Pa. court sides with Shrewsbury Twp. farm on sludge

Greg Gross

Pennsylvania's highest court appears to have put to rest a yearslong court battle over a Shrewsbury Township farmer who spread sewage sludge on his fields.

Spreading biosolids — the sludge from sewer treatment plants — is a normal farming practice protected by the state's Right to Farm Act, Justice J. Michael Eakin wrote in the state Supreme Court's recent ruling.

A group of 34 township residents sued Hilltop Farms about seven years ago over its spreading of biosolids on fields. The group argued the practice created a horrible, unbearable stench that forced them to remain indoors.

The sludge, also called biosolids, makes a nutrient-rich cake of human and other waste collected by wastewater treatment plants.

Attorneys for neither side could be reached for comment.

The smell: Township residents started complaining about the smell to township supervisors as early as 2007, with one resident comparing the stink to a dead horse.

Another resident said in his court deposition that the biosolids were “typically smelling like a herd of dead, rotting deer," while another said he'd have to tell people not to visit his home because of the smell, according to court records.

In his ruling, Eakin noted biosolids company Synagro, which was a defendant in the suit, was granted a state Department of Environmental Protection permit, allowing it to supply Hilltop with the sludge.

About 11,000 tons of sludge were applied to 14 fields on the 220-acre Hilltop farm over the course of about 54 days between March 2006 and April 2009.

In the courts: The 34 residents, many of whom are longtime residents of the area, first filed a lawsuit Hilltop Farms in the York County Court of Common Pleas in 2008. But a judge dismissed the case in 2012, saying spreading sludge is allowed under the Right to Farm Act.

The act prevents nuisance lawsuits, such as over smells related to agriculture, from being filed against farmers under certain circumstances.

But the group appealed to the state Superior Court, which overturned the county court decision in 2014.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Hilltop's favor in late December.

Applying biosolids has been permitted by the state Department  of Environmental Protection for 20 years, Eakin wrote in his opinion.

About 1,500 sites in the state and 70 in York County have been permitted to apply biosolids within the past 15 years, he noted.

Synagro praised the ruling, saying in a statement that the "Right to Farm Act protects the valuable recycling practice of fertilizing farm fields with biosolids.”

— Reach Greg Gross at