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Sludge Lands in Court, Where Quality's the Question

Agriculture: Orange County labels it fertilizer for nonfood farming. Not in our backyard, says Kings County.


For years, the Orange County Sanitation District has used treated sludge from waste water to fertilize Central Valley farmland the agency owns.

But Kings County, an agricultural region south of Fresno, recently blocked that option by adopting an ordinance banning the use of certain types of such "biosolids" as fertilizer, citing health concerns.

Now the sanitation district has gone to court to get the ban lifted. District officials said the "Class B" treated sludge used by the district is safe.

The sanitation district owns about 1,800 acres in Kings County, growing alfalfa, cotton and other nonfood crops. On the farm, it uses about 25% of the 200,000 "wet tons" of the treated sludge it produces annually. The rest goes to farms in three other counties in the southern half of the state.

The sewage goes through physical, chemical and biological processes, which removes the solids as part of the waste water cleaning process. The solids are further treated to reduce disease-causing organisms, such as bacteria, viruses and parasites.

Kings County officials refused to comment on the lawsuit, which was filed in May at the county courthouse in Hanford.

The ordinance was approved last year because of concerns by farmers that the public will avoid their food crops in the belief that they would be contaminated. The county now allows use only of highly treated sludge, such as compost or fertilizer pellets with no detectable pathogens.

The ordinance states that there is a "lack of adequate scientific understanding concerning the risk that ... sewage sludge may pose to land, air, ground water, surface waters and to ... health."

Thomas Woodruff, attorney for the sanitation district, said the district filed the suit after negotiations with Kings County broke down and its ordinance was passed. He said the ordinance violates federal guidelines, which allow the use of the solids on nonfood crops.

The sanitation district said much of the concern has centered on the use of Class B treated sludge on food crops, which sanitation district officials said isn't done.

"It's a perception problem," said Layne Baroldi, legal and regulatory affairs liaison for the district.

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