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Company behind CRD biosolids sued in U.S. over health issues, animal deaths

Synagro Technologies is a majority owner in the residual treatment facility at Hartland.

The company that produces biosolids at Hartland Landfill for the Capital Regional District is being sued by a group of Texas farmers.

The farmers claim fertilizer made from a product of sewage treatment by Synagro Technologies’ operation in Fort Worth, Texas, is making them sick and killing their animals.

Synagro Technologies is majority owner of the residual treatment facility at Hartland and has a 20-year contract to run the plant that produces thermally dried biosolids in the form of granules.

Five farmers in Johnson County, Texas, filed a civil lawsuit Feb. 27 against Synagro, which is based in Baltimore, Maryland, and its Texas subsidiary.

The farmers claim their lands have been rendered “worthless” after fertilizer containing toxic chemicals from biosolids produced by a Synagro plant in Fort Worth was spread by a neighbouring farmer on his crops. They say the toxic chemicals contained in the biosolids fertilizer permeated their drinking-water wells and other water sources used for raising animals and crops.

The lawsuit alleges the fertilizer contained high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of human-made chemicals that provide heat-, stain- and water-resistance in commercial applications. PFAS are often called “forever chemicals” and some studies have suggested links to cancer, birth defects and impaired functioning of the liver, kidneys and immune system, among other ailments.

Synagro did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

The allegations have not been proven in court.

Larisa Hutcheson, general manager of parks and environmental services, on Wednesday told a CRD meeting that staff have not had any conversations with Synagro about the U.S. lawsuit and they don’t have a sense of how biosolids in Greater Victoria compare with those in the U.S.

Biosolids produced in the capital region have not been used for agricultural purposes, said CRD spokesman Andy Orr.

Despite that, some people are concerned about potential health risks.

Philippe Lucas, founder of Biosolid Free B.C., said the U.S. lawsuit confirms the concerns he’s been raising for years.

“We have no reason to believe that the technology employed by Synagro in Texas … are any different than the technology they use here,” he said.

CRD wrestling with long‑term plan

The lawsuit comes as the CRD discusses what to do with its biosolids: Four years after effluent from the region’s five core municipalities started making its way through the $775-million sewage treatment system, there is still no clear plan.

Sludge from the sewage treatment plant at McLoughlin Point in Esquimalt is piped to the Synagro plant at Hartland, where it is turned into granular pellets. The result — about 10 tonnes a day — is being deposited in the landfill as the CRD awaits direction from the province on what to do with the accumulating tonnage.

The plan had been for the biosolids to be incinerated at a cement plant in Richmond. But the CRD has been unable to consistently send biosolids there due to shutdowns and unplanned operational issues.

To minimize the amount of biosolids being put in the landfill, the CRD board amended a regional ban on land application to allow biosolids to be spread on non-agricultural land as a ­short-term solution.

That has allowed the regional district to send biosolids to a gravel extraction quarry in Cassidy, where biosolids mixed with sand are being stored. The quarry operator is awaiting approval under provincial mining regulations to use the biosolids in quarry reclamation.

The CRD board has requested a meeting with Environment Minister George Heyman to discuss an extension on finalizing its long-term management plan for biosolids.

The province requires that the CRD submit a long-term biosolids management plan by June, but it’s awaiting a provincial update to regulations that govern biosolids, which is expected in May.

The Peninsula Biosolids Coalition, a group of concerned citizens, businesses and environmental groups, would like public consultation on any new plan to include the risks of toxic chemicals to public health and the environment, and a third-party academic assessment of the scientific and legal risks and benefits on various biosolids disposal methods.

The group said it favours the CRD testing pyrolysis or gasification to mitigate toxic chemicals and create gas for heat and electricity or biochar that can be used as a soil additive. The CRD has said it could take seven to 10 years to build a facility.

The coalition opposes other CRD proposals in its current public engagement, which include fertilizer for agriculture, mine and quarry reclamation, forest fertilization and wholesale fertilizer for lawns, boulevards and golf courses.

“The daily dumping of tonnes of biosolids continues at Hartland … this is a clear risk to the surrounding watershed, farms, recreational areas, homes and businesses,” Dave Cowen, general manager of Butchart Gardens, wrote on behalf of the group in a recent op-ed in the Times ­Colonist.

‘Low concentration’ of ­chemicals found

On its website, the CRD says the region’s biosolids have been analyzed for contaminants such as pharmaceuticals and PFAS, and results show concentrations are low and risk to human health and the environment is low.

Analysis for 58 of the most common pharmaceuticals detected 30, all of which were in the parts-per-billion range, considered a low concentration “very unlikely” to have adverse health effects, the CRD says, citing a 2017 risk assessment conducted in Metro Vancouver.

