Common Questions

  1. What are municipal sewage biosolids?
  2. How are municipal sewage biosolids treated?
  3. What are the preferred municipal sewage biosolids management options?
  4. Is land application of biosolids safe?
  5. Is land application of municipal sewage biosolids regulated in Ontario?
  6. Who enforces the Nutrient Management Act 2002, Ontario Regulation 267/03?
  7. What is a NASM and a NASM Plan?
  8. Who can create a NASM Plan ?
  9. Who can land apply municipal sewage biosolids with an approved NASM Plan ?
  10. Are there different types of municipal sewage biosolids land application?
  11. What other requirements are necessary prior to land application?
  12. Do biosolids contain pathogens ?
  13. Do Ontario municipal sewage biosolids contain metals?
  14. Are the metals and pathogens in biosolids dangerous when applied according to the Nutrient Management Regulation?
  15. How do contaminants get into the municipal sewage biosolids?
  16. What happens to metals that are added to the soil ?
  17. What is the agricultural value of municipal sewage biosolids?
  18. How much do municipal sewage biosolids cost ?
  19. When is municipal sewage biosolids land applied?
  20. What crops are suitable for municipal sewage biosolids land application?
  21. What are the requirements for record -keeping ?

1. What are municipal sewage biosolids?

Municipal Sewage Biosolids (MSB) are the treated, quality controlled, by-products of municipal sewage treatment. Wastewater from residential and industrial sources is treated at municipal treatment plants that are approved by the Ministry of the Environment and Climate change (MOECC). During this treatment, there are two main by-products: “effluent” or treated water, which is discharged back into a local water source, and “wastewater solids” which are further processed in digesters. When processing in the digester is complete and the material meets strict quality standards, it is called a biosolid. MSB are organic in nature and contain fertilizer constituents including nitrogen, phosphorus, micronutrients, and metals.
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2. How are municipal sewage biosolids treated?

MSB are biologically stabilized materials from an approved treatment process. In Ontario, stabilization is usually accomplished by subjecting wastewater solids to anaerobic and/or aerobic digestion. Stabilization decomposes the solids, reduces odours and destroys most of the bacteria in the material. The stabilized solids are defined as biosolids when the material meets strict quality criteria as set out in Provincial Regulation and is of benefit to agriculture soils and field crop production. Biosolids consist mainly of organic matter that is rich in plant nutrients. Some MSB are further processed through technologies such as dewatering, composting, lime stabilization and pelletizing.
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3. What are the preferred municipal sewage biosolids management options?

The management options for Ontario MSB are landfilling (disposal), incineration (burning) and land application (beneficial re-use). Landfilling is not favoured because this option is becoming increasingly more expensive as space in landfills becomes limited.i Furthermore, there is a proposed provincial legislation requirement to aggressively remove recyclable organics from Ontario’s landfills.ii Incineration is one of the most expensive management options and the ashes must still be sent to a landfill after the process is complete.i Most stakeholders prefer beneficial re-use as a less expensive and more environmentally sustainable option and therefore is used by many Canadian municipalities. In a survey of Canadian Municipalities, 72% indicated that they had a biosolids management program in place.iii
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4. Is land application of biosolids safe?

Yes. There are strict requirements for testing MSB to ensure that metals and pathogens are below the maximum safe levels established by the scientific community. There is a large amount of peer reviewed scientific research that indicates that if biosolids are managed correctly, there is minimal risk to human and animal health as well as the environment. In addition, there are setbacks from environmentally sensitive features as well as waiting periods after application to add increased protection.v
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5. Is land application of municipal sewage biosolids regulated in Ontario?

Yes. MSB management in Ontario is regulated under both Regulation 347 of the Environmental Protection Act and Ontario Regulation 267/03 (NM Regulation) of the Nutrient Management Act (NMA), 2002. The NMA defines MSB as a Non Agricultural Source Material (NASM) and is land applied under a NASM Plan.
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6. Who enforces the Nutrient Management Act 2002, Ontario Regulation 267/03?

The MOECC enforces the NMA to ensure that land application practices comply with the requirements of the NASM Plan and the NM Regulation.i As part of their quality assurance program, land application sites are randomly inspected to ensure compliance with the NMA. This will ensure that all nutrients continue to be managed in an environmentally responsible manner with an enhanced science based approach to land applying nutrients.
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7. What is a NASM and a NASM Plan?

