DNR offers three proposed permits for land application of sludge

April 20, 2024



The Missouri Department of Natural Resources is struggling to regulate the land application of industrial food waste as permit applications pile up and concerned residents demand stricter controls.

Several companies have requested permits from DNR to distribute “sludge,” as it is colloquially known, from meat processing facilities and other industrial operations to farmers as free fertilizer. Three draft permits from HydroAg, Synagro and Bubs Inc. covering 9,495 acres of land in southwest Missouri are currently open for public comment. The first drafts of Synagro and HydroAg’s permits contained numerous apparent errors, according to a review of the drafts by the Columbia Missourian and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk.

HydroAg has applied to spread sludge on 5,090 acres in Barry, Lawrence and McDonald Counties, and Synagro has applied to spread it on 4,171 acres in Barry, Newton and McDonald counties. Bubs Inc. has applied to spread on 233 acres in McDonald and Newton Counties. The original draft permits posted to the DNR website contained errors in the locations of the fields where sludge would be spread. Synagro’s permit had three location errors, and HydroAg’s permit had 57 errors. In one case, the same location was listed for both Bub’s and Synagro.

Heather Peters, Water Pollution Control Branch Chief for the DNR, thanked the Missourian for catching the mistakes during the public comment period, which closes April 21 for Synagro and HydroAg and May 6 for Bub’s. The locations have been corrected in the draft permits.

“One of the many valuable reasons that we put permits on public notice is for the feedback, including noting any errors or typos,” Peters wrote in an email. “These corrections would be made before a final permit would be issued.”

For errors to be brought to light through public comment alone means that residents in these counties would need to look through permit applications for the locations and double-check each address against the listed coordinates.

Controversy has grown over the practice of spreading sludge from meat and poultry processing plants, wastewater treatment facilities and other industrial operations on farmland. Denali Water Solutions drew the ire of neighbors who objected to its open-air sludge lagoons and land-spreading operations in southwest Missouri and planned lagoon in Randolph County north of Columbia.

The authority to regulate organic waste was transferred from the Missouri Fertilizer Control Board to the DNR in spring 2023 when the board said the waste did not have enough commercial value to qualify as fertilizer. In June, the DNR issued permit exemptions to companies previously licensed by the fertilizer board while it works through a backlog of permit applications.

On April 11, the DNR held what it said would be the first of many meetings to discuss its revamped nutrient standards for wastewater, including that from poultry processing.

The meeting gave residents, especially those in southwest Missouri already fighting Denali’s sludge activities, a chance to voice their concerns and provide input on the guidelines they would like to see.

Considering new standards

The DNR discussed its plan, known as its Industrial Nutrient Management Technical Standard for Industrial Wastewater and Wastewater Treatment Residuals, as well as updates to the Land Application Management Plan templates. Both of these documents are drafts and will undergo changes before they are applied to any permits.

Heather Peters said the concepts in the documents are the same ones used in developing the current draft permits under public notice, such as those from Synagro and HydroAg. Additionally, any new facilities seeking to expand operations in the future would need to comply with the department’s standards, officials said during the meeting.

The nutrient management standard includes limits on substances found in the waste material, including a limit of 126 colony forming units (cfu) of E. coli per 100 mL, which matches the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended limit. Subsurface application would be limited to 10,000 pounds of oil and grease per acre per year. For surface application, sludge should not exceed 1,000 pounds per acre and should contain a maximum of 15% oil, DNR officials said during the meeting.

About 70 people attended the meeting virtually. Several attendees expressed concerns over DNR’s approach.

Vallerie Steele, a committee member of southwest Missouri community group Stop Land Use Damaging our Ground and Environment, or SLUDGE, attended the meeting. She called the sludge a “carrot being dangled out in front of these farmers” and said the DNR should have stricter plans for testing to protect farmers.

Steele said that sludge should be tested at the source as well as at the field, and it should be done by an independent party, not the company.

The DNR also discussed a potential system for designating “Class A materials,” which could be applied to public-use sites and some food crops.

This sludge would need to be heavily treated and meet certain standards, Teresa Bullock, a DNR environmental scientist, said during the meeting.

Rob Currey, chief investment officer for Denali, expressed concern over the possible Class A framework, which could allow food processing plants to treat the sludge themselves, and whether or not it may cut companies like Denali out of the picture.

“If you’ve demonstrated that you have a stable, solid, known nutrient content, there’s no metals or any other pollutants, then potentially you could have this Class A designation,” Bullock said.

Bullock said few facilities could achieve this designation, leaving room for Denali to continue hauling and land-applying material as a third party.

Steele asked about the possibility of shipping sludge to wastewater treatment facilities while DNR figures out its regulations, but Bullock said this would overload the facilities.

“The volume that we’re talking about for our permitted wastewater treatment facilities to accept, they would actually have to go through a modification themselves to start accepting this volume of wastewater,” Bullock said. “They may not be designed to treat a higher strength wastewater at a larger flow.”

Some residents also questioned the department about PFAS, or so-called “forever chemicals,” in the sludge. The DNR said officials will begin rulemaking on PFAS in drinking water, including discharges to groundwater, through a different framework later this year. DNR officials did not address whether they would add PFAS regulations for sludge.

Concerns over permit accuracy

Sharon Turner is a member of community group Citizens of Randolph County Against Pollution, or CRAP. She joined the group in March 2023 when she found out Denali was constructing a storage lagoon across the street from her property near Jacksonville. In their permit application to construct the basin, Denali listed Turner’s land as being available for land application of the fertilizer. Turner and her husband were never made aware and never gave consent to appear in the company’s application.

“My name, my husband’s name, and our ground appeared in their application for permit,” Turner said in an interview with the Missourian. “And there’s no way in hell that you’re gonna put that stuff on my ground, forget it.”

The Jacksonville Lagoon was constructed but never filled. CRAP formed an LLC and hired an attorney who successfully got a writ of prohibition against the DNR, effectively halting the agency from granting any further permits to Denali to continue operations.

When Turner protested her land’s inclusion in Denali’s application at an informational meeting hosted by DNR last summer, she was told by a DNR staff member that had she not raised a concern, the department would never have known that the Turners hadn’t consented. She was disturbed by what this revealed about the DNR’s permitting process.

“You’re just taking applications and rubber-stamping them and sending people down their way,” Turner said. “Like you’re not even doing a basic vetting process.”

Peters acknowledged that the DNR is still figuring out how best to regulate and permit the land application of organic waste. She emphasized the importance of public notice periods in a situation like this, and said that once the department knew about the Turners’ land, they required it to be removed from the permit.

“We had not encountered that before,” Peters said. “It will change how we are doing those discussions going forward.”