Alberta’s Wheatland County debates biosolids use on agricultural lands
October 19, 2023
By John Watson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A delegation from the City of Calgary presented to the Wheatland County Agricultural Service Board (ASB) regarding the use of biosolids, during the Oct. 4 meeting.
Biosolids are a nutrient and organic-rich material which is produced during wastewater treatment and function as a slow-release fertilizing soil amendment.
One of the primary benefits of the substance is the release of nitrogen, phosphorus, organic matter, and micronutrients into soil the material is mixed into.
Biosolids result from the treatment and breakdown of sewage sludge, which throughout the process is converted into usable biomass and carbon dioxide.
Myron Flexhaug, senior regulatory analyst regarding biosolids for the City of Calgary, indicated during the delegation’s presentation to the ASB, the use of biosolids replaces the need and reliance on chemical fertilizers, as well as improves soil water and nutrient retention.
Victoria Arnauld, who also spoke as part of the delegation, said despite concentrations of trace organic compounds in biosolids being present and detectable, they do not pose any risk.
Residents who are in the vicinity of areas currently seeing the use of biosolids and disposal of sewage sludge have raised concerns regarding its potential impact on local soil and water quality, as well as whether potentially dangerous substances are introduced into the food chain.
Heavy metals and “forever chemicals” being compounds that permanently remain in soils once introduced, are among the greatest concerns expressed by resident farmers.
Forever Chemicals refer to compounds related to Teflon, which are largely included in firefighting foams, paint, personal care products, non-stick cookware, fast food packaging, pesticides, and a host of other products.
A pilot project within Wheatland County saw biosolids introduced to land occupied by the Mountain View Hutterite Colony which was then used to grow willow trees for use within the City of Calgary.
The City of Calgary engaged in a study, partnering with the University of Waterloo to sample and test soil for “forever chemicals,” aiming to understand how biosolid applications would permanently alter soil composition, collecting and testing over 200 samples.
“We were blind-sided. These trees would be harvested for city parks, playgrounds and (the) zoo. At that time, we were told this biosolid compost would not be used on cropland and was not for food production,” said Elleanor Reinhardt, a concerned county resident and landowner.
“Now, here we are (with) no notification, (and) no transparency. We are told, ‘there must have been a misunderstanding.’”
After receiving complaints regarding communication with landowners, Flexhaug said the team is committed to being clearer with affected landowners in areas which are intended to see biosolid applications.
In the interest of landowners adjacent to biosolid use areas, ASB member Amber Link asked whether land within the City of Calgary would be suitable for applications of biosolids, and if not, what would preclude the application of biosolids within the city.
“I can’t specifically say if there is suitable land there. The benefit of the biosolids is as a slow release fertilizer. To my knowledge, we have never looked at whether there is suitable land within the city boundaries as far as land application goes,” said Flexhaug.
The delegation also specified, in places where biosolids are applied, there are strict federal and provincial regulations set in place which prevent certain crops from being grown on biosolid use land, including plants which may be eaten raw.
“I believe that they (local farmers) are looking at long term issues, and unseen changes in the future. What was acceptable 10 years ago is not acceptable now, and then you’re stuck with it. Once it is there, it is there (referring to heavy metals and ‘forever chemicals’),” said Klassen. “By design, these wastewater plants concentrate that into sludge, and it is just what happens. It is everything that you put down the toilet, and even (from) an industrial site, goes through a process, but short of incinerating it, a lot of that stuff will stay in the product – in the sludge.”
ASB Chair, Shannon Laprise explained the board sees biosolids as a potentially valuable resource for agriculture producers, but will work with the city to ensure that practices in the county do not negatively affect agriculturalists and residents.
The matter will continue to be discussed before the ASB before any final decisions are made, with no exact date being yet specified for the topic to return.
John Watson is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for the Strathmore Times.
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