Biosolids Recycling Program

The Mason Farm Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) currently treats about 8 million gallons per day of domestic wastewater from the Carrboro/Chapel Hill community. Additionally, the WWTP accepts and treats about 0.5 million gallons per year of wastewater pumped from septic tanks serving the surrounding rural area.

What are biosolids?

Biosolids are a nutrient rich by-product of wastewater treatment. Solids are removed from the wastewater treatment process which undergo a high temperature anaerobic digestion process to destroy pathogens and eliminate odors, producing biosolids. The biosolids are treated according to Federal and State requirements that allow their beneficial reuse as a fertilizer and soil amendment.

What is the quality of our biosolids?

All OWASA biosolids meet the trace metal requirements necessary to qualify for the Exceptional Quality (EQ) designation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NC Division of Water Quality because of their low concentrations of trace metals (cadmium, lead, zinc, mercury, and others). OWASA's ability to consistently meet these low levels of trace metals reflects the lack of industrial dischargers to our community sewer system.    

Recycling our biosolids

The WWTP produces about four dry tons of biosolids each day. Some of this is applied in liquid form to agricultural land and a portion is “dewatered” to the texture and consistency of moist soil and transported to a private composting facility in Chatham County. OWASA staff continues to follow the development of alternate technologies available for management of biosolids. Our current goal is to continue the work to optimize the land application program given limitations with staffing, equipment, weather impacts, land availability and regulations.

OWASA has 937 acres of farmland in Orange, Chatham and Alamance counties available for its Class A land application program. Nearly 84% (784 acres) is privately owned. The remaining 153 acres are owned by OWASA as part of a 700-acre tract west of Orange Grove Road in Orange County.  

Federal and State regulations specify upper concentration limits for selected trace metals in biosolids. Regulations also specify the “agronomic rates” at which biosolids may be land applied for designated crops; i.e., the maximum amount of biosolids that can be applied to a given field is determined by the nitrogen content of the biosolids and is limited to the nitrogen requirements of the particular crop to which it is being applied. OWASA closely monitors the application rates on each individual field and, historically, has applied at rates well below those allowed by regulation. In the future, application rates may become based on phosphorus limits instead of nitrogen limits. If this occurs, the amount of land needed to support the land application program would increase. Per Federal standards, our biosolids are tested for quality and certain other characteristics once a year and trace metals, solids, and nutrients are measured every 60 days. OWASA monitors for groundwater quality three times per year at OWASA-owned locations that receive biosolids.

The OWASA Board of Directors discussed a staff report on biosolids management in the Board's meeting on October 8, 2015. For more information, please click here.

National Perspective

The U.S. EPA estimated that approximately 7.2 million dry tons of biosolids were generated in 2004 at more than 16,800 municipal wastewater treatment plants in the U.S.   Of the total 7.2 million dry tons of biosolids, approximately 23% were treated to Class A standards and almost all met Class A EQ standards. About 50% of the biosolids produced are land applied; the remainder is either composted, landfilled, incinerated and/or processed for energy recovery. Less than 1% of the total U.S. food supply is fertilized with biosolids.

Federal standards for biosolids and review by the National Research Council

The EPA used a risk assessment process to develop much of the current Federal standards for biosolids (Part 503 rule), and these standards define acceptable levels of several pollutants.

In 2002, the National Research Council’s review of EPA’s biosolids regulations concluded in part that: “There is no documented scientific evidence that the Part 503 rule has failed to protect public health. However, additional scientific work is needed to reduce persistent uncertainty about the potential for adverse human health effects from exposure to biosolids.”

For more information about the EPA rules:

Links to additional information: