October 31, 2016

MDAR Hears Comments Re Plant Nutrient Regulations

The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) held a public hearing October 27th regarding proposed revisions to the state's Plant Nutrient Regulations (330 CMR 31.00).  NEBRA Board member Nancy Van Nest provided brief verbal comments and submitted NEBRA's written comments, which had been developed by the Regulatory & Legislative Committee and staff (available for members here or by request of the NEBRA office).

MDAR's proposed revisions come about a year after the regulations went into effect.  During 2015 and 2016, MDAR was focused on providing education and assistance with the regulations, rather than enforcement.  MDAR staff met with stakeholders and listened to concerns.  In a December 2015 meeting, NEBRA expressed concern about the rule's potential restrictions on markets for composts, biosolids, digestates, and other organics. 

Most of the changes currently proposed by MDAR address concerns of the agricultural community, represented in large part by the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF). Farmers were concerned about seasonal restrictions on manure land application, setbacks, and various definitions.  In their comments about the proposed new rule, MFBF's Brad Mitchell wrote: "Overall, we were very pleased with the changes the Department is proposing."  

NEBRA concurred regarding the changes to the agricultural portion of the rule.  However, NEBRA continues to have significant concerns about the non-agricultural section, which seems to have an expanded scope and remains confusing, especially with regards to how the regulation applies to organic residuals.

In all, there were about 20 stakeholders at the public hearing.  Mary Owen of UMass Extension mirrored NEBRA's concerns about some of the definitions in the rule, especially the central definition of "Plant Nutrient."  Representatives from the MA Water Resources Authority (MWRA) focused on the fact that phosphorus in various materials does not behave the same way, and the water-extractable portion of MWRA biosolids is low - and less than the 0.67% that defines a "phosphorus-containg fertilizer" under the rule.

In a related effort, NEBRA is now focused on the upcoming UMass Extension symposium on "Managing Phosphorus in Organic Residuals," Wednesday, Nov. 2nd in Marlborough, MA.  This symposium has the potential to inform UMass Extension guidelines that are repeatedly referenced in the Plant Nutrient regulations.  Data developed for the symposium indicate that a large proportion of home gardens and organic farm soils will no longer be able to use composts, digestates, and other organic residuals containing phosphorus, unless stipulations are incorporated into guidelines pertaining to use of the appropriate testing for environmentally relevant phosphorus.

And MDAR is also updating its on-farm composting regulations. At an October 20, 2016 public hearing, most of those commenting were neighbors opposed to farms taking in off-site wastes (e.g. food scraps), possibly generating odors and other nuisances. There is a strong push - which might include legislation soon to be introduced - to impose greater local health committee control over such operations, a move that could significantly reduce options for increasing the capacity for processing organic residuals diverted from landfills in accordance with Mass Dept. of Environmental Protection requirements.