Practice of using treated human waste for fertilizer upsets some area residents

by: Greg Suskin Updated:

CHESTER COUNTY, S.C. - Iris Dickerson remembers the smell of burning human waste when she served as an Army captain in Afghanistan. She smelled it in the streets there, but she never thought she'd have to endure it when she returned home to Chester County.

"We can't live like this. We can't even go outside," she said.

Dickerson said the nasty odor of what's spread on nearby farmland is making her sick, and she worries about her daughter with asthma.

"The wind does not care when it comes to the horrible smell, and it's hitting me right in the face," she said.

Dumping the remnant of treated human waste on fields for fertilizer is a long-time practice in many rural communities.

In Rock Hill, the city contracts with a company called Synagro to spread its treated waste on about 10,000 acres in several counties, including the land near Dickerson's home.

"DHEC and the EPA have regulated it, and it's been going on for decades," said Rock Hill Utilities Director Scott Motsinger.

Synagro takes about 1,200 tons of the bio-solids a year and spreads it at the request of farmers. Each time a farmer asks for the free fertilizer, DHEC conducts a study and issues a permit for the operation. The bio-solids can only be spread on a particular site twice a year.

Motsinger said because the waste is treated, it is free from chemicals, which are removed during the process, and contains bacteria that will consume it. It's no different he said, than animal waste that's used for the same purpose.

"If it wasn't going to be our bio-solids being applied to those fields, it would be somebody else's," he said. "Some other city or treatment facility."

Motsinger said the city is saving taxpayer money by avoiding the high cost of hauling the waste to a landfill, and giving back to the environment.

DHEC told Eyewitness News Wednesday that complaints about the strong odor are common, but the agency can only make sure each contractor is abiding by a permit, it can't control the odor.

Health officials have repeatedly said that the sludge poses no risk to ground water or human health. However, when it's spread on pasture, cows and horses cannot graze there for 30 days. Motsinger said that's to allow the product to get into the soil.

Eyewitness News visited a field on Gaston Farm Road in Chester County on Wednesday after our newsroom received complaints from nearby homeowners.

The smell was extremely strong in the area just a few feet from Interstate 77. Eyewitness News also learned that despite the foul odor, the bio-solids hadn't been dumped there in nearly two weeks. The farmer who owns the land where the sludge is being spread did not want to comment about it after being reached by phone.

Neighbors like Dickerson are angry that the people spreading the sludge and approving the permits don't live anywhere near these fields.

"They should camp out right here in my yard," she said. "I'd like everybody to come out here and put up a tent, so you can live with it."

City officials said the smell can be strong, but it's not much different than the smell of turkey or chicken waste that's also a common in many rural, farming communities.

"I don't have a good answer for how to make the odor go away," Motsinger said. "It kind of is what it is in that respect."