NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
Texas environmental officials are cracking down on the City of Fort Worth and its contractor in the application of biosolids fertilizer made from human waste.
The state is responding to a growing number of complaints from North Texas residents who say they are sick of smelling the treated sewage being spread on fields near their homes.
Here's how it works: Human waste is taken in at the sewage treatment plant. The treated water goes back into the environment, but the solid waste left over is often reused as fertilizer after it's treated and given a friendly name, "biosolids." Farmers like it because it's cheap.
The people who live near those farms hate it, because it stinks and they say it’s making them sick.
“The smell smells like decaying flesh,” said Peggy Donathan, who lives next door to one such farm. “It smells like dead fish."
Her neighbor, Anna Wight offers a similar account. "The only way I can describe it is, it smells like rotting flesh," she said.
One year ago, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said the same thing while investigating odor complaints from residents in Wise County. Investigators "detected offensive odors that had characteristics of decaying flesh and raw sewage."
The company paid to spread the waste on farmland in North Texas is Renda Environmental, and now the state is cracking down on them.
The TCEQ has hit Renda with five enforcement actions, accusing it of violating state odor and storage rules. The latest complaint was reported by News 8 three weeks ago near Milford in Ellis County.
"We have been investigating the Milford site related to the unauthorized storage primarily," said TCEQ regional director Tony Walker. “We did document that a violation did exist for the unauthorized storage of biosolids."
State officials are also cracking down on the Fort Worth sewage treatment plant, the source of the offensive waste spread in Wise County. In a rare move, the state is requiring the City of Fort Worth to "develop and implement an Odor Control Plan."
Fort Worth is already responding by purchasing new equipment to address the aroma.
The TCEQ also is working to strengthen rules governing where biosolids can be spread... and when.
A proactive posture by the state would might give upset residents a reason to breathe easier, but not everyone feels that way.
"The notion that the TCEQ is proactive is a joke,” said Midlothian resident Craig Monk. “They are reactive, and they are only reactive to complaints."
Monk, who lives up the road from one of the largest biosolids operations in Ellis County, has led the push for greater state enforcement. His website, StopSewageDumpsEllis.com, posts disturbing pictures, publishes petitions and implores the state to do more.
One year ago, the state proposed a $2,500 fine against Renda Environmental in the Wise County case. As of today, Renda continues to appeal and has yet to pay a penny.
"It's been over a year and they've done nothing,” Monk said. “The message that sends to Renda is simple: They can do what they want."
Renda officials declined an on-camera interview, but told us "Renda’s environmental record is exemplary and expects that these matters will be favorably resolved.”
Monk is not stopping. He has started a petition to totally ban the application of biosolids on Ellis County farms, especially pastureland.
One photo on his web site shows cows in the middle of a stockpile of waste.
David Galindo, the state's director of water quality, says cows are not supposed to have that level of contact with biosolids, but he also insists that if rules are followed, biosolids are safe.