SEASIDE - To the northeast of Seaside, in the Lewis and Clark River valley, a storm is brewing.
It may look peaceful: Cows and horses munch on the grass in the green fields. The lazy Lewis and Clark River winds through the valley that borders the Lewis and Clark Road. Here and there, a house or barn appears in the bucolic scene.
But, behind that scene, the farmers raising the cattle and horses - and those applying to be designated official certified organic vegetable growers - are organizing to oppose plans by the city of Seaside to spray biosolids on a local farmer's property. The biosolids - another name for treated sewage or sludge coming from the city's wastewater treatment plant - will be sprayed on 50 of the 107 acres leased by the city from property owner Scott Olson. The city plans to pay Olson $7,200 a year for five years to spray from June 15 through Oct. 15, depending on the weather. The lease is renewable for another five years.
But farmers in the valley have formed Citizens for a Sludge-Free Lewis and Clark River Valley and vow to fight the city.
"I'm going to keep fighting it on a daily basis," said Frank Ruiz, who with his brother, Ed Santiago, bought their 63 acres four years ago, just north of Olson's land.
"If I have to hire an attorney, I'll hire an attorney."
For more than 30 years, the city of Seaside has sprayed biosolids on pastureland. The city owns a 100-acre farm off of Lewis and Clark Road where biosolids have been applied off and on since the city purchased the land in the 1970s.
Other cities use wastewater lagoons where biosolids to sink to the bottom, but Seaside's topography prevents that method. If the biosolids weren't sprayed on pastureland, they would be hauled to a landfill, which would cost too much, Wallace said.
In the summer, biosolids used to be spread on property the city leased from Russ Earl along U.S. Highway 101 south of town until Earl sold the land to the North Coast Conservancy.
The purchase agreement with the conservancy prohibited spraying biosolids, so, last year, Seaside Public Works Director Neal Wallace began the search for another parcel.
But the land must meet certain requirements: It must be at least 20 acres large with wide setbacks from roads, rivers, creeks, houses and wetlands. It can't have crops, and, while cattle may be problematic, the city can work around that, Wallace said.
The city applies about 2.3 million gallons of biosolids every year via a "sludge truck" that sprays the effluent from the back of the trailer. That breaks down to 35,000 gallons per acre and just over 1 million gallons per 30 acres.
Although the city is leasing 107 acres from Olson, it will use only about 50 acres, Wallace said. The remaining 50 acres will be taken up in setbacks from the road, river and wells, Wallace said.
Before the biosolids are spread, however, they have gone through a disinfecting process that removes 99 percent of the bacteria. They are pumped into a 42,000-gallon tank, mixed with 1,000 pounds of lime and maintained at that acidic level for 24 hours before being applied to the fields.
"It's not the number of gallons (to be applied), it's the amount of solids suspended in those gallons," Wallace said. "We monitor that application rate; about 1.7 to 1.8 percent of solids are in our solution."
Wallace noted that inspectors from the state Department of Environmental Quality walked the Olson site and analyzed soil samples before granting a permit for the disposal.
"We have been through the process, we did our due diligence, we did what we were supposed to, and we got approval," Wallace said.
But Clatsop County may also require a permit, said Will Caplinger, development services manager in the county's Transportation and Development Department.
After receiving at least five signed complaints from Lewis and Clark valley property owners about the city's proposal, the county decided to investigate, Caplinger said.
If the property, which is zoned for exclusive farm use, meets state conditions as high-value farmland, the county cannot issue a permit to the city, he said.
Seaside has never been required to apply for a permit before, Caplinger said, because it either owned the land where the biosolids were being spread or the property was within the city's urban growth boundary and would eventually be annexed to the city.
The Olson farm is different, however, because it is within the unincorporated area of Clatsop County, outside of Seaside's urban growth boundary.
"The key question is the quantity that is being applied," Caplinger said. "If there's so much material out there, it could leach through the soil and into the groundwater." A high concentration of nitrogen could destroy the soil and could also be released into the air, he said.
"Nitrogen is one of the considerations," he added. "With sludge, you tend to get heavy metals and that can be extremely dangerous and harmful. The possibility that the ground could be contaminated with heavy metals - that's something we want to look at carefully."
But Wallace said the biosolids don't contain heavy metals.
"Storm water, street water doesn't go into the wastewater treatment plant; we have two separate systems. Yes, we have some businesses, but we don't have an industrial base. It's basically from residents and tourists. We're not dealing with heavy metals."
But the farmers, who have researched scientific reports about biosolids on Web sites, aren't persuaded that something harmful won't seep into their wells or enter the river.
For the past year, Ruiz and his brother have been trying to achieve the strict standards required for certification as an organic farmer on 40 acres of harvestable land. But if the biosolids are sprayed on the land adjacent to theirs, Ruiz fears the certification won't be granted.
"I've been working to get the land ready, planting the seed," Ruiz said. "There have been a lot of 14-hour days nonstop. "It's perfect land. We have sunshine all day long - when we have sunshine - because there's no tree line. It's a blessing. To have somebody take it away because they will make a little money.... I pray about it, I talk about it, and I keep praying."
Scott Olson, who agreed to lease his land to the city, said he had no comment and referred questions to Wallace.
Rebecca Rubens Crabtree and her husband, David Crabtree, live across the river from the Olson farm and operate an organic bamboo nursery on 48 acres. She said she may move if Seaside begins spraying biosolids there.
"I don't think I want to live there," Rebecca Crabtree said. "It would really affect the nursery and quality of life.
"It's very serious and a very serious issue for a lot of people who live here," she added.
The river, fish and even the trees could be affected by the biosolids, said Norman Beerger, who owns an 86-acre parcel, which he hopes to keep as a nature preserve and pass it on to future generations of his family.
"The Lewis and Clark River goes downstream to dairy farms and Young's Bay," said Beerger. "(The biosolids) could change the fishes' chemical structure."
In addition, visitors who take the road as a scenic route to Fort Clatsop may be affected by any potential smell in the summer, he said. "I don't think it would be a positive experience."
Fred Maloon, who raises horses on his 44 acres, agreed. "It's a lousy site in every respect (for the biosolids application)," he said. "It's low-lying land; there's a floodplain there, and it's directly adjacent to the river."
The water table is high, too, said Maloon, whose well is only 30 feet deep and who reached water at two feet when he dug post holes for a fence recently.
He, like the others, said they were never notified about the city's plans and, he claims, he only heard about a meeting Wallace organized at the local grange last August by word of mouth.
"What this valley is to people who live here is magic," Maloon said. "There's no other place I can get up in the morning and see a herd of elk behind my barn. There's no other place where I can go fishing in a river that runs across my property.
"I don't want crap on our magic."
Wallace said he would be happy to use another site if one could be found.
"I have no desire to go to war with those people, but the truth of the matter is this is the site I have," Wallace said.