Most of us would be happier believing that poop simply disappears once it's flushed down the toilet.
But it does go somewhere. Just ask the residents of rural Hanover, who have recently received an earful on — and in some cases, a lung-ful of — treated human sewage, otherwise known as "biosolids."
Unbeknownst to most, biosolids are a thriving product, sold as fertilizer at the store and sprinkled across fields and crops. They have long been used by landowners in Hanover who contract with Parker Ag Services, a company that manages biosolids for many Colorado utilities. (Colorado Springs Utilities isn't a client; it tills its biosolids into Clear Spring Ranch, located near the Ray Nixon Power Plant.) Parker Ag spreads its product for free in Hanover, southeast of the Springs.
Neighbors were blissfully ignorant of that arrangement until last year, when Parker Ag tripled or quadrupled its application in the area, leading to increased truck traffic, smell and blowing sediment. Luke Bond, compliance manager for the company, explains that there were simply more biosolids available, as some utilities shut down or cleaned lagoons. He notes that his company has passed recent inspections.
"I know there's some discontent," he says, "but from what I can see we're doing a good job."
Still, by winter, complaints started to roll in to the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners, who agreed to learn more at a March 26 meeting. Addressing commissioners, seven Hanover residents said they were worried.
"I have aging parents," resident Veronica McClinton said. "We have concern about whether they can breathe what's blowing over."
The neighbors presented a petition opposing the biosolids. Later in the meeting, however, a farmer presented a second petition, this one favoring them. Both had dozens of signatures.
Experts sided with the latter group, saying feces is part of the circle of, er, food. Reusing it on crops, they said, is a form of recycling, and is likely safer for the environment than dumping it in a landfill or burning it.
According to Tom Gonzales with El Paso County Public Health, and Tim Larson, a biosolids specialist from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, biosolids are screened and treated in order to prevent them from carrying disease. The state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulate them, and special licenses must be obtained before they're applied to any land.
"As best we know at this time, there has been no known illnesses directly related to biosolids, the beneficial use of that, if used properly," Larson said, adding that cow manure is a higher-risk fertilizer because it is not tested or sterilized in any way.
Despite such explanations, and their own libertarian leanings, commissioners were clearly struggling to get over the "yuck" factor.
"It's a definite mental shift," Commissioner Peggy Littleton said haltingly. "... At least we haven't gotten to the point of soylent green, or eating people."
Commissioners requested community meetings be held to see if compromises could be reached between Parker Ag and neighbors. They also plan to consider charging fees for heavy use of the roads by Parker Ag trucks. The county Board of Health, on which several commissioners sit, could go even further, regulating or even banning the use of biosolids — though the latter isn't likely.
Still, Commissioner Sallie Clark seemed to sum up the feeling in the room when she turned to the audience, looking slightly sickened and extremely empathetic. "I would be in favor of doing something," she said, "and not just nothing."