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Toxic Avengers
The EPA is pushing hazardous sludge as fertilizer. The locals are fighting back.

By Laura Orlando

This article was published in the February 21, 1999 issue of In These Times magazine.

It all started with the Clean Water Act. In 1972, the federal government decided to get tough by regulating waste discharged from municipal sewage treatment plants. Because every plant in the United States had a pipeline dumping noxious waste into a body of water, Congress mandates and funded upgraded treatment processes. Improving treatment meant cleaner wastewater at the end of the pipe, but it elevated the level of contaminants in the dregs of the process--the mud-like toxic waste called sludge. Between 1972 and 1987, $60 billion was spent by municipalities to build and upgrade treatment plants, which now produce about 8 million dry tons of sludge annually.

Sewage is a mixture of whatever is flushed down toilets, runs off roads, is disposed of by industries and enters one of the nation's 16,000 publicly owned treatment plants. After treatment, the liquid component, wastewater, is discharged into the nearest body of water. Sludge, the semisolid residual, is everything leftover, including an unpredictable mix of heavy metals, synthetic chemicals, radioactive waste, medicines, and so on.

For years, most cities on the coasts simply dumped their sludge into the ocean. This practice ended after garbage and syringes washed up on New York and New Jersey beaches in the summer of 1987. Contrary to public perception, the garbage had nothing to do with sludge dumping from barges 12 miles from the shore, but lawmakers swiftly responded to pressure from environmentalists with the Ocean Dumping Ban Act, which outlawed the transportation and dumping of sludge into the ocean after 1991. New York and New Jersey, however, still needed a place to put the 11 million wet tons of sludge they were dumping each year.

Enter the Environmental Protection Agency: A year after ocean dumping was banned, the EPA rewrote the rules governing disposal of sewage sludge, reclassifying the noxious stuff from a hazardous material to a "safe" fertilizer. Sludge also underwent a linguistic detoxification and marketing makeover--sludge became "biosolids" and disposal became "beneficial use." by 1993, the EPA had formulated the National Biosolids Management Program to promote sewage sludge as fertilizer. Now, more than 2.5 million tons of sludge are being spread on land each year.

The EPA regulates only 21 of the countless pollutants in sludge, leaving thousands of contaminants, like dioxin and PCBs, unregulated and headed for gardens and farmland. Even the notion that sludge is a useful fertilizer--as a source of nitrogen--is phony. In the billions of gallons of wastewater and mounds of sludge, there is human excreta and, in that, nitrogen. But only tertiary (or advanced) treatment--used by less than a third of U.S. treatment plants--has the capacity to remove nitrogen from wastewater and put it in sludge. And the more thorough the treatment process, the more toxic the sludge. "The EPA required the petroleum and automotive industries to change the way they do business and to decrease the amount of environmental lead pollution that was occurring due to lead and gasoline," says Stanley Tackett, an expert on the effects of lead in the environment. "It's ironic now that one application of sewage sludge to a field puts more lead in the soil than did the 60 years of driving by the field with leaded gasoline."

The waste management industry profits handsomely from the EPA's sludge-as-fertilizer ruse. These "refuse collectors" are hired by treatment plants to haul and spread sludge. Between 1992 and 2002, New York City alone expects to spend more than $2.5 billion on sludge management programs. A large part of this money will go to contractors like Browning-Ferris Industries and WMX Technologies, which haul hundreds of tons of sludge because they are hoodwinked into thinking it's a good fertilizer. They get it for free or at a nominal charge, with treatment plants paying for its transportation, application, and the necessary monitoring and record-keeping. Some farmers are even paid to take it. Once spread, however, all liability for putting the poison on the land transfers to the landowner.

As the horror stories mount--such as Vermont dairy farmer Robert Ruane's who watched his cows die from eating sludge-contaminated soil and feed--word is getting out that toxic sludge is incompatible with agriculture. At the local level, people are challenging the EPA's sludge disposal policies. "The sludge industry says they have to comply with strict state and federal rules," says Helane Shields of the anti-sludge group Citizens For Future New Hampshire. "Let's consider this analogy: A state trooper pulls you over and tells you, 'You have to comply with strict speed limits,' then tells you to go on your way and don't go any faster than 170 miles per hour. That is exactly what is happening with EPA and New Hampshire sludge rules."

New Hampshire produces about 24,000 tons of sludge each year. But the state's "open-door policy" allows the import of sludge from states like Massachusetts with stricter environmental regulations. Half of the sewage sludge being dumped in New Hampshire is coming from out of state. Shields says that without federal or state regulations, "the only way you can protect yourself is by enacting local ordinances or bans."

