Our Day in Court on Sewage Sludge

After 6 years of fighting, on September 16, 2016, Shenandoah Riverkeeper finally had our chance to tell a state court judge in Richmond why Virginia’s statewide permit allowing farmers to apply treated sewage sludge (known as biosolids) to their fields fails to prevent overuse of sludge and pollution of nearby waterways, including the Shenandoah River. Sarah Fox of the Georgetown Law School’s Institute for Public Representation argued the case for us, and she did a fantastic job.

In simple terms, Sarah laid out the fundamental problems with this permit – the fact that it allows use of sludge on farmland on karst, a porous geologic formation that underlies much of the Shenandoah Valley. Karst is like Swiss cheese with a thin layer of soil on top. Any sludge that isn’t absorbed into the soil will run off into nearby rivers or mix with groundwater, causing contamination and nutrient pollution of the river. 

In addition, the state permit gives too much flexibility in how much sludge can be applied to one field, resulting in documented “over-application” that leads to phosphorus saturated soils and nutrient runoff into the Shenandoah and ultimately Chesapeake Bay.

We are in court to argue this because Virginia's legislature removed any local control over the use of sludge as a farm fertilizer. While Virginia law prohibits the application of sludge in a manner that threatens health or the environment, the regulations approved by the state do not meet that high standard. The result is pollution to our river and danger to our communities.

Opposing us were the Virginia Attorney General’s office, the Virginia Farm Bureau, and a trade association representing sewage treatment plants. Judge Joi Taylor of the Richmond City Circuit Court heard our appeal, and said she would likely issue a ruling in a month.  Stay tuned…

This case is a great example of the critical role citizen enforcers like Shenandoah Riverkeeper has in making sure government does its job to protect our waterways and public health. It also highlights that many of our legal actions can take years to resolve and are complicated to explain as they move through the courts.

If you’re a real litigation junkie, you can read our court brief and learn more about the case here.