By Sally Voth
FRONT ROYAL - Jerry Scholder's backyard is his laboratory, and worms his lab rats.
For the past two years, he has been feeding thousands of red worms human waste that has been treated at the Front Royal wastewater treatment plant.
Scholder has hauled away 40,000 pounds of Class B biosolids, which he describes as stinky and pathogenic, spread them in an enclosed section of his yard and let the worms do their work. They eat the nutrients and organisms living in the waste, digest it and void themselves -- a cycle repeated eight times a day -- delivering a cleansed "casting," in a process known as vermistabilization, according to Scholder.
The worms' guts kill microbes and viruses, according to Scholder's website, vermistabilization.com. Their waste is encased in a membrane, called a casting, which is hugely beneficial to soil.
"Castings supply organic nutrients (NPK) in a time-released, soluble manner, increasing the amount of available nutrients to the plant and reducing the negative impact of the nutrients leaching into water systems," the site states.
These castings also aerate the soil, make it more porous and have humic substances.
"These substances -- known technically as fulvic acids, humic acids, and humins -- hold sand and clay together to form what we call soil," the site states.
The end product is a much cleaner Class A biosolid that Scholder says can be used to fertilize anything from crops, to gardens, to golf courses.
"You can't smell anything but earth," Scholder said, his hands churning through some Class A product stored in a garbage can. Worms could be seen wiggling in it, too. "This is all clean."
When that by-product is dried, no micro-organisms are left, and therefore neither are the worms, making it even more sanitary.
"There's nothing to feed off of," Scholder said. "Worms eat one thing -- microbes, microorganisms. Once they don't have any food, they say good-bye. One hundred percent is digested and cleaned by the fact that there's no more worms there. And there's no smell. And, there's soil analysis today. Test me as many times as you want. I will pass it."
Nitrogen phosphorous and potassium are left, and those are ideal for plant roots, according to Scholder, who excitedly showed off gargantuan lilies and prolific tomato plants growing in his yard.
"I'm getting two crops for what people usually get one crop of because I'm using castings," he said.
Scholder claims a small amount of vermicastings -- black gold -- added to plant soil could make the plants grow 20 percent bigger and increase their root mass by 150 percent.
"So what does that mean for our agricultural crops?" he asked.
Scholder is lobbying the town to let him do a pilot project using his worms to treat biosolids on land at the wastewater treatment plant. He said it could be done on a half-acre parcel. He also would like the town to have someone try to find grants to fund the project.
In return, Scholder said he'll save the town the hundreds of thousands of dollars it spends to get rid of biosolids.
Passionate about his experiment, Scholder said not only would vermistabilization be much cheaper than a new technology Front Royal officials are mulling including in upgrades at the wastewater treatment plant, it is better for the environment and healthier for residents.
"I clean the biosolids in a matter of days, and it takes them months," he said. "It's such a simple process. It's an environmentally friendly alternative to landfilling, to incineration, or to land spreading. And, that's what the choices are. And, it protects a resource our country needs badly: soil.
"We could revolutionize America's disposal of our organic waste. This is the way to really make a difference in the world."
At Skyline High School earlier this week, Scholder attended a Virginia Department of Environmental Quality public hearing on a Remington company's application to modify its existing permit allowing it to apply biosolids and "water treatment plant residuals" on land in Warren County. Recyc Systems Inc. wants to add 386.5 additional acres to the farm land in the county on which it already has a permit to spread the biosolids, according to a notice from DEQ.
"The town doesn't have any control [over the permits]," Scholder said. "The county doesn't have any control, and the state health department doesn't have any control. It's all been placed in DEQ's control."
DEQ has issued permits for Class B biosolids to be applied to agricultural land in Frederick, Shenandoah and Warren counties, DEQ Office of Land Application Programs Manager Neil Zahradka said Friday. He said Front Royal's sewage treatment plant also had a discharge permit allowing for the application.
In his Richmond office, Zahradka stressed he wasn't on the ground in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, but based on information he was pulling from a database, biosolids had been applied in Frederick County this year, but the most recent applications in Shenandoah and Warren counties were last year. Representatives from the Harrisonburg office weren't available for comment Friday afternoon.
"The solids that are separated from the municipal wastewater at the treatment plant, it's treated through various chemical or biological means to stabilize it for land application," Zahradka said.
This treatment renders it less alluring to pests -- its appeal to pests and rodents that can transmit disease is referred to as its vector attraction -- and reduces pathogens, he said.
"It's also treated to make sure heavy metals are reduced to specified levels," Zahradka said. "There's been a lot of studies done. We ensure that the regulations are followed. When the regulations are followed, it's been found to be safe for human health and the environment."
Zahradka said whether biosolids-application permits are approved is up to the DEQ, although localities may employ their own worker to supplement DEQ inspections of such sites, and he encouraged concerned residents to report any issues they spot.
"If they have questions about something they see, it's something that we want you to [report to] your local DEQ office," he said. "Our staff is equipped to investigate and determine whether or not that activity is in compliance."
Scholder said he doesn't feel DEQ has the resources to properly monitor the land application.
Scholder said Front Royal is looking at the possibility of spending $4 million to put in an auto-thermophilic aerobic digester, an ATAD, which would use tremendous heat to kill all the viruses and bacteria in the biosolids taking them from Class B to Class A. There are no restrictions on the use of Class A biosolids, he said.
"You can use it anywhere," Scholder said. "It's as clean as you could possibly get for these standards. I do the same thing. I go from Class B to Class A. It sure isn't $4 million to do it. Legally, I cannot obtain biosolids [from the plant]. But guess what, I've moved 20 tons of it."
After telling Front Royal Town Manager Steve Burke the town should use his system, Scholder said he's been cut off from his waste supply, and the worms have gone hungry. Scholder also said he didn't know it was illegal for him to take the biosolids, which he said he'd been given permission to do.
In an interview Friday afternoon, Burke said the town council has asked Scholder to develop a formal proposal and business plan for vermistabilization and the selling of the resultant castings.
"We've contacted the consultant that's doing the upgrades to our wastewater treatment plant, and they're indicated to us that vermistabilization has been tried in a few places," he said. "Vermistabilization appears to be a better-performing process in agriculture and farm settings, dealing more with livestock waste. It's very labor-intensive, and when Mr. Scholder came to the town, he basically indicated he was looking to implement it as a private function."
Burke said the town pays about $225,000 to have a company haul away its Class B biosolids.
"We're looking at conducting a different process that would create a Class A biosolid, which is the equivalent of a fertilizer," he said.
Burke didn't specify how much that process would cost beyond saying "it's a multi-million-dollar investment." He said the upgrades needed to bring the plant into compliance with the Chesapeake Bay Act are still in the design phase, but are estimated to cost about $40 million.
Zahradka said he didn't know whether the Environmental Protection Agency had approved vermiculture as a stabilization method for biosolids, saying it's not been seen on a broad scale.
"What Front Royal would need to do is demonstrate that the process meets the pathogen and vector attraction requirements that are contained in the federal and state regulations," he said.
Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org