Local control is the big issue facing sludge opponents across the country. In New Hampshire, 44 towns have stopped or restricted sludge spreading through various local mechanisms. In neighboring Vermont, where 40 percent of the state's sludge is spread on land, getting local control over sludge processing and disposal has been a rallying point for groups such as Rural Vermont and East Montpelier's Citizens for Clean Compost. In East Montpelier, residents voted overwhelmingly to stop construction of a sludge composting plant. The nonbinding vote--taken by the city government to gauge public opinion--was ignored by city officials. But residents have managed to tie up the permitting process, temporarily halting construction. The Clean Land Campaign was formed in July 1998 to help push responsible sludge legislation--such as giving towns the right to a binding vote on sludge composting facilities--through the Vermont legislature.

California, where 1.8 million tons of sludge is dumped on farmland each year, has the best record for turning the sludge haulers away. County by county, Californians have exerted control over the spreading of sludge, and have gotten local bans and ordinances that put restrictions on its disposal. Three counties--San Bernardino, Stanislaus and San Joaquin--have banned it outright.

Another promising strategy is the tracking of sludge applications. Such disclosure will not only make farmers think twice before accepting sludge and alert opponents to its whereabouts, but may also influence the future value of the land. "When pesticides are used in California, a permit is filed in the agricultural commissioner's office and an application report is completed by the supplier," says Jane Beswick, a dairy farmer and coordinator of the Coalition for Sludge Education. "The parcel is therefore tagged and anyone interested can find out who has used what pesticide where. Tagging the parcel when sludge is spread would make it possible for any future purchaser or tenant to know whether sludge has ever been used." In San Luis Obispo County, David Broadwater learned about a plan by Bio Gro, one of the 530 subsidiaries of WMX Technologies, to spread 17,000 tons of sludge annually on local ranches. Taking Bio Gro by surprise, Broadwater lobbied the regional water board to require an Environmental Impact Report for the project. Bio Gro decided not to pursue the report, stopping the dumping.

Of course, turning back the sludge trucks is just the first step. Unless sludge is treated with the precautions and regulations other hazardous wastes now receive, polluters will always find another field. The EPA's sludge disposal policy must be changed if this serious form of pollution us to stop being shuffled from county to county and from industry to the public. "The EPA is putting pressure on the state to control local folks," Broadwater warns, "A big steamroller is coming."

Radioactive sludge

Adrienne Anderson says that the Environmental Protection Agency's reclassification of sludge as a safe fertilizer has created a loophole "large enough to drive nuclear weapons waste dump trucks through."

Anderson was one of only two members of Denver's Metro Waste Water Reclamation District board to oppose an EPA plan to take radioactive groundwater from the Lowry Landfill Superfund site in nearby Arapahoe County, run it through a pipeline to Denver municipal waste treatment system and spread the resulting radioactive sludge on a city-owned 41,000-acre farm just outside of town. Lowry was the dumping ground for other Colorado Superfund sites, and it includes hazardous waste from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which produced nerve gas, Martin Marietta's Titan Missile program and Coors' nuclear fuel rod making days. The pipeline is a convenient way to transfer liability to the public and rid the Department of Energy of a nasty problem.

The EPA has approved the disposal of wastewater from 32 other Superfund sites into municipal sewer systems across the country, but Lowry is the only one known to contain plutonium. The EPA and DOE continue to deny that the plutonium contamination at Lowry is out of the ordinary. Indeed, an EPA contractor at the Lowry site, CH2M Hill, attributed plutonium readings to "cosmic dust falling from space." Yet Anderson has found an index of 8,800 secret government documents related to Lowry. The listing, mostly blacked out because of claims of national security, demonstrates that there was "significant activity to deny the presence of plutonium," Anderson says.

In July 1998, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb decided to get rid of his own little problem by dismissing Anderson from the water board. She now has a whistleblower case pending with the Labor Department. Without her around, the water board has proposed allowing plutonium to be pumped into the sewer lines at levels 160 times higher than Colorado's drinking water standard for plutonium. Colorado already is the only state that sets any "acceptable" level for plutonium. And the board has rebuffed demands by citizen and environmental groups for a public hearing on the issue. The pipeline has been completed and, as plans now stand, Lowry wastewater will be pumped into Metro's sewage system later this year.

Laura Orlando is the executive director of the ReSource Institute for Low Entropy Systems in Boston.

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