With populations in urban areas of Georgia increasing significantly, available options for the disposal of wastewater residuals have been strained in recent years. Several slope failures – potentially dangerous shifts in the structure of landfills – have put an added focus on the management of high moisture content waste, prompting the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) to take action. GEFA commissioned Black & Veatch for a thorough, state-wide study to help water utilities understand the current challenges around landfill disposal of wastewater residuals and to develop new solutions, such as converting the residuals to higher-quality biosolids through enhanced treatment and stabilization. A variety of biosolids products can be produced and each offers multiple outlets for beneficial use as fertilizers or soil amendments.
“Black & Veatch was a wonderful partner,” said Amanda Carroll, Senior Project Manager for GEFA. “I am very grateful for their expertise and guidance throughout this study.”
Bernadette Drouhard, Water Process Specialist for Black & Veatch in Atlanta, worked with her team in conducting the study.
“What we’ve been doing in Georgia for the last 50 years is not a good option," Drouhard said. “This study shows the complete picture from regulations to technologies to potential local users of all biosolids products. The study gives utilities a solid starting point, maps out several potential paths they could take in adjusting to the new challenges, and makes recommendations on how to find funding for needed projects.”
Needless to say, funding for large projects is paramount, and GEFA is a good place to begin. GEFA has two loan funds that support biosolids projects – The Georgia Fund, at $3 million per year and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) at $25 million per year. “Our No. 1 goal in issuing this study was for GEFA to see an increase in the number of funding requests for biosolids projects,” Drouhard said. “Although progress has been slow, we were encouraged in 2022 after a few utilities did apply for funding for biosolids projects. The planning, design, and construction of biosolids treatment technologies can take years. We hope to see more projects in the State soon.”
Indeed, there has been some positive progress. Since the key issue has to do with high moisture content of biosolids, part of the solution is for utilities to invest in treatment approaches that open up alternative biosolids outlets. Three utilities in the Atlanta region have been working toward that end, a move that Drouhard sees as encouraging.
Drouhard said a large shift needs to occur in how biosolids are perceived and managed. Currently, 65 percent of wastewater residuals are disposed at landfills in Georgia, compared with the national average of 22 percent. She said this has occurred due to the historically low prices landfills charged in Georgia. However, that “easy way out” is rapidly changing. Utilities have had their landfill contracts cancelled without notice following slope failures, and when facilities did reopen, fees were nearly tripled.
“Landfills are just not a long-term solution for utilities anymore. They are expensive and can lead to uncertainty – and utilities need certainty in their operations.”
Biosolids as a Resource
Rather than incinerating biosolids or sending them to a landfill, the best available option is to use biosolids as a resource, such as fertilizer or soil amendment for agriculture, silviculture (forestry development), land reclamation, and even golf courses.
“Biosolids are stabilized, pathogen-free and safe to handle, especially compared to animal waste which is often used in these settings as well,” Drouhard said. She noted that there are many uses for soil amendments, such as hay fields, sod farms, and timber growth – although biosolids are safe and could be used to grow vegetables, they are generally not used on any crop for human consumption due to public perception. That’s fine, too because there is so much demand for biosolids from other markets.
The study provides an overview of the current biosolids management situation in Georgia as well as future opportunities and potential challenges. Emerging issues are also covered in the report, such as PFAS regulations, that could impact beneficial use of biosolids. Other sections of the report describe technologies to produce biosolids, the markets that may use biosolids, cost estimates for typical projects, and recommendations to GEFA on how financing can help.
Utilities interested in exploring all available biosolids end use options should know that Black & Veatch has professionals that are experts in biosolids technologies, biosolids end use, and in receiving funding for these types of projects. They understand the intricate application process and detailed documentation that state and federal agencies require. They are also very good at identifying potential funding sources, such as the EPA and USDA, as well as various state departments.
“When applying for a loan or grant, you really have to make your case and demonstrate the need,” Drouhard said.
GEFA Study Available on Website
GEFA has posted the study report on its public website. That move has allowed other government agencies throughout the Southeast to view the information, and, in turn, has prompted some interest from neighboring states for Black & Veatch to study and make recommendations for their region.