Bill Would Make It Hard to Limit Sludge

By:JASON L. LEVAN, Gazette Staff WriterJune 18, 2002
  1. Legislation currently making its way through the state House would make it tougher for municipalities to regulate the use of biosolids.Legislation currently making its way through the state House would make it tougher for municipalities to regulate the use of biosolids. Legislation currently making its way through the state House would make it tougher for municipalities to regulate the use of biosolids.
Senate Bill 1413 protects farmers' rights to use "normal agricultural operations so long as the agricultural operation does not have a direct adverse effect on the public health and safety." That leaves up in the air at least one question: Is the use of sludge as a fertilizer considered a "normal agricultural operation"? It depends on how you interpret the bill. "It doesn't speak specifically to the sludge issue," said Rep. Sara Steelman, D-Indiana. "It has been presented as a compromise to a bill that was even worse," House Bill 826, which never made it out of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee last year. Though Senate Bill 1413 glided 48-2 through the Senate on April 30, Steelman said opposition to the bill has been growing over the past month. If it does pass, Steelman said, she is certain Gov. Mark Schweiker will sign it. Steelman said the bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, was pushed through the General Assembly faster than almost any other piece of legislation she has seen in her 10 years in office. It was presented to the Senate Agriculture Committee on April 17 and was approved 13 days later. The House, which has already approved the bill twice, needs only to vote a third time to pass it onto Schweiker. The bill is currently in the House Appropriations Committee, but Steelman said it appears that support for it may be dwindling. Under the bill, which amends the 1982 Right to Farm Act, municipalities that enforce ordinances such as those passed last year by East Wheatfield and Buffington townships could be sued over whether they can charge a fee to have the sludge tested. The loser could have to pay court costs and attorney's fees for both sides. That could easily amount to between $50,000 and $100,000 or more, according to Tom Linzey, an environmental attorney with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit law firm representing environmental and governmental agencies. "If 1413 passes, it's a no-brainer that ... (the municipalities) would lose," Linzey said. "That's why 1413 is so dangerous." For a sparsely populated township such as East Wheatfield, that constitutes up to 16 percent of its annual budget. For Buffington, the proportion is greater. "We can't afford to go to court," said East Wheatfield Supervisor Kenneth Umholtz. Many municipal officials, like Umholtz, feel the bill would unfairly usurp municipalities' control, thus compromising its ability to protect its citizens. "It acts as a crisis between the state government and the local governments," Linzey said. "That's why townships are in a tizzy." "The intent is to intimidate the township supervisors against trying to pass an ordinance," Steelman said. "The purpose of the bill is intimidation." Besides the ordinances already on the books in Indiana County, five other municipalities in western Pennsylvania have passed similar laws that charge a so-called "tipping fee": Blacklick Township in Cambria County and four in Centre County, where the most notable is Rush Township. Supervisors there passed an ordinance in November 1999 charging $40 per ton of sludge applied in the township to pay for independent testing of the material. But in September 2000, Houston-based Synagro Mid-Atlantic Inc., the provider of the sludge being spread in Rush Township, sued the township in U.S. District Court for $2.75 million in damages and attorneys' fees. On June 7, the court denied the township's request to dismiss the suit. Senate Bill 1413 appears to concern municipalities statewide. Representatives from 350 of 450 townships voted against supporting the bill at the annual Pennsylvania Association of Township Supervisors convention in April. A May 8 letter from the association's executive director, Keith Hite, to its members urges caution about passing ordinances regulating the use of sludge. "Until this matter is finally resolved by the General Assembly or the courts, PSATS will continue to strongly encourage its member townships that may be considering one of these ... ordinances to proceed only with extreme caution and diligence with the understanding that they are treading on uncharted and considerably unstable legal ground and, above all else, only on the sound advice of your solicitor," the letter reads. The bill under consideration does allow having the waste tested twice a year at the expense of the Department of Environmental Protection. But that's not enough, Umholtz says. The ordinance is "telling them that we want to check every truckload." The solution, as