Ohio composter says he’s being regulated out of business

Doug Crowell says he was shocked in August 2015 when the Ohio EPA (OEPA) fined him $4,000 for illegally operating wood and brush grinding equipment without a permit.

“I have been licensed as a Class III composting facility since EPA came out with their regulations in 1992,” said Crowell, the owner of Universal Farms LLC, outside Fremont, Ohio. “The Ohio EPA Solid Waste Division and the local health department have been inspecting my site every year since then and I’ve never had any problems outside of some minor ponding of water after a monumental rain. After almost 25 years of EPA site inspections they didn’t notice that I was running a grinder until two years ago? How is that possible?”

Crowell said he started composting at his facility about 10 years before the state of Ohio started to regulate the practice. The facility also makes wood mulch and sells compost, mulch, topsoil and other landscape materials. The company manufactures about 20,000 to 30,000 yards of mulch annually, along with about 2,000 yards of compost and 2,000 to 3,000 yards of topsoil.

“After more than 20 years, I had never even heard of a dust permit, nor was I ever asked by the EPA to present or acquire one,” Crowell said. “Now, lo and behold here comes the Air Pollution (Control) Division of the Ohio EPA and busts us for making dust in the middle of nowhere. You can go to any farm around here when they’re harvesting soybeans and there’s nothing but dust, but all of a sudden my facility – which is also zoned agricultural – needs air quality permits for my grinder, one for the screener, one for storage piles, one for paved roads, one for unpaved roads, and on and on and on. They never measured anything. They never watched anything run. They said this is what you have to do and this is what it is going to cost. Then there were the costs of buying new equipment to mitigate dust and keep track every time something runs and when we operate a machine. Then they put their little formula to that and decide based on that how much they are going to charge us every year for permits.”

Crowell said he asked a specialist at the Division of Air Pollution Control why his dust and equipment had never been an issue during more than 20 years of site inspections.

“Their answer was that Air Quality and Solid Waste are two different divisions,” Crowell said. “They said ‘we don’t know their rules and they don’t know our rules.’ So we have this regulatory agency where nobody knows what anybody else is doing. And now that’s my problem.”

With all of his permits in place, Crowell said, things were quiet until last October.

“Somebody complained about nasty water in a creek near my property,” he said. “They reported a spill of a black substance in a wooded ravine a half mile north of the business. The EPA showed up, saw us watering a mulch pile, which they ordered us to do to control our dust, and assumed that the spill came from our property. They ordered us to clean it up. They also ordered us to dig up and cap the tile that drains our site, then pump off the water.”

Inspecting the reported spill, Crowell said, he noticed a soapy film in the water that resembled residential laundry detergent. He then began to take water samples upstream and downstream from his property and have them tested at his expense.

“There were high pollution levels in all locations, before and after our property, and that didn’t change after EPA forced us to stop draining into that ditch,” Crowell said. “I spoke with some neighbors who live in the area and they told me that the so-called spill happens whenever the ravine has non-moving water, which causes it to stagnate.”

Despite no indication of runoff from Universal Farms, Crowell said, he was told that he needs to obtain a surface water permit.

“Then they sent me a $1,400 bill for the time they spent investigating,” he said. “We’re now required to divert all of our surface water around our facility into a retention pond which is going to cost thousands of dollars.”

As of this month, he said, he was awaiting approval of the permit he applied for in January.

“This is going to cost $40,000 to fix something that hasn’t been broken for 30 years,” Crowell said. ” Now I am on the radar and they are nailing me for everything just because they can. I’ve really thought about just closing the facility because I’m tired of putting up with this BS. I told Jeremy Scoles (an OEPA compliance assistance and pollution prevention specialist) that I am thinking about closing down and he said, ‘Oh, that’s not what we want to hear.’ I said then you need to change something at EPA and change it now.”

Crowell said Universal Farms has contracts to take yard waste from about a dozen municipalities along with taking wood and yard waste from almost every landscaper in Sandusky County.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do with all the material if they regulate me out of business,” Crowell said.

Ken Frost, safety and service director for the city of Fremont agrees.

“If he did close up, it would put the city in a very tough situation,” Frost said. We would have to pay probably triple to get rid of things like brush and road grindings. Not only would we be spending more, we would have to truck it a lot further.”

Frost noted that Crowell is seeking permits to take biosolids from the city’s wastewater treatment plant. He said it would save the city a substantial amount of money.

“EPA has its job to do and I appreciate that,” Frost said. “I just wish they would give more clear and defined direction for people like Doug Crowell, so he knows what he has to do rather than when you get halfway through a project they come out and throw 10 more regulations on you so you have to change everything.”

Crowell, who also is the chief of Ballville Township‘s volunteer fire department, wonders whether a couple of disputes he had in that capacity with an OEPA employee a couple years ago may have put a target on his back.

Meanwhile, in November, he sent a letter to State Rep. Bill Reineke, copying a variety of other elected officials seeking a meeting to discuss OEPA. With the exception of a couple local officials, he hasn’t receive any replies. A staff member in Reineke’s office told Composting News this month that he would look into the issue and contact OEPA.

“In order to comply with every EPA regulation that has been shoved down our throats, there is no way we can continue to afford to comply and remain competitive in business,” Crowell wrote to Reineke. “While other businesses in the area continue to stockpile yard waste, have unheard of runoff and remain unlicensed and unregulated by the strong arm of the EPA, we struggle to comply and remain in business.”

Phone calls to OEPA staffers Scoles, Thomas Cikotte – in air pollution control – and Mike Gerber, in environmental response and revitalization, were referred to a media relations specialist. As of print time, OEPA has offered no comments about Crowell or Universal Farms.

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