Wretched Excess

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

Massey obviously lacked the training to stand up to Synagro's scientists and lawyers. But he had heard of an EPA scientist and sludge critic in Athens, Georgia. Massey dialed Lewis.

"I just asked him if there was some way we could get him out here to help us fight this sludge," he says. "...When I told him we were having some kinds of problems out here, he was more interested."

Lewis flew to Houston, drove to Angleton and addressed 200 people at the Brazoria County Courthouse. Synagro was invited at his request to speak in defense of sludge. The company held a separate forum, along with the TCEQ. The headline in the Herald Coaster read: "Sludge Scientists Duel in Separate Angleton Meetings." It was a small-town debate with repercussions that went all the way to Washington.

The organic waste cycle
The organic waste cycle
Gurdip Hyare says the 69th Street plant transforms 
poop into clean water and fertilizer.
Daniel Kramer
Gurdip Hyare says the 69th Street plant transforms poop into clean water and fertilizer.

Lewis had emerged ten years earlier from a similarly massive debate over a very different sort of anal fixation. In the early 1990s -- a time when public fears were running high about AIDS and gay sex -- he discovered that HIV could be transmitted through an unexpected pathway: the lubricants in common dental equipment. The findings rocked the dental industry and thrust him onto TV screens across the nation.

Such a large discovery was typical for Lewis's EPA laboratory, which was known for producing cutting-edge science from its remote perch in sleepy Athens. But the same independent thinking that characterized the Athens lab also fueled its intransigence. The lab often bucked the EPA's top brass, and nowhere was that more evident than in the squishy sludge debate.

Before the EPA released a new rule regulating sludge application, it asked Lewis's lab and several others to review it. The new rule would replace interim regulations dating from 1989, which limited the levels of heavy metals -- such as mercury and cadmium -- that could be present in sludge. Lewis testified in congressional hearings that the updated version set weaker standards for some substances and "was not considered to be scientifically sound by any of the laboratories that looked at it."

Yet the EPA was under tremendous pressure to push it down the pipeline. The agency was concerned that sludge was polluting beaches, causing toxic algae blooms and killing fish, and thus had just banned the practice of dumping sewage sludge in the ocean, which had been standard procedure in many coastal cities. And yet sludge had to go somewhere, and disposing of it in landfills or incinerating it was expensive. Sewage companies argued that a streamlined rule would make the spreading of waste on farmland a more practical option.

The EPA issued the new rule in 1993 based on a compromise: The agency would conduct $10 million in additional research on sludge over the next five years.

Hardly any of that research happened. Offered a small fraction of the promised funding, Lewis's lab dropped out of the effort. "Our lab came to the opinion that Washington was not serious about doing the science," he says, "so we just weren't going to be a part of it."

Meanwhile, the EPA was actively promoting the spreading of sludge on farmland, releasing a brochure in 1994 showing the verdant lawns of Mount Vernon, which it said sludge had helped to make abundantly green.

Lewis initially stayed in the background in the sludge fight, watching other critics take flak. He wears large glasses and speaks like an unassuming Atticus Finch, in the soft, rounded accent of the Deep South. But two years later, he slammed the top management at the EPA in a fiery op-ed in the highly prestigious journal Nature. He blamed the agency for making rules before it could back them up with science, and cited the sludge rule as a perfect, sordid example.

The EPA went after Lewis immediately. It nitpicked over a disclaimer printed beneath the article -- "This commentary represents the author's personal views, and not those of the U.S. EPA" -- saying it appeared in too small a font. And it accused him of violating the Hatch Act by involving himself in a partisan campaign issue.

The U.S. Department of Labor found that the EPA's actions against Lewis were discriminatory and overruled them. Even so, he was kept on a tight leash. He began researching sludge, yet almost everything he did had to be approved by managers in Washington. The EPA denied him a promotion. And the labor department intervened, again.

"I considered it to be a moral disservice to sit there at the lab and get paid $107,000 a year to basically publish only data that supports the agency's stance," he says. So he decided to get out. He dropped his labor complaints and agreed to retire from the EPA within four years. In exchange, the EPA continued to pay his salary in the interim at the University of Georgia, where the Department of Marine Sciences was interested in securing him a tenured professorship.

Lewis already had released a study that raised a stink over sludge. He had argued earlier that year that pathogens in sludge could survive in the gelatinous goop in a manner similar to how HIV had survived in the lubricants of dental equipment. At UGA, he published a paper in Nature examining pollutants that are chiral, meaning that they exist in different forms. He found toxic residues from these pollutants were likely to persist much longer than expected in agricultural lands treated with sludge. "Our results showed, basically, that we are changing the way pollutants persist," Lewis says, "and nobody realizes that."

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