An analysis for PFAS detected 14 of the 38 most common types, also all in the parts-per-billion range.

One of the most common types, known as PFOS, was detected at a concentration of about six parts per billion. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has set a limit of 50 parts per billion for PFOS in biosolids used as fertilizer.

The regional district plans to complete a review of scientific literature on the uses and impacts of biosolids.

Orr, the CRD spokesman, said the regional district relies on the province as the regulator of biosolids.

The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change said provincial regulations require biosolids applied to land to be treated and stabilized to reduce pathogens. They’re then tested to ensure they meet high-quality standards to protect human health and the environment, the ministry said.

“Treated biosolids can be a valuable resource that helps with climate change mitigation, by reducing the production of greenhouse gases from landfills, preserving carbon in soils, ­helping plants grow and reducing soil erosion,” the ministry said.

Provincial regulations are being reviewed to reflect the latest advances in science related to biosolids and standards in other jurisdictions, it said.

In Texas, health issues and dead animals

The Texas farmers behind the U.S. lawsuit are asking the Baltimore County Circuit Court for compensation and punitive damages in an amount greater than $75,000, all costs they’ve incurred to bring the lawsuit and any other relief the court deems proper.

Their lawsuit alleges that because PFAS are not removed by wastewater treatment, they accumulate in the biosolids that Synagro uses to make its fertilizer, which it “falsely markets” as being safe and organic.

The suit claims Synagro’s biosolid fertilizer tested positive for 27 individual PFAS chemicals and that eight of those were found in “extremely high concentrations” on the plaintiffs’ properties by a Johnson County environmental investigator.

Since they were exposed to PFAS through the Synagro-branded granulate fertilizer in 2022, the plaintiffs claim that tests have found high levels of toxic chemicals in their soil, wells and water sources. As a result, they have suffered health issues that include high blood pressure, respiratory and cardiac problems, skin irritations and growths and other medical issues.

The lawsuit alleges exposure has caused damage to livestock and rendered the land where they live and work nearly worthless. One farmer claims several animals on his farm have died, including horses, cattle, dogs, chickens, ducks and fish being raised in ponds. The farmer has stopped growing vegetables.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit cites the loss of five ­heifers and five calves to unknown causes. The liver of a stillborn calf in December showed high levels of PFOS, well above what other states say is safe for consumption of beef.

Tissue samples from fish in ponds on the farmers’ lands also indicated high levels of PFAS chemicals.

“Now that their property and only water source is polluted with forever chemicals, they face the stark possibility of having to abandon the home they love and the property they have developed into a working ranch, raising cattle, freshwater fish, and game birds, which may have to be euthanized since they cannot be safely consumed,” the lawsuit said of one farmer.

“[They] have started to purchase bottled water for drinking and cooking, but they must shower, do dishes, clean the house and water their animals with well water which is polluted,” the lawsuit said. “Their property is their main asset which has been rendered worthless and will be costly and difficult to clean up and restore.”

Another plaintiff said that because their only water source is polluted, they may be forced to abandon their cattle ranch.

“They are suffering significant daily economic losses due to the inability to market their cattle or beef or hay and may have to euthanize their entire herd, a crushing and emotional task, especially since, at the time of this complaint, seventy-three heifers are pregnant,” the lawsuit said.

The claim states that Synagro knew, or reasonably should have known, of the foreseeable risks and defects of its biosolids fertilizer, and failed to provide adequate warnings of pollution of properties and water supplies with PFAS, which are persistent and mobile within the environment.

‘Unwanted substances in ­biosolids’

Synagro has said it has more than 1,000 municipal, industrial and agricultural customers and operates 24 facilities in North America, including dryer facilities in Victoria and Windsor, Ont. The company cumulatively manages 6.5 million tons of biosolids a year.

The company’s own public reports indicate its biosolid products might contain PFAS chemicals. A sustainability report by Synagro in 2022 said: “One of our industry’s challenges … is the potential of unwanted substances in biosolids, like per- and polyfluoroalkyl.”

The company report said ­Synagro does not generate PFAS or uses them in its processes, and that the chemicals enter public wastewater through industrial, commercial and residential sources.

“Each municipality has unique discharge sources and in some cases these substances can potentially be detected in biosolids.”

In its 2022 report, Synagro said it is working with environmental services company Char-Tech Solutions on a high-temperature pyrolysis process to treat biosolids.

The company said preliminary testing has demonstrated it “may address PFAS contaminants” and the company will be choosing a Synagro test site for a pilot project.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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