High-Country Composting

Sidebar by Sharon Chickering

Composting – February 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

I have always been frugal at heart, so the possibility of turning garbage and sewage sludge into a valuable resource like compost excites me. It’s like getting something for nothing. And when I look around my mountain home and see the abundance of rocks and paucity of soil, I am in favor of almost anything that will increase my ability to grow trees, flowers, and garden vegetables, not to mention a little grass.

Nature has been making compost since the beginning of time, but the first reference to human-produced compost was in the Mesopotamian Valley, one thousand years before Moses (about 2200 B.C.). Not until the 19th century did chemical fertilizers begin to replace compost as soil enhancements, but with present concern for the supply and cost of fossil-based fuels and fertilizers, there is renewed interest in the compost process. In addition, as we run out of space to dump our wastes, keeping compostable materials out of landfills makes sense.

After talking with Loretta McEllhiney and hearing of her composting success, I wondered if other agencies in Lake County were as committed to the process as she is. At the beginning of this Forest Service project, both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Lake County landfill were approached about coöperating. For reasons which are not entirely clear, both declined.

When asked if the Lake County commissioners had ever considered establishing a community compost project, Chairman Jim Martin said “I don’t think we’re against [composting] … But if it costs money we’re not going to do it, since we’re not in a balanced budget mode at the moment.”

On the other hand, Steve Kleeberger, supervisor of the landfill, said they have been looking into composting for about a year, and will probably begin such a project some time. During the next two summers, however, sewage sludge will be used to provide organic material for revegetation of parts of the landfill area.

While most of the local sewage sludge will be used at the landfill for the time being, Jim Berthed, superintendent/manager of the Lake County Sanitation District, is also considering composting

Drying beds, part of the wastewater treatment process, do not work well during Leadville’s long winters; composting, using newsprint as a bulking agent, has been shown to be a viable alternative. When done properly, the high temperatures produced in composting kill any pathogens (harmful bacteria).

At Colorado Mountain College’s Timberline Campus, Pete Moller, professor of environmental technology, is experimenting with both composting and sewage sludge. On campus he is composting much of the cafeteria food waste, along with wood shavings, straw and leaves, depending on availability. Moller is using the completed compost to replace peat moss for student greenhouse experiments. He feels the mining of peat moss is detrimental to wetlands (important environmental zones) and that compost use will help in their long-term preservation.

In a second off-campus experiment, Moller is testing methods for growing vegetation on pyritic waste rock. In several of the experimental plots he has used sewage sludge as the source of organic material.

~Considering preliminary results of the plots,” Moller reports, “it would be worthwhile to use sewage sludge in some reclamation protects. However, with the limited availability locally, It could probably be used only in selected areas.”

THE MOST OBVIOUS PLACES in need of reclamation in Lake County are areas of mining spoils and tailings which have been named as part of the Superfund site. When asked if the EPA was considering any forms of bioremediation, representatives gave evasive answers. (Bioremediation is defined as the use of micro-organisms to restore natural environmental conditions.)

Until site-wide feasibility studies are completed, no one seemed willing to indicate specific techniques which might be used, although precedents have been set at other mine sites in Colorado for using such elements as manure, sewage sludge, and hay in reclamation work. One such project in the 1970s was at Amax’s Urad Mine near Empire.

The Colorado Department of Health is in the process of revising its solid waste composting regulations. There are no regulations involved if an individual or entity is composting and using the resulting compost on the same property.

However, if the compost contains sewage sludge, or is for sale, regulations do apply. The new regulations should be finalized by spring. A draft of the proposal can be obtained from Glenn Mallory (303-692-3445).

Public officials who seem reluctant to commit to composting may be forced into it by the economics of the twenty-first century — Saguache County already operates a community composting heap at its landfill. In the meantime, however, the rest of us can start in our own backyards.

However, if you live outside town, note that compost heaps can attract bears, as well as small rodents, which can attract coyotes and cougars. There are ways to minimize these problems: check with wildlife officials before you start composting.