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Thursday, Jan 23 2014 08:54 PM

Salas challenges panel on sludge

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    State Assemblyman Rudy Salas speaks in this file photo.

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BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

When Assemblyman Rudy Salas goes shopping, he's often asked about sewage sludge.

"Everywhere I go people ask, 'Whatever happened to Measure E, what ever happened to the lawsuit?'" Salas said.

On Thursday, he asked some of those same questions of a panel of state and regional regulators he pulled together for a town hall meeting in the Bakersfield City Council chambers.

After the meeting Salas said he is convinced he needs to revive Assembly Bill 371, a stalled bill he authored, and revise it so it requires more stringent regulation of biosolids in Kern County.

Salas, D-Bakersfield, walked the streets of Kern County in 2006 in support of Measure E, the local initiative which banned the application of treated human and industrial waste in unincorporated Kern County.

The law has been suspended for nearly eight years by a long federal and state court battle between the city of Los Angeles and Kern County.

Los Angeles applies much of its treated waste -- called biosolids under federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations -- to its Green Acres farm in Kern County southwest of Bakersfield.

Salas said everything that goes down a drain in the city of Los Angeles, from household cleaners to industrial products -- ends up in a wastewater treatment plant, and could make it through the treatment process into the material spread on Green Acres' fields.

Tracy Martin and her husband run the Bit-O-Heaven horse ranch a quarter mile from Green Acres.

"Living right out there in the middle of it," she said Thursday, "you feel so powerless."

She watches trucks spread biosolids, smells the sludge and worries about what leeches into the aquifer.

Salas said some of the standards were created decades ago and haven't been updated.

But Johnny Gonzales, an engineer with the State Water Resources Control Board, said the EPA controls the standards regulating biosolids. He said every two years the EPA reviews new studies investigating concerns about trace levels of toxic chemicals and pathogens that might remain in biosolids after treatment.

"This is a very live subject and people are very concerned about what is in those products," he said.

So far, he said, EPA has found nothing to trigger changes to the federal regulations.

Salas said he has seen reports of repeated violations of state and federal regulations.

"I get that we have this bar, but with these violations how can we be sure we aren't getting more toxic sludge?" Salas said.

Members of the panel said tough penalties are meted out for those violations.

But how does the board ensure the EPA standards are met at Green Acres, the farm where much of L.A.'s biosolids are applied, Salas asked.

"We do have ground water monitoring that occurs out there," said Lonnie Wass, a supervising engineer with the Central Valley Regional Water Control Board who is in charge of regulating the facility.

Currently, the ground water in the area meets federal standards and the company that manages Green Acres has met reporting requirements, Wass said.

He said the problem with Measure E is it attempts to ban a practice by L.A. that's also used by Kern County cities and communities.

The law doesn't ban, for instance, the city of Bakersfield's application of biosolids because the city spreads the sludge on land inside the city limits.

Gene Lundquist, who attended the hearing, said biosolids are a threat to Kern County ground water.

"Why put anything on the ground over our water basin that could possibly contaminate our ground water?" Lundquist said. "The people of Kern County decided it shouldn't be applied, so it shouldn't."

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