DEQ Implements New Rules For Composting Facilities

On September 14th, 2009 new rules administering composting facilities in Oregon were put into effect. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) started the rule-making process in 2004. After extensive input from industrial and agricultural composting operations, regional governments and other stakeholders the new rules have been implemented. Throughout the process, DEQ’s role has been to protect human health and the environment while promoting composting. Important drivers for the new rules have been concerns about the water quality impacts of large composting facilities and the growing interest in centralized food waste composting, especially in metropolitan areas.

Oregon Department of Agriculture will administer the new rules on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s) under the oversight of DEQ. CAFO inspections address similar concerns to the composting rules, and composting at CAFO’s is a good manure management strategy. DEQ will directly implement the new rules on non-CAFO farms and other non-exempt composting facilities.

Exemptions

Exemptions from DEQ permitting requirements have been changed under the new rules, with minimum tonnages increasing which will exempt many small farms. Facilities composting less than 100 tons of type 1 or type 2 feedstock (see sidebar) in one calendar year are exempt from DEQ permitting requirements, as long as they meet the performance standards identified in the rules. Facilities composting less than 20 tons of type 3 feedstock per year are exempt, as are facilities composting less than 40 tons of these materials using in-vessel containers designed to prevent odors and vector attraction. All home composting facilities are also exempt from permitting requirements. The rule includes the following volume to weight conversion factors: grass clippings (950 lbs/yd3), leaves (375 lbs/ yd3), uncompacted yard debris (250 lbs/yd3), wet waste such as food waste and manure (1,600 lbs/yd3).

Registration and screening

Facilities that do not meet the exemption criteria must obtain a DEQ permit by submitting an application for an environmental risk screening, which will evaluate the degree of environmental risk posed by the facility. Low-risk facilities will operate under a registration permit. Higher-risk facilities will be required to provide an operations plan for DEQ approval that addresses the identified risks. These facilities will operate under a composting permit.

It is expected that most small farms will qualify as a registration category, posing a low-risk to the environment. The initial DEQ screening process involves completing a relatively simple compost management plan describing the operation and providing environmental information. They will be required to pay a one-time $150 registration fee and obtain a Land Use Compatibility Statement (LUCS) from the local land use planning authority. In most cases, LUCS are not expected to be a serious obstacle to agricultural composting since composting is considered an agricultural activity when it is consistent with farming practices. Land use planners are most often interested in whether the composting facility could increase population in the area, increase traffic or change traffic patterns, increase noise or pollution problems close to residential areas, increase work shifts on nights or weekends, or involve a physical expansion.

Compost management plans are reviewed by DEQ staff and screened according to their level of risk. Site characteristics that may be considered include the location and distance to groundwater and surface water, soil type and permeability, proximity to residential areas and wells, and prevailing wind. Management practices that are considered may include feedstock type, volume and source, composting method, end-use of the compost, characteristics of any leachate produced at the site, pathogen reduction (if applicable), methods use to control vectors, seasonal variations in management practices and the compliance history at the facility. Farms producing compost for on-farm use are not subject to pathogen reduction requirements unless DEQ determines that such compliance is necessary to protect human health.

Facilities that are found to be unlikely to contaminate water, generate nuisance odors or threaten human health will be required to register with DEQ, but will not need a full permit. As registered facilities, they must report the annual weight of feedstocks used for composting to DEQ, keep composting records for at least 10 years, and notify DEQ of any violations of their compost management plan, or significant changes to their facility or management practices. If a facility is found to pose a significant risk to human health or the environment, they may be required to pay an engineering review fee and obtain a full DEQ permit.

The previous composting rules were not always completely enforced and some agricultural composting facilities have been operating in violation of DEQ’s earlier rules. The new rules do introduce new requirements to agricultural composters. However, they also increase the exemptions, and provide a regulatory structure that makes it possible for farmer to legally compost larger quantities and different types of feedstock. Farms have an important role to play in the development of robust local and regional strategies for recycling organic waste, and our hope is that the new rule will promote these goals while protecting human health and the environment. The rule making process was very long, and was contentious at times. DEQ deserves considerable credit for carefully considering the competing interests of stakeholders on different sides of the issue.

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