Steelman sees it, is simple: Pass a law requiring that all sludge must be classified as Class A, which is treated to kill more pathogens - but is more costly - than the Class B sludge being used now. "This affects the health and welfare of the people in Indiana County," Steelman said. "It certainly raises some questions." Senate Bill 1413 protects farmers' rights to use "normal agricultural operations so long as the agricultural operation does not have a direct adverse effect on the public health and safety." That leaves up in the air at least one question: Is the use of sludge as a fertilizer considered a "normal agricultural operation"? It depends on how you interpret the bill. "It doesn't speak specifically to the sludge issue," said Rep. Sara Steelman, D-Indiana. "It has been presented as a compromise to a bill that was even worse," House Bill 826, which never made it out of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee last year. Though Senate Bill 1413 glided 48-2 through the Senate on April 30, Steelman said opposition to the bill has been growing over the past month. If it does pass, Steelman said, she is certain Gov. Mark Schweiker will sign it. Steelman said the bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, was pushed through the General Assembly faster than almost any other piece of legislation she has seen in her 10 years in office. It was presented to the Senate Agriculture Committee on April 17 and was approved 13 days later. The House, which has already approved the bill twice, needs only to vote a third time to pass it onto Schweiker. The bill is currently in the House Appropriations Committee, but Steelman said it appears that support for it may be dwindling. Under the bill, which amends the 1982 Right to Farm Act, municipalities that enforce ordinances such as those passed last year by East Wheatfield and Buffington townships could be sued over whether they can charge a fee to have the sludge tested. The loser could have to pay court costs and attorney's fees for both sides. That could easily amount to between $50,000 and $100,000 or more, according to Tom Linzey, an environmental attorney with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit law firm representing environmental and governmental agencies. "If 1413 passes, it's a no-brainer that ... (the municipalities) would lose," Linzey said. "That's why 1413 is so dangerous." For a sparsely populated township such as East Wheatfield, that constitutes up to 16 percent of its annual budget. For Buffington, the proportion is greater. "We can't afford to go to court," said East Wheatfield Supervisor Kenneth Umholtz. Many municipal officials, like Umholtz, feel the bill would unfairly usurp municipalities' control, thus compromising its ability to protect its citizens. "It acts as a crisis between the state government and the local governments," Linzey said. "That's why townships are in a tizzy." "The intent is to intimidate the township supervisors against trying to pass an ordinance," Steelman said. "The purpose of the bill is intimidation." Besides the ordinances already on the books in Indiana County, five other municipalities in western Pennsylvania have passed similar laws that charge a so-called "tipping fee": Blacklick Township in Cambria County and four in Centre County, where the most notable is Rush Township. Supervisors there passed an ordinance in November 1999 charging $40 per ton of sludge applied in the township to pay for independent testing of the material. But in September 2000, Houston-based Synagro Mid-Atlantic Inc., the provider of the sludge being spread in Rush Township, sued the township in U.S. District Court for $2.75 million in damages and attorneys' fees. On June 7, the court denied the township's request to dismiss the suit. Senate Bill 1413 appears to concern municipalities statewide. Representatives from 350 of 450 townships voted against supporting the bill at the annual Pennsylvania Association of Township Supervisors convention in April. A May 8 letter from the association's executive director, Keith Hite, to its members urges caution about passing ordinances regulating the use of sludge. "Until this matter is finally resolved by the General Assembly or the courts, PSATS will continue to strongly encourage its member townships that may be considering one of these ... ordinances to proceed only with extreme caution and diligence with the understanding that they are treading on uncharted and considerably unstable legal ground and, above all else, only on the sound advice of your solicitor," the letter reads. The bill under consideration does allow having the waste tested twice a year at the expense of the Department of Environmental Protection. But that's not enough, Umholtz says. The ordinance is "telling them that we want to check every truckload." The solution, as Steelman sees it, is simple: Pass a law requiring that all sludge must be classified as Class A, which is treated to kill more pathogens - but is more costly - than the Class B sludge