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Charlotte cancels hotly-fought sludge application

Charlotte Water has withdrawn a state application to add about 1,300 acres to the rural land where its sewage sludge is spread as fertilizer.

Residents of the Gold Hill community near the Rowan-Cabarrus County line, which is among the new sites, had vigorously opposed the expansion.

Charlotte Water said it withdrew the application in part because it recently learned of environmental violations on property that would have been part of the expanded acreage.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources cited Gold Hill landowner Phil Cline, Hammill Construction Co. and Carolina Stalite Co. in December.

The violations say industrial waste was dumped into a stream and sediment was allowed to reach the stream.

Charlotte Water wants to “allow more time for due diligence on these new sites,” spokeswoman Jennifer Frost said Thursday.

The utility will instead apply to renew its current permit, which allows sludge to be spread on about 12,000 acres in ten North Carolina counties and expires March 31.

Charlotte’s water and sewer utility has run into increasing opposition in recent years to the practice of giving treated sludge, which is high in nutrients, to farmers.

So-called land application of sludge has been done for decades, but opponents worry that toxic chemicals and heavy metals in sludge will poison farmland and groundwater.

“They’ve withdrawn for now but I’ve got a feeling they’ll be back,” said Lance Riley, who led the opposition in Gold Hill. Riley’s parents live next to farmland that would have been included in the expansion.

Charlotte Water defends the safety of its sludge but said it plans to spend $100 million over the next six years to totally eliminate pathogens. That would make the product clean enough to sell to retail customers.

The expanded acreage was intended to meet farmers’ demands for sludge and to maintain a surplus of sites, the utility has said. DENR had planned to hold a public hearing on the expansion but had not scheduled one.

With the expansion application’s withdrawal, said Division of Water Resources hydrogeologist David Goodrich, Charlotte Water would probably have to start the process over if it chooses later to reapply.