EPA Boosts Biosolid-Compost Use

In the latest edition of its Recovered Materials Advisory Notice (RMAN), the EPA has altered the compost and fertilizer listings in the landscaping category. The measure stands to encourage local public works departments to get past previous concerns about the environmental friendliness of the practice, thereby increasing local landscaping options and, in some instances, reducing costs.

When a local, state, or federal public works agency uses more than $10,000 in federal funds to purchase any item in any RMAN category, it must buy the product with the highest recovered material content “when practical.” The requirement extends to contracted private landscapers.

In the RMAN, issued in September, the EPA consolidated all compost designations under one item: “compost made from recovered organic materials.” It then created a new designation called “fertilizer made from recovered materials.”

Craig Coker, treasurer of the U.S. Composting Council, says the compost category had been limited to food waste and yard waste. Both are often in short supply, especially in states that allow landfilling of yard waste. The expanded definition allows agencies to buy both compost and fertilizer made from biosolids produced via two different processes: sewage sludge and manure. Coker explains that compost made from biosolids is often cheaper than that made from food and yard waste.

Some cities, such as New York, Boston, and Tampa, already separate sewage into wastewater and biosolids, and kill any toxics in the liquid by exposing it to microbes. While many organizations have questioned the safety and environmental viability of the practice, the National Academy of Sciences has produced two reports calling the end products safe.

One problem: Because there is no marketplace demand, Boston and other cities are spending upwards of $300/ton to make the biosolid fertilizer, but are only getting $40/ton back. The EPA changes are meant to increase that price considerably, and to encourage more cities and towns to turn wastewater into fertilizer and compost.

Ned Beecher, executive director of the New England Biosolids and Residuals Association, acknowledges that “some controversy exists” with regard to the safety of biosolid products, but he points out that local agencies and their contractors now using biosolid compost and fertilizer are doing so in areas that involve minimal public contact, such as in highway construction, land reclamation after construction, and landfill covers.

Local Officials on Alert About National DHS Plan

The Department of Homeland Security is tweaking its “Federal Response Framework” draft, moved by heavy criticism from state and local officials claiming the document ignores the crucial role that public works teams play as emergency responders.

According to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator David Paulison, the purpose of the Framework (published Sept. 10) is to establish a comprehensive, national, all-hazards approach to domestic incidents.

“Whereas previous versions focused heavily on federal activities, this Framework emphasizes that most incidents are managed locally and all incidents should be handled at the lowest jurisdictional level possible,” says Paulison. His “previous versions” refers to the “National Response Plan” first developed by FEMA in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew. However, that plan proved ineffective when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast.

As a result, Congress passed, and President Bush signed, the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (better known inside the Beltway as the FEMA reform bill). FEMA, no longer an independent agency but an outpost of the DHS, switched the title from “Plan” to “Framework,” which some state and local officials find confusing.

“Overall, the most critical issue for the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) is that the current framework is not a plan,” says Tim Manning, director of the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “The document reads more like a primer for state and local officials, which is a valuable resource, but should not be the national plan for responding to disasters. This can be compared to showing up for a football game with an encyclopedia entry in hand on who's involved and how the game is played, but without the actual playbook or understanding of the roles of the offense, defense, the coaches, and the referees.”

The DHS is fielding public comments on the Framework and will undoubtedly crank them into a revision. The edited version, in turn, will more than likely be informed by a report from the Government Accounting Office (GAO), which was requested by leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee after a day of Framework hearings Sept. 10.

In requesting the GAO report, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn), chairman of the committee, said the DHS Framework “ignores the important role that states and local governments play in a disaster and recovery and does not comply with the requirements of cooperation and coordination Congress set forth in the Post Katrina Act.”

— Steve Barlas has served as a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer for trade and professional magazines since 1981. In that time, he has covered nearly every federal regulatory agency, cabinet department, and congressional committee, with a special emphasis on the EPA.