By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
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By Melanie Asmar
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"The city says it's a benign biological product," Turunjian says. "But why do you have a thirty-day period where you have to wait and special health regulations if it's safe? You can call it biosolids, but it's human waste mixed with industrial waste. It's sludge."
Project coordinator Bob Harberg says the city did thoroughly inform the farmer who was leasing Turunjian's land, Dan Cito. "We shared the regulations with him, and he had full knowledge of the nature of biosolids," says Harberg. "Whether or not he fully understood them, we can't say."
Cito appeared at a hearing of the city's Utilities Advisory Board last September. Like Turunjian, he was angry with the city, accusing staff of not informing him of the thirty-day access restriction. Harberg acknowledges that Cito no longer allows biosolids to be spread on the fields he farms. Cito did not return calls from Westword.
The golf cart city staffers use to get around Boulder's 22-acre sewage-treatment plant carries a simple moniker: "Sludgeland." Floyd Bebler, the director of the facility, is quick to note that the sign is intended as a joke. In Bebler's field, there's a vast difference between sewage sludge and biosolids. As he explains, forty days of treatment go into converting fresh sludge to biosolids. "It's not raw sewage."
The Boulder plant employs a succession of treatment processes to reduce the level of bacteria in sewage and turn out a product that can be readily assimilated into soil, Bebler says. "It's all a biological process using microorganisms to digest material," he notes.
Buildings and equipment at the facility bristle with mufflers, odor scrubbers and other technical bows to neighborliness. Bebler rarely receives complaints about the smell--none in the past three years, he says. He throws open the doors of a cylindrical storage tank that holds half a million gallons of treated biosolids. A moldlike crust resembling curdled tar glistens in a patch of sunlight. A musty, faintly metallic odor floats up on humid, warm air. It smells more like a bog than a sewer.
"When it's applied, it has a water content of over 90 percent," Bebler explains, likening the product's consistency to "thin toothpaste." (Bebler has a fondness for comparing wastewater products to things people put in their mouths. An earlier stage of the processing in which brown sewage sludge is injected with air, causing it to well up in bubbly brown heaves, reminds him of chocolate milk.)
The city's tendency to emphasize the harmless nature of its sludge is a continuing irritant to Mark Biddison. "They'll have people eating it next," says the attorney--or breathing it. The city hasn't studied the possibility of strong winds moving pathogen-contaminated matter off-site, he points out. When residents researched the question, they found wind maps showing that 100-mile-per-hour gusts can roar over Gunbarrel Hill. "But according to the city, it doesn't rain out here, and the wind doesn't blow," Biddison says.
Ned Williams acknowledges that the city hasn't studied wind conditions on Gunbarrel Hill, but he expresses confidence that windborne pathogens pose a very small risk to public health. As for rain, Williams says the staff has seen erosion from certain fields on the hill wash soil onto the road. But such trouble spots can be addressed with terracing, contour plowing and retention basins, Williams says, adding that those measures weren't taken before because the city didn't own the land.
The city will have to wait until it obtains a permit to begin applying biosolids to the 240 acres of open space that it has closed on so far, says Floyd Bebler. That process could take three to four months, Bebler says, and Boulder expects a lawsuit in the meantime.
NO BS seems poised not to disappoint the city. The group was set up as a nonprofit, explains Debbie Quackenbush, "because we see this going to court." Mark Biddison will say only that the group is currently exploring its legal options.
One option available to critics would be to appeal the permit the city expects to get from the state health department. An administrative law judge would hear the case, says Phil Hegeman. How long that might take is unclear, he adds; no sludge application permits have been challenged since the appeal process was established a year ago.
Ken Fucik seems to be one of the few people living near Gunbarrel Hill who remembers when the city first started spreading sludge in the area back in 1986. A member of the Boulder County Board of Health for nine years and a resident of the Heatherwood subdivision south of Gunbarrel Hill for seventeen, Fucik opposed the plan and attended public meetings to say so. But after listening to the city's presentation, he says, "I decided to let them try it." He's never seen a problem with the sludge, he adds: "My house is a half-mile from the crest of the hill, and I jog out there every day." He did notice some odor, he says, but attributes that to feedlot operations or spring fertilizing on nearby farms.
"I don't always support the City of Boulder, believe me," says Fucik. "[But] this is an opportunity to maintain some agricultural land and open space out there. And this stuff is really not that much of a risk. Pathogens are carried by birds and dogs and people. Are you going to stop your dog from pooping in your yard because you're worried about pathogens? Are you going to stop putting fertilizer on your lawn?"