Maryland should no longer be a dumping ground for industrial sludge, a growing concern that new bipartisan legislation introduced today by primary sponsors Delegate Sara Love and Senator Justin Ready intends to address. The bill supported by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, ShoreRivers, Chesapeake Legal Alliance, and other environmental groups would close a loophole that allows industrial sludge to be stored and applied to farmland without adequate regulation.
House Bill 991 / Senate Bill 1074 creates a new permit program for the hauling, storage, and proper application of “dissolved air flotation” (DAF) material, which is a kind of industrial sludge of growing concern to farmers and communities. DAF residuals are derived from the protein rendering process and are frequently applied to farmland as an agricultural fertilizer. The proposed legislation would strengthen Maryland’s regulation of DAF by requiring its handlers hold a permit, giving the Maryland Department of the Environment and Maryland Department of Agriculture additional tools to better account for its safe and effective use.
Hauling, storing, and applying industrial sludge in Maryland has become a profitable business due to the state’s lax permitting and oversight. Sludge is often put in large, open tanks or lagoons and is spread on farm fields without clear knowledge of what’s in it or how much is being applied. Residents living near these areas face unbearable odors, flies, health impacts, threats to water quality, and more.
“Industrial sludge that’s generated by DAF is the leftover material from poultry, fish, and other protein products that rendering companies need to dispose of,” said Alan Girard, Eastern Shore Director at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “The material is tested far less rigorously than other waste like sludge or biosolids from municipal wastewater plants, and its makeup when land applied is not well-understood. In other words, we don’t truly know what’s being dumped on our state’s farmland, and what’s ultimately running off into the Chesapeake Bay.”
Other states like Delaware and Virginia require a permit to transport and spread industrial sludge. Since Maryland does not, the state’s farmland has become an attractive dumping ground for the material’s generators. According to a 2023 study by the University of Maryland, more than half of the industrial sludge land-applied in Maryland in recent years came from other states. All of this is happening at a time when a consensus among leading Bay scientists has emerged concluding that we cannot restore water quality without addressing the regional imbalances in nutrient pollution. If we are to address this, we must gain a better understanding of where the nutrients are coming from, where they are going, and better control how they are handled.
“There’s more sludge coming into Maryland than there are places to safely store it, which is why we’re seeing such blatant mishandling and irresponsible land application. In most cases this isn’t farming, it’s dumping,” said Matt Pluta, Choptank Riverkeeper. “We are calling on Maryland legislators to better assess what’s in this sludge material and enforce permits to prevent Maryland from drowning in it.”
In addition to enduring the horrific odor, residents are concerned for their health, local economies, and waterways.
Cheryl Lewis lives near an industrial sludge site in Talbot County. In a letter to the Star Democrat, she wrote, “Under the guise of ‘[agricultural] use’, DAF from seafood and chicken processing and municipal wastewater plant sludge from outside of Talbot County was dumped in heaping mounds, permitted to sit in the open, rotting from exposure, with unregulated runoff entering our waterway. The stench was gut wrenching.”
Community concerns over sludge are widespread. Public hearings in Caroline, Carroll, Talbot, Dorchester, and Wicomico Counties were attended by residents outraged by the threats to human health, the environment, and personal livelihood caused by poor sludge handling. While some counties like Caroline and Wicomico have acted to ban storage of the material, many are seeking a statewide solution.
Primary bill sponsor Maryland Delegate Sara Love represents constituents in Montgomery County and Senator Justin Ready represents citizens in Carroll and Frederick Counties.
“Public nuisances related to the use of industrial sludge in agriculture are a growing concern in communities across Maryland,” said Delegate Love. “Mishandling and overapplication of sludge can lead to nutrient runoff that has negative impacts on waterways and the Bay. This bipartisan legislation will bridge gaps in current state regulation to ensure that farmers who use this material know exactly what is in it and use it in a way that does not overburden their neighbors and the Bay, while giving our regulators additional tools to crack down on the bad actors.”
“I have been contacted by many of my constituents about the use of industrial sludge as an exclusive fertilizer,” said Senator Ready. “The most common complaint is that unlike manure and other types of traditional fertilizers, the smell does not dissipate. This forces neighbors—many of whom are in farming themselves—to abandon spending any time outdoors for most warm weather days of the year. My hope is that we can reach an agreement that will satisfy both approved nutrient management programs and allow the surrounding community quality of life.”