Wretched Excess

Sludge, spread across the land, makes some people vomit and others very rich

In a Tanglewood office tower, visitors who feel the urge can ride an elevator to the top floor, round a corner and walk into a small restroom. They can gargle from a complimentary bottle of Cool Mint Listerine or use the toilet bowl covers, known as Health Gards, free of charge. There is no coin-operated lock on the door, no plaque saying "Customers Only" and no tuxedo-clad attendant inside hawking towels for tips.

But here in the national headquarters of Synagro, the public lavatory reaps dividends. An employee in an adjacent stall flushes his commode, sending his poop on a journey that will end in one of the corporation's trucks, which will dispose of the waste for the city. "We always joke that when we go on bathroom breaks," the employee says, "we're just adding to the bottom line."

The bottom line, in Synagro's case, depends on a lot of derrieres. The company contracts with municipalities across the country to rid them of their sewage sludge. It in turn uses the sludge to feed a growing, feces-based economy. Thousands of farmers and ranchers who once boosted their harvests with cow manure or synthetic fertilizers recently have been converted by Synagro to using human waste. The company even sells sludge -- or biosolids, as it calls it -- to golf courses and ships it to Florida citrus groves.

Keith Massey says the waters of this creek carried 
contaminants from sewage sludge to his property.
Daniel Kramer
Keith Massey says the waters of this creek carried contaminants from sewage sludge to his property.
Synagro's trucks dumped or sprayed sludge on cattle 
pastures near Massey's property.
Photos provided by Keith Massey
Synagro's trucks dumped or sprayed sludge on cattle pastures near Massey's property.

Farms and fields are now the final resting places for the majority of the nation's poop -- thanks in large part to Synagro's efforts. In 1998, the company operated in three states and logged $20 million in annual revenue. Last year, it worked in 37 states and grossed $300 million. Nearly every toilet bowl in every major city in the United States fertilizes its coffers. One of the 100 largest corporations in Houston, it reigns over a doo-doo empire.

This revolution in waste disposal was born of an era of pink antibacterial hand soap, treacly air freshener and increasing scrutiny at the other end of the pipes. The Environmental Protection Agency has argued that spreading sludge on farmland is safer than old methods of disposing of it in rivers and oceans. Synagro agrees, and pledges in its mission statement to "enhance the environment and the quality of the communities that we serve."

Typical of such communities is the small town of Guy. A Fort Bend County ranching hamlet 40 miles from Synagro's headquarters, it became, in 1997, a destination for the contents of Houston's toilets.

Not everybody would have called the town lucky. Dr. David Lewis, at the time a high-ranking EPA scientist, criticized the agency's handling of sludge, arguing that it was creating "the Mount Everest of environmental problems." Lewis cited the example of 11-year-old Tony Behun, who rode his motorbike through a sludge application site in Pennsylvania in 1994 and fell ill with skin lesions, fever and respiratory problems. He died four days later.

Yet the sludge trucks hit Guy before the debate over the science. "The first day they came out," says Keith Massey, a retired Baptist preacher, "it smelled just like I was in a crapper."

The trucks rumbled past Massey's house all that day and into the night. They dumped their loads in a nearby pasture, heaping them into gelatinous piles. Massey's nine-year-old granddaughter awoke around midnight. She ran for the toilet, stopped short and threw up.

You shall have a place outside the camp and go there, and you shall have a spade among your tools, and it shall be when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and shall turn to cover up your excrement. Since the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp to deliver you and to defeat your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy... -- Deuteronomy 23:12-14

During his 44 years preaching the word of God in small-town churches, Massey saw a few miracles. His Bible's yellowed and soiled pages converted sinners to believers, pulled a teenager off drugs and healed a bitter soul who had lost a brother. Massey knew God could feed the hungry and part the Red Sea. So the preacher appealed to Him to part a sea of sludge.

The scripture, however, didn't do much to sway James Yelderman, the owner of the pasture near Massey's house, who said his sleepy land needed a boost. So Massey asked Yelderman if he wanted a flock of angry neighbors. Yelderman said he wanted the sludge.

The spring wind rustled across the water sedge, whipping the stench through Massey's open windows. He was building his modest ranch-style house by hand, with the help of his favorite Carpenter, and still hadn't installed air conditioning. A print on his wall showed an old-fashioned barn and a saucer moon. A plaque on his microwave said, "Teach Kindness."

Massey picked up his telephone that week and asked the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (now the TCEQ), to kindly intervene. Donna Phillips, the commission's local sludge team leader, sniffed out the problem, reporting that the goop piles "didn't smell like 'good' quality sludge." A truck driver told her a Houston wastewater plant was having aeration problems. Phillips tested a sample of the sludge two months later and found the pH levels were below federal standards.

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