AT THE HELM: NOTHING TO RAISE A STINK ABOUT

June 06, 2008 11:00 pm

By Scott Graves

Pilot staff writer

A Roto-Rooter tanker truck was spotted this week emptying its contents on farmland near the Winchuck River, sparking two phone calls to the Curry Coastal Pilot from outraged readers.

"This is sick!"

"It's illegal."

"They're spreading human feces and urine next to the food we eat!"

Time out!

Okay, now take a deep breath. (Maybe not by that particular field.)

It isn't as bad as people think. I know this because the Pilot has reported on this type of activity numerous times over the years.

Here are the facts:

Curry Transfer and Recycling (CTR), which owns and operates a Roto-Rooter franchise in Curry County, is not dumping raw human sewage on fields. And while the odor and flies may annoy neighbors, the material is not much different than fertilizer people buy at the local gardening shop.

The material is known as class B biosolids. It's treated human sludge in which most of the health-threatening pathogens have been removed or nullified – meeting Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) standards.

In fact, Oregon's sludge laws are more stringent than those of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

"We go by DEQ rules. The agency approves what we do and monitors us," said Pete Smart general manager for CTR. "DEQ is the ultimate judge. We don't go out of our way to do something illegal."

Only the sewage CTR collects from residential septic tanks is converted to biosolids and spread on local farmlands, Smart said. The sewage is treated in a tank system on-site and then spread on land a few months out of the year – mostly in summer when there is less rain, he said.

Septic tank sewage is about 25 percent of the total amount of sewage that CTR collects annually. The other 75 percent comes from commercial-use portable toilets – such as those at building sites and campgrounds – and is shipped to a treatment facility outside of Curry County.

Local farmers looking for inexpensive fertilizer often contract with CTR to spread biosolids on their fields.

For 25 years, the city of Brookings hired CTR's Roto-Rooter to take treated sludge from the city's Waste Water Treatment Plant an spread it on farmland. All that changed in 2006, when the city council bowed to pressure from a group of residents worried about perceived health hazards posed by biosolids flowing off farmland and into the Chetco River – the city's main water source.

The city decided to transport all its biosolids to a facility in Grants Pass – at a significant cost to taxpayers.

I understand people's reactions to spreading human waste on land – there's a certain "ick" factor – but it's not the as bad as some people think.

The next time you spot a Roto-Rooter truck spreading brown liquid material on a field, by all means plug your nose but don't call the environmental police, or the newspaper. It may be gross, but it is legal.

Besides, there are plenty of other things – like illegal dumping of trash – to raise a stink about.