Virginia officials inspected more than 42 percent of all farm fields where sewage sludge was spread as fertilizer in the first half of 2008, the first year the Department of Environmental Quality was responsible for overseeing farms' use of sludge.
That inspection percentage is a drastic change from a paltry state inspection record of the practice a few years ago. In 2004, sludge was applied more than 1,100 times, but state officials conducted only 19 inspections.
Processed sludge, called "biosolids" by industry, is a sewage byproduct that companies put on fields and forest land to enrich the soil, similar to the age-old practice of amending soil with manure.
But the comparison falls short. Scientific studies, including those by researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, have found traces of toxic chemicals in sludge. The sludge used doesn't come only from household sewage, it includes industrial waste as well. Concerns in this region first flared when a group of Isle of Wight County farmers applied to put sludge on their fields. Local residents opposed to the practice and a Daily Press investigation highlighted the facts that the contents of each batch of sludge is not measured before being spread and that oversight of the process in Virginia was severely lacking.
Legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2007 laid out a plan to make DEQ - instead of the Department of Health - responsible for inspecting sludge-spreading. That took effect in January.
DEQ recently tallied its work with sludge in its first year of oversight. These statistics cover January through June.