A Non Agricultural Source Material – NASM, as defined by the Ontario Ministry of Agricultural and Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) is any material containing nutrients that originate from off farm sources that will be used on the farm to supply nutrients in field crop production. Examples would include food processing waste, fruit and vegetable peels as well as paper fibre and MSB. NASMs such as MSB can contain high amounts of plant available nitrogen and phosphorous as well as large amounts of organic matter and their usage and the amount applied is regulated through a NASM Plan.i

A NASM plan, approved by OMAFRA, is required in order to demonstrate agronomic requirements of the crop as well as the fertility benefit of the NASM in the farmer’s crop rotation. The NASM Plan is a detailed summary of all the nutrients provided from all sources including commercial fertilizer, manure and NASM.vi The agronomic and crop removal balance are part of the NASM plan and accounts for crop removal as well as for some soil build up depending on the nutrient. This enhanced scientific approach to NASM application prevents the over application of nutrients while protecting the soil, ground and surface water.v
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8. Who can create a NASM Plan?

A certified NASM Plan Developer can create a NASM plan. The certified plan developer must take a series of courses, pass an examination and prove competency by successfully completing 2 NASM Plan scenarios. After this process, OMAFRA will grant certification, which has a lifespan of 5 years after which the process must be repeated. The plan developer is also trained in using OMAFRA’s NMAN3 computer program which calculates the required addition of MSB to the farmer’s field based on his NASM Plan and fertility and cropping program.
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9. Who can land apply municipal sewage biosolids with an approved NASM Plan?

A land application program can only operate with the cooperation of a number of parties in the business of protecting the environment; the generator (municipality), the contractor undertaking transportation and land application, and the farmer who all work together to implement the NASM Plan.i

The actual application of the material is conducted by individuals who have received a Nutrient Management Technician licence.vi These individuals must take a series of courses and pass an exam in order to receive their licence. A technician is trained to land apply at certain rates according to the farmer’s NASM plan. In addition, they are familiar with areas on the field that are environmentally sensitive and therefore cannot receive MSB.
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10. Are there different types of municipal sewage biosolids land application?

Land application can utilize a variety of forms of MSB such as liquid, cake, pellets and composted material. This material can be used in forestry or land reclamation but is primarily used for agricultural applications. The majority of liquid MSB is injected into the soil while a small amount may be top spread and not incorporated when applied to a hay field. All MSB cake is incorporated into the soil within 6 hours of application as required by the NM regulation.
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11. What other requirements are necessary prior to land application?

Before MSB can be land applied the following are required: Quality of biosolids analysis – the generator must test the biosolids at an accredited laboratory on a scheduled basis to ensure the material does not contain constituents that could harm public health, the soil, crops, livestock or the environment as specified in the NM Regulation – Sampling and Analysis Protocols. Site soil sampling and analysis – the soil must be sampled and analyzed at an accredited laboratory to ensure compliance with the NM regulation specifically focusing on soil metals, pH and phosphorous. Site inspection – an extensive site inspection is completed by a certified NASM Plan Developer in order to create an accurate site map that is part of the NASM Plan. Site characteristics such as soil type and permeability, slope, depth to ground water, and separation distances from watercourses, wells and residences must be identified. Contractor Systems Certificate – provided by the MOECC indicating that the contractor satisfies defined requirements and operates in a safe manner. The Systems Certificate is a comprehensive document that also includes vehicle registration, insurance coverage, pollution clauses, training requirements, reporting procedures and day-to-day record keeping requirements.
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12. Do biosolids contain pathogens?

Yes. While wastewater treatment eliminates 90-99% of pathogens, some still exist in MSB. The NM Regulation sets out strict limits for the safe maximum pathogen level. If these levels are exceeded, the MSB cannot be land applied and must be incinerated or landfilled.vi

In addition, the NM Regulation requires other protective measures, such as setbacks to environmentally sensitive features, soil nutrient and metal loading limits and wait periods for livestock grazing or crop harvesting, all of which promote the natural decay of pathogens in MSB.i
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13. Do Ontario municipal sewage biosolids contain metals?

Yes, biosolids contain minute amounts of metals. It is important to understand that all soil including the soil in your backyard contains metals. It is also important to understand that many of the regulated metals are also micronutrients that are essential for plant growth as well as human and animal health. Copper, Molybdenum, Nickel, Zinc, and Selenium are important for plant and animal development and can be found in most multivitamins for human consumption. In addition, soils are tested before application. If the metal levels in the soil are above scientifically established safe levels, MSB cannot be spread. In addition, if the pH is too high, MSB cannot be spread as lower pH allows certain heavy metals to be more readily available for crops.vii
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14. Are the metals and pathogens in biosolids dangerous when applied according to the Nutrient Management Regulation?

No. MSB are tested for both metals and pathogens to ensure levels are not dangerous and meet the strict requirements laid out in the NM Regulations. Setbacks, waiting times and loading limits help protect human health, animal health and the environment from pathogens and metal loading.
As documented in an OMAFRA research paper, – Analytical Results, Findings and Recommendations of the 1995 OMAFRA Sewage Biosolids Field Survey, the land application of MSB adds such a small amount of metals to the soil that it has little impact on the level of the soil’s naturally occurring soil metal level even after multiple applications of MSB.viii
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15. How do contaminants get into the municipal sewage biosolids?

