Energy & Environment

Farmer’s attempt to fertilize with septic waste highlights state’s sewage treatment problem

A cornfield where farmer Mark Boyden and septic company operator Lawrence Young had been spreading septage is seen in Cambridge on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. Septage is no longer being spread on the field because of its proximity to the Lamoille River and to neighboring homes. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

CAMBRIDGE — Residents of River Road say, at first, they were open to their neighbor, farmer Mark Boyden, spreading human septage on a field where he grows feed for local dairy farms.

Then came the trucks, then the smell. 

Several months later, after the residents have publicly expressed objections to the practice, Boyden has decided to stop the application. Meanwhile, state officials say municipal sewage treatment plants, where haulers typically take septage, are often stretched to capacity in a problem that doesn’t have easy solutions. 

Septage is nasty stuff — the state definition is “partially treated waste removed from an on-site septic system or a holding tank.” Periodically, those septic systems or holding tanks have to be cleaned out, but where does all that material go?

One possible solution was spreading it as fertilizer on farm fields, and Boyden agreed to try it.

He said he first considered applying septage to his fields when the owner of a local hauling company, Working Dog Septic, reached out to him, needing somewhere to spread it. At the time, Boyden was buying commercial manure as fertilizer, which he said was expensive. He maintains a herd of around 700 beef cattle, but they don’t produce enough manure to fertilize all of his lands, so he welcomed the new material. 

Between May 26 and July 14, Boyden spread roughly 416,900 gallons of septage on his field in Cambridge, according to a state inspection report, bringing heavy truck traffic. The field is surrounded on three sides by the Lamoille River. 

Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation approved Boyden’s permit after publishing new regulations for spreading septage in October. The waste, stored in holding tanks on the fields, was treated with lime to reduce health risks, such as the presence of pathogens, and was tested consistently for the presence of the toxic chemical group PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. 

Some sites in Vermont have stopped spreading septage after tests revealed high levels of PFAS in nearby groundwater. 

A cornfield where farmer Mark Boyden and septic company operator Lawrence Young had been spreading septage is seen in Cambridge on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. Septage is no longer being spread on the field because of its proximity to the Lamoille River and to neighboring homes. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Under Vermont rules, haulers can dispose of septage in two ways. They can take it to a sewage treatment plant, or they can apply it to agricultural land, but land application options are dwindling, said Eamon Twohig, residuals management program manager for the Department of Environmental Conservation. 

“There’s 40 million gallons of septage being pumped every year in Vermont, and now pretty much all of it’s going to wastewater plants,” he said, and haulers are increasingly having trouble getting into the facilities that will take septage.

JR Young, the owner of Working Dog Septic, which collected the septage spread on Boyden’s field, did not respond to a request for comment.

Twohig said he heard a few concerns from residents when he left for a vacation earlier this summer. When he returned, the complaints were coming steadily. 

Nearby residents Charles and Margaret Kilpatrick have filed two appeals — one for the permitting process and another in environmental court. But it was the social media posts that triggered Boyden to stop spreading, he said, citing concerns about his brand and his business. 

Michael Moser, a resident who lives “downwind” of Boyden’s field, had some initial concerns about pharmaceuticals and microplastics in the waste but said he recognized the capacity challenges faced by sewer plants and haulers. 

“I was actually OK with it,” he said. “I know that we have these issues, and I know that we have to find sustainable ways to deal with our own waste.” 

What he didn’t know, he said, was that trucks would be spraying septage five days a week, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.. 

“Once the operation started, the impacts became fully evident to us,” Moser said. 

He cited increased traffic on the road, foul odors and environmental risks as the basis for the neighbors’ collective concern, and said neighbors felt unheard in the state’s permitting process, during which a number of them complained.  That’s why Karen Denniston said she took to Facebook.

“It was my intention to make clear what we were dealing with here and to really raise awareness about the impact, because this decision on the part of the business owners, or the landowner, had a huge impact on our lives,” she said. 

A cornfield where farmer Mark Boyden and septic company operator Lawrence Young had been spreading septage is seen in Cambridge on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. Septage is no longer being spread on the field because of its proximity to the Lamoille River and to neighboring homes. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Twohig said he investigated claims about the smell and asked residents to call him while the smells were present, rather than after the fact. 

“Odors are tough. They can come and go,” Twohig said, adding that he didn’t find that the odor was particularly pungent while he was onsite.

Boyden said he doesn’t believe the process was handled perfectly from the start and wishes he had explored other options, such as injecting the septage into the field, which may have reduced odors.

Moser said the bigger issue is solving Vermont’s septage issue. 

“Should we be putting human septage on fields where crops are grown? Should we be doing that, next to rivers and in fields that flood all the time?” he said. “How can we find some balance for all this?”

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Southern Vermont. She previously worked as a reporter for the Addison Independent, where she covered politics, business, the arts and environmental issues. She also served as an assistant editor at Vermont Sports magazine and VT Ski + Ride. Emma majored in science journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she was editor-in-chief of the Current. She received a first-place award from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in Environmental Reporting for a series about agriculture and water quality in Addison County.

Email: [email protected]

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