson said. He doesn’t own the other field.
Kate Jackson, DEQ regional liaison to Southern Oregon, said there are many other locations throughout the state that have been authorized to spread treated human waste.
“It is safe to apply to the land,” she said.
Jackson said it is essentially another type of fertilizer that can have some smell but it shouldn’t be as strong as, say, an outhouse. The waste would be treated before it's transported to the Sams Valley fields, she said.
Jackson said the DEQ has received lots of written comments about the proposal, and DEQ staff should be wrapping up their review in the near future.
According to the DEQ analysis of the proposal, the type of biosolids that would be distributed would be treated to remove 95 percent of pathogens. The DEQ says the amount of spreadable acres on the property is 61.
The application of treated sewage could occur from June 1 to Oct. 1, according to the DEQ, but a portion of the property can’t be used during the month of June or when school is in session. Also, any spreading of waste would cease during heavy rains.
If an odor persists for more than 24 hours, Clearwater has to stop spreading the waste, the DEQ analysis states.
Residents have raised numerous concerns: Human waste could contaminate wells and waterways, harmful pathogens could endanger schoolchildren and pharmaceuticals would be present in the waste. According to the DEQ, the amount of pharmaceuticals and other harmful compounds is minimal, though additional studies are being conducted.
Neighbors are skeptical about statements by Clearwater and the DEQ that the treated waste won’t produce much of a smell.
Alison Chan, who lives nearby and is also finance director for the city of Medford, said her husband raises beef cattle, but she doesn’t think there is any comparison between the waste from her animals and human waste.
“Manure that includes meat products smells a lot worse,” she said.
Chan said a resident in another part of the state described the smell from spreading treated sewage on fields as “horrendous.”
But Chan said the issues with spreading human waste extend beyond just the odor.
Chan and other residents have submitted a number of ideas they say would minimize the dangers, including increasing the setbacks from the school as well as the setbacks on Highway 234, considered a scenic byway.
According to the DEQ, the setbacks would be 500 feet from the school, 200 feet from neighboring residences, 200 feet from wells and 50 feet from waterways.
Residents say the fields frequently flood, so they suggest building earthen berms to contain the sludge, with fencing inside the berm area to deter deer and elk from grazing in the fields.
They have requested an official cleanup plan to explain how the fields would be restored once Clearwater stops using them to spread waste. They also asked for independent testing to determine the toxicity of the sludge.
Dennis Chan, Alison Chan’s husband, has about 30 head of cattle that he said he tries to raise as naturally as possible.
He said he’s worried that the human waste will contaminate other properties in the area during floods.
“One of my main concerns is the devaluation of property values,” he said.