The Georgia Department of Agriculture is planning changes to strengthen enforcement of “soil amendments,” controversial fertilizers that have raised environmental concerns and provoked nuisance complaints in rural communities for years.
The changes, which are expected to enable more proactive oversight, were detailed in a Department of Agriculture memo shared with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This follows a 90-day review, approved by Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper, which sought to address complaints about misuse of soil amendments statewide.
Soil amendment is the catch-all term used for additives intended to strengthen soil. These include traditional fertilizers such as manure and mulch, but also could be industrial wastes and sewage. Use of soil amendments, regulated by Agriculture, has come under fire in recent years because of the adverse environmental impact caused by some.
The changes “will really enable us to strengthen things on the enforcement side and make sure that folks who are involved in the program are following all the rules and regulations and doing things as they should be,” said Matthew Agvent, department spokesman.
A Wilkes County Farm was fined $85,000 last year after wastewater from a soil amendment leaked into state waters and killed an estimated 1,700 fish. Neighbors living near farms that have used some of these amendments have reported overwhelming odors and swarms of flies or vultures that last for days or weeks near application sites.
Farmers have told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the amendments offer a cheaper, and sometimes free, alternative to fertilizers. Many fertilizer costs have been on the rise in recent years, according to a USDA report.
Farmers also report hopes that the amendments will improve their harvests.
The memo outlines new department positions that will increase program staff from two to five for oversight and enforcement. The hires will include two inspectors and a program director to manage complaints, review inspections and make enforcement judgments, according to the memo.
The state General Assembly has funded the new positions. Also planned is updated software to make inspections easier to track.
Added staff will enable proactive oversight of soil amendment use, including additional inspections before the soil amendments are applied, Agvent said. The department is already interviewing job candidates, he added, and positions are expected to be filled by the end of summer.
Jay Paul, chairman of the Oglethorpe County Board of Commissioners, said he is encouraged to hear of the pending staff hires.
“Now it sounds like they are increasing their manpower, that’s great,” Paul said.
Still, Paul said he thinks local authorities need to be empowered to aid the department’s enforcement efforts.
Legislation supported by Harper when he was a legislator weakened the enforcement authority of local officials.
Agvent said local elected officials were included in feedback during the 90-day review, but to restore regulatory power back to counties would require another legislative act. However, the department plans to keep soil amendments as an issue to monitor.
“This isn’t a one-and-done type situation,” said Agvent. “We’ll continue to look at additional solutions to help strengthen the program and make sure that citizens are addressed.”
All soil amendments must first be registered with the department before they are applied, including a list of ingredients, the name of the additive and instructions for recommended use.
State regulations allow animal byproducts and industrial waste to be used as soil amendments, along with “Class A” sewage sludge that has been treated for pathogens and viruses. However, it is unclear how common the sewage sludge is used.
Tonya Bonitatibus, the Savannah Riverkeeper, was encouraged by the measures and said the software improvements appear to help in tracking.
Bonitatibus and Paul said there have fewer calls and citizen complaints so far this summer, after decades-long battles over use of the amendments.
“It kind of feels like there’s evidence that a new sheriff is in town, and I hope that’s the case,” Bonitatibus said.