Kern County supervisors say they are tired of Southern California dumping its sewage sludge in their county and are considering ways to further regulate, restrict or perhaps ban truckloads of treated human waste from coming into the county for use on farmland.
Supervisors asked county staff April 5 to draft new regulations, including a possible ban, by early May.
"We're the toilet bowl for Southern California," said County Counsel Bernard Barmann Sr. "A third of all sludge generated in California comes into Kern County. This is a very, very hot issue locally."
Supervisors unanimously agreed at the same meeting to support a bill proposed by state Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) that would stop shipments of sludge across county lines and require counties to deal with sewage within their boundaries.
Sewage districts in Los Angeles and Orange counties truck sludge to Kern County daily. Technically called biosolids, the sludge is the solid matter left after the sanitation district treats sewage by extracting and cleansing the water.
Kern County banned the importation of lower-quality Class B sludge in the late-1990s. Sanitation districts in Los Angeles and Orange counties sued soon after. The 5th District Court of Appeal ruled April 1 that Kern County can maintain its ban but must prepare an environmental report to justify it.
Kern County officials are now focusing on "Class A exceptional quality" sludge.
Kern County officials said pathogens are removed from this type of sludge, but some heavy metals and industrial waste remain.
Sutter, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties have banned sludge imports and nine other counties have imposed such strict regulations that they function as bans, Kern County Supervisor Michael Rubio said.
"This is a classic case of urban versus rural politics," Rubio said. "The urbanites are those who are very well represented in the governmental structures. They're sending their sludge and industrial waste to Kern County, and it's not fair to the people of Kern County."
Kern County officials worry about public health risks from spreading sludge laced with heavy metals, industrial waste and other toxic substances on farmland and near drinking-water storage sites, including some owned by the Metropolitan Water District.
"We should never, ever jeopardize our water resources," Rubio said. "It's our drinking water, it's what our children drink, and it's what the people of Los Angeles drink."
The Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts ship about five truckloads of biosolids to Kern County for "reuse" each day, said supervising engineer Mike Sullivan.
"Biosolids is one of the most scientifically studied materials," he said. "Decades of work and scientific research went into developing the regulations that govern its use. If you follow the requirements that are in place, it's as safe as any other practice."
An all-out ban would prevent the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation from shipping 25 truckloads of sludge daily to a farm it owns south of Bakersfield.
The bureau has a contingency plan to ship its waste to Arizona, said Diane Gilbert, the bureau's biosolids regulatory liaison.
"We have not caused any environmental impacts, health concerns or health impacts to the residents in Kern County," Gilbert said. "We've gone above and beyond all the regulations. This was actually not expected that they would be looking at a ban."
The bureau would be willing to work with the county on more testing, regulating or monitoring, she said.
The Orange County Sanitation District pays a Kern County farmer $38 a ton to transport and till the 230 tons of biosolids it sends north each day.
"We see it as a natural marriage of the urban setting with the agricultural setting," said Blake Anderson, the district's general manager.
If Kern County bans sewage imports, the district would look to south Orange County landfills, Kings County farmland it owns, and Riverside County and Arizona sites, to dispose of biosolids.
"We're hoping that we can work with Kern County and come up with a way that is acceptable to them, meets their expectations, and that we can continue to do business up there," Anderson said. "We see it as a great opportunity to bring nutrients back to the farming community at no cost to them."