Neighbors question odors, unassessed pollutants in biosolids spread across Ohio fields

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CARDINGTON, OHIO (WBNS) – Neighbors who live along the rural roads of Morrow County just north of Ashley say they’re used to “farm smells.”

But that is not what they say they’re smelling.

“I can’t have people out because it smells so bad. It’s horrible. It makes you sick,” said Judith Metzker.

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Judith Metzker is one of three dozen neighbors living in Morrow, Green and Delaware counties who have filed 280 complaints with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency since 2015 about the use biosolids – which is sewage sludge comprised of human and industrial waste that’s been converted into fertilizer.

Most of their complaints center around noise and odors coming from properties operated by one company – Renergy.

“I hate what they are doing. I don’t hate them, I hate what they are doing to my family, to my neighbors – it’s a shame,” said neighbor Vickie High.

Renergy records

Records show the company partners with industrial and wastewater treatment facilities to gather leftover sewage sludge and convert it into electricity – which is then sold. The other byproduct of the process is biosolids – which can be applied to farmlands with the intent to enrich the soil.

Transportation records from September uncovered by 10 Investigates through an open records request show trucks headed to Renergy’s Morrow County property can haul more than 40,000 pounds of sewage sludge per load.

On its website, Renergy says it’s a green energy company with “a passion for reducing everyday waste – integrating our agricultural roots with innovative and sustainable solutions.”

But Ohio EPA records show the company has been issued violation notices a dozen times since 2016 for things like improper use, applying them too close to a drain or well and failing to incorporate them into the ground quickly enough.

With each violation, state regulators say they have worked with the company to bring it back into compliance.

The neighbors’ chief complaints have centered around odor and noise.

But it’s clear there is tension between the company and its neighbors.

Renergy called the Delaware County Sheriff’s department asking for additional patrols alleging that a neighbor near one of its sites brandished a gun near Renergy employees.

And last month in Morrow County, the company filed a report with the local sheriff’s office alleging that neighbors trespassed onto Renergy property.

Are biosolids safe?

The question about whether biosolids are safe depends on who you ask.

Archie Lunsey, assistant chief in the surface water division at Ohio EPA – said when used properly in accordance with the permit rules – biosolids are safe. Lunsey and the Ohio EPA also point out that the practice has been used by decades to enrich the soil.

But neighbors are quick to question if they are safe after a 2018 report by the federal EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) noted that there are 352 unassessed pollutants in biosolids.

According to the November 2018 report, some of the unassessed pollutants include hormones, pesticides, plasticizers and medications.

Sixty-one of 352 pollutants appeared on one or more hazardous lists.

The OIG report went on to state “without risk assessments on each chemical … it is unknown whether the pollutants in biosolids are harmful.”

An OIG follow-up report published in May of 2019 said that the EPA was in the process of revising the entire EPA biosolids website in order to update and clarify information and ensure transparency. This includes identifying pollutants found in biosolids, disclosing biosolids data gaps and addressing research areas.

“It’s in our backyard and that’s why are complaining. It's going to affect everybody at some point in time either between your water, your food or your health,” said Kassie Lester.

Lester has filed numerous complaints with the Ohio EPA about Renergy properties in Green County. She also campaigned on the issue locally and was able to use that as political leverage to successfully win a township trustee position in Bath Township.

Renergy would not agree to repeated requests by 10 Investigates for an on-camera interview. The company issued the following statement saying:

“Renergy takes the waste generated by farmers, cities and ecompanies and turns it into renewable energy. By doing this, we keep pollution out of the air and waste and keep food waste from going into landfills. The organic nutrients are recycled as fertilizer and applied to farm fields to support local farmers growing soybeans and corn. Ohio EPA’s rules for land application do not provide clear guidance for our work. That’s why we work carefully with our regulators to do all we can to go above and beyond. Renergy is committed to fighting climate change.”

The statement did not directly address 10 Investigates’ about what the company is doing to address neighbors’ complaints, how many unassessed pollutants the company tests for or why Ohio EPA’s guidelines are unclear.
Published media reports in various Ohio newspapers show neighbors have raised concerns about similar biosolid operations in Zanesville and Wooster.
Municipalities in states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Maine have either suspended or considered suspending the use of biosolids out of concern over the impact they might have to the environment.

Ohio EPA notified Renergy about 10 Investigates’ questions

In the infancy of our research, 10 Investigates filed a series of open records requests with the Ohio EPA asking for things like copies of complaints or notices of violations issued against Renergy.

But text messages between the Ohio EPA’s chief of its surface water division, Tiffani Kavalec, and Renergy’s chief operating officer, Cari Oberfield show the Ohio EPA notified the company about our inquiry, telling Renergy the name of the 10 Investigates’ researcher who filed the open records request and exact date and time at which the Ohio EPA planned to respond to our request.

At the time of our scheduled interview with the Ohio EPA, we were told Tiffani Kavalec was on leave. We were given the opportunity to speak with Assistant Chief Archie Lunsey.

10 Investigates asked Lunsey about why it was appropriate for the Ohio EPA to tell Renergy that investigative reporters had filed an open records request - and provide specifics details about when the agency planned to respond.

Lunsey said: “I don't have specifics on the text messages that you are talking about. I do know that how Ohio EPA communicates we do take that communication with the general public as well as facilities seriously. We want to respond promptly, we want to respond timely we want to make sure information is being transmitted to those parties that request it and we want to make that we are open to communications as we receive it.”

10 Investigates brought copies of the text messages to the interview.

When asked if he understood the optics of that – that it might appear as though the state agency was providing cover for a private company, Lunsey said: “I can only say that our policy is to be responsive to those inquiries we receive.”

Over the next few minutes, 10 Investigates tried to press again about the issue but were interrupted by a department spokesman who said Lunsey had provided an answer about the department’s responsiveness.

According to the Ohio EPA data, there are nearly 15,000 locations in the state that have been approved for the use of biosolids.

You can check out the map we’ve created below.

View BIOSOLIDS BENEFICIAL SITES in a full screen map

UPDATE: Story has been updated to reflect the pounds of sludge transported, not gallons.