It’s Time to Talk (Again) about Sewage Sludge on Farmland

Laura Orlando

Each year, millions of tons of sewage sludge is disposed of on fields in the United States.

The land appli­ca­tion” of sewage sludge has been pro­mot­ed by the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) since 1993 as the pre­ferred method for the dis­pos­al of this by-prod­uct of munic­i­pal waste­water treat­ment. Mil­lions of tons of haz­ardous sewage sludge have sub­se­quent­ly been spread on farm­land and pub­lic parks in the Unit­ed States. Some­times it is bagged and sold as organ­ic” fer­til­iz­er and com­post in gar­den sup­ply stores. No mat­ter how it is processed or how slick it is mar­ket­ed as a fer­til­iz­er or soil amend­ment, putting sewage sludge on land is a health and envi­ron­men­tal disaster. 

Has sewage sludge caused any farm dam­age? Once the sludge leaves the waste­water treat­ment plant, it is not tracked; there’s no nation­al sys­tem for report­ing sludge-relat­ed health or envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems; and farm­ers are not known for hav­ing deep pock­ets, which is what it would take to bring the issue of dam­ages to U.S. courts.

Nev­er­the­less, in Feb­ru­ary 2008, the McEl­mur­rays, dairy farm­ers from Geor­gia, received an order and judg­ment issued by Fed­er­al Judge Antho­ny Alaimo of the 11th Cir­cuit Court. The order address­es and con­firms that there have been decades of deceit by the EPA and finds against the USDA and the EPA. The court acknowl­edges that the sludge appli­ca­tions on the McEl­mur­rays’ farm were respon­si­ble for killing hun­dreds of dairy cat­tle and con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing the milk sup­plies in sev­er­al states. This case allowed sub­si­dies pre­vi­ous­ly only award­ed for crop fail­ures due to bad weath­er or nat­ur­al dis­as­ters to include the inju­ri­ous affects of land applied sewage sludge. In his rul­ing, Judge Alaimo said, senior EPA offi­cials took extra­or­di­nary steps to quash sci­en­tif­ic dis­sent and any ques­tion­ing of EPA’s biosolids pro­gram.” (Unit­ed States Dis­trict Court South­ern Dis­trict of Geor­gia, McEl­mur­ray v. U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, Case 1:05-cv-00159-AAA-WLB Doc­u­ment 67, Filed 02/25/2008.)

What is sludge?

Isn’t sludge just treat­ed feces and urine? No, it is what­ev­er goes into the sew­er sys­tem and emerges as solids from munic­i­pal waste­water treat­ment plants. Sludge can be (its exact com­po­si­tion varies and is not know­able) any of the 80,000 syn­thet­ic chem­i­cals used by indus­try; new chem­i­cals cre­at­ed from com­bin­ing two or more of those 80,000; bac­te­ria and virus­es; hos­pi­tal waste; runoff from roads; phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals and over-the-counter drugs; deter­gents and chem­i­cals that are put down drains in res­i­dences; and, of course, urine and feces flushed down toilets.

Sludge that is heat dried, anaer­o­bi­cal­ly digest­ed, com­post­ed, limed or oth­er­wise sta­bi­lized is called biosolids” — a made-up euphemism for sewage sludge that makes it no safer. In addi­tion to tox­ic met­als, path­o­gen­ic virus­es and bac­te­ria, some haz­ardous mate­ri­als in biosolids” include: endocrine dis­rup­tors like bromi­nat­ed flame retar­dants (PBDEs, which are a lot like PCBs), phtha­lates like DEHP (a repro­duc­tive and devel­op­men­tal tox­in), per­sis­tent and tox­ic ingre­di­ents in per­son­al care prod­ucts (e.g., tri­closan and galax­olide) and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals that the human body excretes in feces or urine (hor­mones from birth con­trol pills, etc.).

The Tar­get­ed Nation­al Sewage Sludge Sur­vey, a 2009 EPA study, con­clud­ed that all sewage sludge con­tains tox­ic and haz­ardous mate­ri­als, includ­ing large num­bers of endocrine dis­rup­tors (chem­i­cals that cause trou­ble to the hor­mon­al system).

In 2015, in North­hamp­ton Coun­ty, Penn., Upper Mount Bethal Town­ship res­i­dents orga­nized as Sludge Free UMBT and chal­lenged the Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion’s approval for Syna­gro Mid-Atlantic Inc. to apply the biosolids fer­til­iz­er on the Potomac, Sun­rise and Stone Church farms. (Image: Sewage Sludge Action Net­work)

Why dump sludge on land?

It is the least expen­sive way for munic­i­pal­i­ties to get rid of the semi-sol­id, mud-like mate­r­i­al to make room for more. Also, the land appli­ca­tion” of sewage sludge can also be called recy­cling,” which helps fool the pub­lic and sat­is­fies state and local pol­i­cy man­dates for reduc­ing land­fill vol­umes. And there’s also lob­by­ing from the sludge haulers—cor­po­ra­tions that sign con­tracts with munic­i­pal author­i­ties to remove the tox­ic sludge from the waste­water treat­ment plant. They do not want pol­i­cy changes that will squeeze them out of a rev­enue stream. Hence, cor­po­ra­tions and cor­po­rate sur­ro­gates’ con­stant­ly and aggres­sive­ly pres­sure com­mu­ni­ties, politi­cians, and envi­ron­men­tal­ists to main­tain the sewage sludge sta­tus quo.

Chang­ing fed­er­al pol­i­cy could end this sys­tem­at­ic con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of our food sup­ply and the degra­da­tion of our health from sewage sludge. But that rais­es the ques­tion: What to do with it? Keep it off our food, gar­dens, yards, parks, and fields: keep sewage sludge out of life cycles.

In the com­ing months, Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times will take a clos­er at the agri­cul­tur­al affects of sewage sludge’s use as a fer­til­iz­er and soil amend­ment and its impact on land, water and com­mu­ni­ty health. But Crap­shoot: The Gam­ble with our Wastes—a 2003 film direct­ed by Jeff Mck­ay and embed­ded below — offers a com­pelling intro­duc­tion to the world of tox­ic sludge.

Crap­shoot: The Gam­ble with our Wastes, direct­ed by Jeff McK­ay. (Film: Nation­al Film Board of Canada)

For more infor­ma­tion check out slud​ge​news​.org and the Sewage Sludge Action Net­work.

Lau­ra Orlan­do is a mem­ber of the Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times Board of Edi­tors. She is a civ­il engi­neer and teach­es in the envi­ron­men­tal health depart­ment at the Boston Uni­ver­si­ty School of Pub­lic Health. Lau­ra grew up on a farm near Ben­ton Har­bor, Michi­gan. She is a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and the Har­vard Kennedy School of Government.
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