The highly controversial topic of sewage sludge is rearing its head once again in Schuylkill Township, four years after a major public forum took place at that location concerning toxic dumping.

This time, the project is promising "minimal risks to human health and the environment."

At Wednesday's board of supervisors meeting, a small crowd in attendance listened to a pitch by representatives of a small consulting business which hopes to oversee the permitting process and use of biosolids in mine reclamation six miles west of Tamaqua.

The proposed location is a stretch of land which served as a surface mining site between the communities of Mary D and Tuscarora, on the north side of the Schuylkill Valley.

Trudy Johnston, president, Material Matters, an Elizabethtown-based consulting firm, presented a talk and distributed handouts that described in consumer-friendly and benign terms the advantages of using biosolids to revegetate coal-scarred land.

"We will do it in accordance with regulations and in consideration of neighbors," explained Johnston, accompanied in the presentation by co-worker and project scientist Jennifer Callahan, along with Kirk Klinger of Michael Coal Co. of Williamstown.

The literature attempted to address many of the safety concerns and explained that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection "has been permitting biosolids land application sites for over 20 years; to date PADEP has not encountered any adverse water quality impacts on surface or groundwater."

The presentation also claimed that the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency "and other researchers have concluded that biosolids applied to soils in accordance with regulations present minimal risks to human health and the environment."

However, it was in the same township board room on June 21, 2006, that a tearful Antoinette Pennock and husband Russell described the tragic death of their 17-year-old son. Daniel Pennock, a previously healthy athlete, who came in contact with sludge used as fertilizer in a farmer's field near their Mohrsville home. The sludge was so toxic, say the Pennocks, that Daniel died just days after first falling ill.

The story of the death of young Pennock was detailed in a full-page TIMES NEWS story on July 21, 2006, entitled 'Sludge kills quickly - toxic dumping must stop, say heartbroken Berks County parents.'

In addition, the death of Pennock took place just six months after Tony Behun, 11, of Osceola Mills, died after riding his dirt bike across a strip mine where 304 tons-per-acre of Philadelphia sludge had been dumped. Reportedly, several mine workers became ill during the dumping process but didn't complain for fear of losing their jobs.

The literature provided at Monday's meeting does not mention the sewage sludge controversy, nor the deaths allegedly caused by land application of toxic sludge.

To try to alleviate concerns of local residents, Material Matters will host a bus tour to a completed reclamation site in Lykens, about an hour from Schuylkill Township. That site - a Pennsylvania Game Commission Reclaimed Mine Site - was completed in the spring of 2008 utilizing biosolids."Today, it is lush with vegetation which provides habitat for wildlife and game species," states the project literature.

The tour will take place during the third or fourth week of September at 4 p.m. Registration is required by signing a sheet inside the municipal building.

In answer to the question of why are biosolids being proposed to reclaim the township land, the firm contends that land reclamation efforts using conventional fertilizer in April, 2010, proved unsuccessful at the Schuylkill Township site.

Biosolids are the byproduct of domestic and commercial sewage and wastewater treatment. The material is further treated to reduce pathogens and vector attraction. However, toxic chemicals such as PCBs, dioxin, and brominated flame retardants, among other chemicals, may remain in treated sludge, according to critics of the process.

The sludge proposed for Schuylkill Township would come from the Harrisburg Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility.

Solicitor Michael Greek advised the supervisors to review the municipality's existing ordinances concerning the application of biosolids, an ordinance that might require updating to reflect the current status of the industry.