being used now. "This affects the health and welfare of the people in Indiana County," Steelman said. "It certainly raises some questions." Senate Bill 1413 protects farmers' rights to use "normal agricultural operations so long as the agricultural operation does not have a direct adverse effect on the public health and safety." That leaves up in the air at least one question: Is the use of sludge as a fertilizer considered a "normal agricultural operation"? It depends on how you interpret the bill. "It doesn't speak specifically to the sludge issue," said Rep. Sara Steelman, D-Indiana. "It has been presented as a compromise to a bill that was even worse," House Bill 826, which never made it out of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee last year. Though Senate Bill 1413 glided 48-2 through the Senate on April 30, Steelman said opposition to the bill has been growing over the past month. If it does pass, Steelman said, she is certain Gov. Mark Schweiker will sign it. Steelman said the bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, was pushed through the General Assembly faster than almost any other piece of legislation she has seen in her 10 years in office. It was presented to the Senate Agriculture Committee on April 17 and was approved 13 days later. The House, which has already approved the bill twice, needs only to vote a third time to pass it onto Schweiker. The bill is currently in the House Appropriations Committee, but Steelman said it appears that support for it may be dwindling. Under the bill, which amends the 1982 Right to Farm Act, municipalities that enforce ordinances such as those passed last year by East Wheatfield and Buffington townships could be sued over whether they can charge a fee to have the sludge tested. The loser could have to pay court costs and attorney's fees for both sides. That could easily amount to between $50,000 and $100,000 or more, according to Tom Linzey, an environmental attorney with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit law firm representing environmental and governmental agencies. "If 1413 passes, it's a no-brainer that ... (the municipalities) would lose," Linzey said. "That's why 1413 is so dangerous." For a sparsely populated township such as East Wheatfield, that constitutes up to 16 percent of its annual budget. For Buffington, the proportion is greater. "We can't afford to go to court," said East Wheatfield Supervisor Kenneth Umholtz. Many municipal officials, like Umholtz, feel the bill would unfairly usurp municipalities' control, thus compromising its ability to protect its citizens. "It acts as a crisis between the state government and the local governments," Linzey said. "That's why townships are in a tizzy." "The intent is to intimidate the township supervisors against trying to pass an ordinance," Steelman said. "The purpose of the bill is intimidation." Besides the ordinances already on the books in Indiana County, five other municipalities in western Pennsylvania have passed similar laws that charge a so-called "tipping fee": Blacklick Township in Cambria County and four in Centre County, where the most notable is Rush Township. Supervisors there passed an ordinance in November 1999 charging $40 per ton of sludge applied in the township to pay for independent testing of the material. But in September 2000, Houston-based Synagro Mid-Atlantic Inc., the provider of the sludge being spread in Rush Township, sued the township in U.S. District Court for $2.75 million in damages and attorneys' fees. On June 7, the court denied the township's request to dismiss the suit. Senate Bill 1413 appears to concern municipalities statewide. Representatives from 350 of 450 townships voted against supporting the bill at the annual Pennsylvania Association of Township Supervisors convention in April. A May 8 letter from the association's executive director, Keith Hite, to its members urges caution about passing ordinances regulating the use of sludge. "Until this matter is finally resolved by the General Assembly or the courts, PSATS will continue to strongly encourage its member townships that may be considering one of these ... ordinances to proceed only with extreme caution and diligence with the understanding that they are treading on uncharted and considerably unstable legal ground and, above all else, only on the sound advice of your solicitor," the letter reads. The bill under consideration does allow having the waste tested twice a year at the expense of the Department of Environmental Protection. But that's not enough, Umholtz says. The ordinance is "telling them that we want to check every truckload." The solution, as Steelman sees it, is simple: Pass a law requiring that all sludge must be classified as Class A, which is treated to kill more pathogens - but is more costly - than the Class B sludge being used now. "This affects the health and welfare of the people in Indiana County," Steelman said. "It certainly raises some questions." ©Indiana Printing & Publishing Co. 2002 ©©