Organic and inorganic contaminants enter the sewage system in both domestic and industrial wastewaters. Domestic contributions are derived mainly from human foodstuffs and household chemicals. Industrial contributions are derived from industrial processes and are controlled through strictly enforced sewer use by laws that restrict and monitor the amount of contaminants entering the sewage system.iv

There has been extensive research done by government bodies such as the MOECC on the presence of contaminants such as dioxins, PCBs, pharmaceuticals and detergents in MSB.i They concluded that these contaminants are safe in MSB because their concentrations are so low and because they break down rapidly in the environment.i
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16. What happens to metals that are added to the soil?

Many of the metals (e.g., manganese, iron, zinc, copper, boron, and molybdenum) are micronutrients required for crop development. These metals are natural and necessary components of healthy plant growth and are absorbed by the plants. Selenium and Cobalt are important for animal health, including humans, and aid in the absorption of vitamins. Other metals (e.g., arsenic, cadmium and chromium) serve no known biological function. They bind tightly with soil and organic matter. There is very little tendency for them to be taken up by plants or to migrate to surface or groundwater. The metal additions and loading limits in Ontario soils as regulated by the NM Regulation are very conservative. Also, using OMAFRA’s NMAN3 software, metals from soil before application and metals from MSB application are inputted to determine loading limits. If these 5 year loading limits are exceeded application rates are lowered to not exceed the limits.
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17. What is the agricultural value of municipal sewage biosolids?

MSB contain a wide range of materials that are of agricultural value. As a fertilizer equivalent, the nitrogen and phosphorus in biosolids has a value of approximately $250/hectare.vii MSB also add micronutrients, important for crop growth. The high organic matter levels in MSB also improve soil tilth, moisture retention and permeability while reducing the potential for wind and water erosion.vii The present Ontario MSB program saves farmers approximately $8 million annually in fertilizer cost. This is a significant contribution to the agriculture sector of the Ontario economy.
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18. How much do municipal sewage biosolids cost?

Typically, MSB are provided to farmers free-of-charge. The operator/contractor is compensated by the generator. The MSB are free-of-charge to compensate the farmers for any inconvenience associated with land application activities such as: Soil compaction due to weight of application equipment; Adjusting cropping schedules to accommodate availability of biosolids; Nuisance factor: noise, dust and odour concerns. Farmers are not paid to accept MSB. In general there is greater demand for the material than there is supply even though 72% of Canadian municipalities land apply their MSB. The challenge is always balancing the ongoing supply with the seasonal demand.
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19. When is municipal sewage biosolids land applied?

MSB are not applied during the winter and must be applied between April 1st and November 31st as regulated by the NM Regulation. During the winter, MSB are stored by the municipality either at the wastewater treatment facility or in a specially designed storage facility. MSB are land applied during the spring, summer and fall depending on weather and cropping schedules.
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20. What crops are suitable for municipal sewage biosolids land application?

MSB are well suited for field crops such as corn, cereals, canola, soybeans, hay, pasture and sod, as they all require a fertilizer source high in plant nutrients for optimum plant performance.
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21. What are the requirements for record-keeping?

Accurate computerized records are kept of exact application site locations; rates of biosolids application; soil pH and phosphorus levels; farmers’ names and addresses; sources and quality of biosolids. The NMAN3 computer program tracks the nutrient and metal additions to the soil and determines when MSB can be land applied again to a farm with an existing NASM Plan. These records are maintained by the contractor, municipality, MOECC and the farmer.
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For more detailed information on biosolids please visit the following websites:

REFERENCES

i. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). 2010 Best Management Practices: Application of Municipal Sewage Biosolids to Cropland.

ii. Bill 91, Waste Reduction Act, 2013

iii. National Guide to Sustainable Municipal Infrastructure (NGSMI), 2003. Biosolids Management Programs. Issue 1.0.

iv. Water Environment Association of Ontario (WEAO), 2012. Biosolids:
Naturally Sustainable. [Video File]. Retrieved from: http://www.weao.org/biosolids-video

v. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), November 13, 2013. Understanding the Agricultural Use of Biosolids. Retrieved from http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/nm/nasm/agusesbio.htm

vi. Nutrient Management Act (NMA) Ontario Regulation 267/03, 2002.

vii. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). November 13, 2013. Sewage Biosolids: A Valuable Nutrient Source. Retrieved from: http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/nm/nasm/sewbiobroch.htm#1

viii. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), 1996. Analytical Results, Findings and Recommendations of the 1995 OMAFRA Sewage Biosolids Field Survey.

Biosolids - Naturally Sustainable Video


Video courtesy of Water Environment Association of Ontario (www.weao.org)

Farmers who are interested in applying biosolids to farms, please contact the following:

Mark Janiec
Biosolids Land Application
Tel: 905-296-1549
Email: mjaniec@terratecenvironmental.com