The all-Republican El Paso County Board of Commissioners usually views itself as a staunch defender of private property rights.
But when members of the board recently learned that a Longmont company is planning to dump sewage sludge from outside the county on private ranchland southeast of Colorado Springs, they took the unusual step of writing a strongly worded letter of concern to the state Health Department -- which has jurisdiction over the matter -- calling the plan "unacceptable."
Meanwhile, the company in charge of the project, Liquid Waste Management Inc., says its plans are on hold for reasons unrelated to the county's concerns.
The commissioners submitted their letter on Monday at the urging of the El Paso County Health Department, whose officials claim the sewage could threaten local drinking water.
Liquid Waste Management wants to dispose of an unspecified amount of sewage sludge -- called "biosolids" in industry jargon -- on 320 acres of rangeland located near Drennan Road, southeast of the Colorado Springs Airport.
The sludge could come from any one of more than 70 sources -- all of which are sewage-treatment plans throughout Colorado.
The idea is to use the sludge as fertilizer -- a practice that is common throughout Colorado and the nation but has come under criticism from environmental advocates who point out that sewage sludge contains toxins that can end up in the food chain.
The main concern of the El Paso County Health Department, however, is that groundwater in the area where the dumping has been proposed already has high levels of nitrates. Nitrate in drinking water is regulated because elevated levels can cause death in infants.
Dumping sewage sludge could push the already-high nitrate levels to unacceptable levels, according to Tom Wood, director of environmental quality for the county Health Department. "We're very concerned about the possible impact on drinking water, and therefore the health of our citizens."
The land in question is upstream of several shallow wells, and also upstream of the aquifer that supplies residents with water in the Widefield-Security area, Wood said.
"Thinly veiled attempt"
The county has no jurisdiction to stop the proposal because, under state law, Liquid Waste Management doesn't need a local disposal permit if the sludge is being applied as fertilizer.
But in their letter, the county commissioners called the proposal a transparent scheme to simply get rid of the sludge.
"[The board] can reach no other conclusion than that this is a thinly veiled attempt by a commercial company to use land in El Paso County to dispose of biosolids generated throughout the state -- this under the guise of 'beneficial agricultural use,'" stated the letter, signed by board chairman Tom Huffman.
In addition to concerns about water quality, Huffman said commissioners didn't like the idea of El Paso County being a dumping ground for sludge from other counties.
"We've got enough of our own sludge," he said.
The county commissioners argued in their letter that the state Health Department should at least consult with county staff and officials before approving the project.
Looking for another source
Jeff Holmes, a spokesman for Liquid Waste Management, said he wasn't aware of the county's concerns. "You're telling me new things," he said when asked about the issue.
The project is actually on hold at the moment, Holmes said, because the source of the sludge that the company had hoped to apply failed to meet state environmental regulations. The company is now looking for another source, Holmes said.
If the project does go ahead, it will be subject to stringent state and federal regulations ensuring it doesn't endanger any drinking water, Holmes insisted.
However, he said if county officials are concerned, he'd be more than happy to meet with them to discuss his company's plans.
"Obviously, I realize I need to spend some time with them and talk to them about it," Holmes said.
-- Terje Langeland