Some residents in rural Mascoutah are pushing for tougher state rules concerning the application of treated human waste as fertilizer after they say an overwhelming stench forced them inside for three days last summer.
Now they fear another round of fertilization will once again keep them inside their homes and possibly contaminate nearby drinking wells.
However, a state environmental official says the use of so-called "sewage sludge" as a fertilizer is safe and heavily regulated.
One of the neighbors, Buck Horine, said workers arrived last June with large tanks and spread the fertilizer on a field near their homes. The smell of human waste-based fertilizer is much stronger than animal waste-based fertilizer, he said.
"Last June, you couldn't imagine the stink coming through the windows," Horine said, adding the odor from the sludge kept families up to four miles away from the field from opening their windows. "We just don't want this to happen again or to anybody else."
The residents recently received notice the farmer would soon again be applying the fertilizer on agricultural property along Illinois 4, south of Mascoutah. The farmer could not be reached for comment. The fertilizer is similar to a "moist clay" and spread on the top of fields.
Sarah Townsend lives near the site and said the first time the farmer spread the human waste-based fertilizer the stench was so bad she thought a dead animal was enclosed in her garage.
"I came home from work, closed my garage door and thought 'Oh my goodness, there's a dead animal in my garage.' Then I realized it's outside and it's inside. It's terrible, and the problem in my eyes is that there are no answers," Townsend said. "The right hand doesn't seem to know what the left hand is doing. Some people say it's perfectly legal. It's not that they shouldn't be able to do it. My concerns are for better regulations."
The farmer received the sewage sludge from the Caseyville Township Wastewater Treatment Plant. The practice of providing sewage sludge to local farmers varies by treatment plant. For example, the City of Belleville's sewer plant does provide the sludge while the American Bottoms Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility in Sauget does not do so.
The Caseyville plant pays local farmers to take the sludge as a significant cost-saving measure, according to Township Supervisor Bruce Canty.
"If we don't find farmers to put it on fields, we have to take it to the landfill. It will cost even more to take it to the landfill, but we haven't had to do that yet," Canty said.
The sludge has been allowed to be used as fertilizer since 1983 in Illinois. The sewage sludge is dried, treated with chemicals and run through filters, Canty explained.
Officials with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) investigated the neighbors' complaints last summer and concluded the township adhered to their permit requirements, according to Agency spokeswoman Kim Biggs.
State and county officials recently met with Horine to discuss the issue.
"At this point there aren't any further reviews going on but as part of the discussions (on May 1) we did indicate we would be on site when the first application was done this year," Biggs said. "We will have a representative on site to document the application and ensure there aren't any issues."
The Caseyville Township permit requires the sludge to be plowed into the ground and not applied within 100 feet of an occupied residence.
"The delivery and application of sludge, and the choice of an application site, shall be made so as to minimize the emission of odors to nearby residents taking into account the direction of wind, humidity and day of the week," the permit states.
Horine said the permit should also require farmers to "knife" the fertilizer into the ground, which would lessen the stench of the odor and prevent runoff.
Knifing the fertilizer produced in Caseyville is not possible because the sludge is a solid, Biggs said.
Neighbors worry runoff may cause the fertilizer to leak into neighboring wells, which have a water table of only about 20 to 25 feet, Horine said. The fertilizer must not be applied within 200 feet of a potable water supply well.
Townsend, who has a pond and cistern on her property, said she worries about the safety of such fertilizer spreading beyond the applied field.
"Do you want this in your backyard? My position isn't they shouldn't be able to do it, but I want to know the health department and IEPA will take care of all of us with some sort of rule that this waste is underground so -- A, I can go out in my back yard, and B, some animal isn't dragging hepatitis C into my yard.
"Nobody is saying it's not legal. We get that but let's make it a safe, legal process. There's no need to fight over this, we just need to figure out a better way."
Biggs said there shouldn't be any health concerns because the sludge from the treatment plant is a highly regulated, processed material.
"There are strict regulations they are meeting and must stay in compliance with to continue applying this material," Biggs said.
State officials also are encouraging neighbors to contact environmental officers with future complaints.