Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Shawn Jansen
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

The scoop on poop: biosolids and their use


December 12, 2019

David Ketchum is getting some help for his hay fields, but it’s not the typical fertilizer. A farmer who raises beef cattle in Windemere Township, Ketchum received approval in September from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to apply biosolids to his fields.

In a phone interview Friday, Ketchum said he’s using biosolids because “it’s not harmful, it’s beneficial to me and it’s cost effective for a farmer.”

The biosolids are coming from the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD). The WLSSD operates the regional wastewater treatment for the Duluth area that stretches from Knife River to Carlton County. According to their literature, biosolids are “the nutrient-rich organic product of wastewater treatment.” Yes, we’re talking about poop.


Although manure has been applied to fields to improve soil health for ages, there was concern over what pollutants might exist in wastewater. Out of concern for human health and the environment, biosolids have been subjected to extensive treatment, testing and tracking of potential pollutants.

According to Sherry Bock, MPCA biosolids specialist, the federal government set standards related to biosolids in the 1990s through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),and the state of Minnesota added more restrictions with respect to site selection and Type IV certification for the operators overseeing the land application.

With 13 lakes and a concern for what pollutants might be carried to them in run-off from fields, Windemere Township had passed a moratorium on the use of biosolids in 2005. However, the duration of a moratorium is one year for the purpose of studying an issue in order to craft a new ordinance, if needed. According to Township Clerk Scott Danelski, via a phone call Monday, he could find no record of a study that was undertaken, nor could he find a record that an ordinance was passed prohibiting biosolids the following year. Current zoning regulations do not prohibit the application of biosolids.

Despite word to the contrary, the MPCA cannot override a local ordinance that prohibits the land application of biosolids, according to Bock. Ketchum’s MPCA-approved application only means it passes the state standards. Since Windemere Township has no ordinance against it, the WLSSD can move forward with the biosolids application.

Approval process

Ketchum said, “It’s just good for your fields.” He said he wants to get the quality of hay up to that of when he first started raising cattle on his land 27 years ago. He’s heard it will double the yield just like commercial fertilizer by neutralizing the soil, and it’s cheaper than the cost of delivery of lime — it’s free. He said he would have to sell his small herd of 20 head three times over to afford the cost of commercial fertilizer. He’s looking to apply biosolids to about 25-30 acres.

Ketchum said it’s a program that’s been in use in the surrounding area for years. He heard about it from Carlton County Extension educator Troy Salzer.

“They come do a soil sample,” Ketchum said. The samples are sent to the University of Minnesota for analysis. Next, a scientist walks the field and plots out where they can apply the biosolids. The plan is then written up and sent to the MPCA for approval.

“There’s a lot of agencies involved,” said Ketchum.

He said his soil is sandy, and biosolids are especially effective in sandy soils because they absorb into the soil right away. He said the slope of the land and proximity to water determine if the biosolids need to be worked into the soil or not.

Who benefits from biosolids

Craig Lincoln of the WLSSD presented information on biosolid applications to the Windemere Town Board on November 14.

He said, “Bacteria are our friends.” The Sanitary District uses bacteria to break down the waste over three to four weeks. Then they use high temperatures to treat the waste.

The Sanitary District has rigorous quality control testing for trace metals in the biosolids they call Field Green. Lincoln said the district developed the process used to remove mercury from the water. He said a scientist verifies what’s in the field, maps it with GPS and GIS systems, and inspects the field after application as well. In addition, the scientists observe recommended setbacks from public and water ways.

“Our job is to keep the St. Louis River clean,” he said. Has the district been successful? He said it is documented that sturgeon are spawning again in the St. Louis River.

Not only do the biosolids get treated to remove pathogens and are monitored for heavy metals, but the application of biosolids is tailored to meet the nitrogen needs of the crop to be grown in that soil type, according to Bock. With biosolids, the nitrogen is released throughout the growing season because there are different types of nitrogen in the biosolids. Once they are applied to the soil, microorganisms in the soil convert the organic nitrogen to inorganic nitrogen which can then be used by the crop.

Bock said the agency approves about 100 sites for biosolids statewide per year.

Ketchum said cost and his concern for the environment are what attracted him to the use of biosolids. He said during the phone call, “I’m very conscious of run-off.”

Ketchum said the Sanitary District will be contacting him regarding when they will apply the biosolids to his fields. He said there may be an odor just as with any manure application. He’s not sure how soon he will see results of the application. It can be the second year before seeing results using commercial fertilizer.

He sees biosolid applications as a win for the Sanitary District because they have to get rid of the waste, and it’s a win for the small farmer who can’t afford commercial fertilizer.

There was one more reason for his consideration of biosolids. “It’s going to affect my grandkids’ future,” said Ketchum.

Other business

The board of supervisors approved funds for an old-fashioned Christmas party to be held 3-5 p.m. at the town hall on December 14, with decorating to take place the night before.

A special meeting will be held at 7 p.m. December 17 to discuss the high water levels of Sturgeon Lake. County and state officials are scheduled to attend.


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