Wretched Excess

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

The Nature paper won a top award from the EPA, and Lewis was promoted to a position as one of the agency's most senior scientists. He was suddenly the best-known sludge critic in the nation.

Yet even as the EPA rewarded Lewis, it continued harassing him. Agency lawyers argued that his mandate at UGA was to study dental and medical issues, not sludge. They yanked all of his funding and barred him from collaborating on sludge with the agency's other scientists. The EPA "never had the intent of keeping their end of the bargain," he says.

Lewis called up his legal team and fought back. He rustled up a half-million dollars in private funds, plus $80,000 of his own money, to continue his research. In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000, he said: "They call it biosolids, but all it is is human waste after they've filtered out the tampon applicators."

Lawsuits in Georgia have claimed links between cattle 
deaths and sludge contaminants.
Provided by Keith Massey
Lawsuits in Georgia have claimed links between cattle deaths and sludge contaminants.
Massey photographed dead and stillborn cows on 
pastures treated with sludge.
Provided by Keith Massey
Massey photographed dead and stillborn cows on pastures treated with sludge.

A few months later, the EPA commissioned an internal peer review of Lewis's latest sludge study. Many of the reviewers had blatant conflicts of interest. One of them previously helped direct a public relations campaign to make the case that sludge was safe. Another reviewer, Dr. John Walker, was the EPA's public spokesperson on sludge. According to a lawsuit filed by Lewis, Walker collaborated on his peer review with Synagro.

The partnership between the EPA and Synagro marked the beginning of a combined effort to discredit Lewis's work, his lawsuit alleges. Synagro soon issued a 27-page White Paper attacking Lewis. It bashed his public statements, credentials and research, concluding that he had resorted to "uninformed, unsupported, and otherwise unsound science in attempting to prove his position."

Walker distributed the White Paper two days later, under official EPA letterhead, at a public meeting in Georgia, a legal complaint says. A UGA professor present at the meeting testified that it was his impression that the EPA "had endorsed the White Paper."

But despite the allegations of stinky profit motives, there were some good reasons to use sludge on farmland. Synagro and the EPA weren't just hawking crocks of shit.

The business of selling sludge goes somewhat counterintuitively. In many cases, it doesn't even involve selling at all. A farmer can walk into Synagro's office, sit down in a plush chair beneath a framed photograph of a Terra-Gator biosolids truck and sign a contract to receive sludge from Synagro free of charge.

"The farmers really love it," says Alvin Thomas, Synagro general counsel and executive vice president. He estimates that applying sludge allows farmers to save up to $100 an acre on fertilizer costs and boost yields by up to 200 percent. "In the climate right now, where farming has been under so much economic pressure," he says, "it is a huge benefit to agricultural America."

In fact, fertilizer generated from human bowels may trump most things man has produced through other methods. "It provides some benefits that a chemical fertilizer does not," Thomas says. For example, sludge absorbs and retains water. It provides beneficial micronutrients not found in chemical additives. And it tends to release nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium more slowly, limiting their potential to seep into streams.

Despite these advantages, Thomas knows sludge sometimes can be a hard sell. After all, many civilizations have endeavored for millennia to throw out poop with as much speed and finality as possible. The first flush toilets were invented 4,000 years ago by the Indus Valley civilization in what is now Pakistan. Roman aqueducts carried waste miles from the source. And even now, a large chunk of the 35 million gallons of sewage produced in America every day ends up out of sight and out of mind in municipal landfills.

Peddling sludge thus requires Synagro to persuade people to look beyond toilets, pipes and sinkholes and into the 21st century. When a turd leaves the company's bathroom -- or any bathroom in the North Loop region -- it migrates through winding sewers, gets boosted into a single pipe as wide as a car and is funneled into Houston's 69th Street Wastewater Treatment Plant, where -- as Synagro assiduously stresses -- it ceases to be poop.

"It's a very good process," says Gurdip Hyare, the plant's chief engineer, who wears sunglasses on a drizzly morning and carries a closed umbrella. Hyare has agreed to walk through each step of this fecal odyssey, and opens the door to a roaring chamber. The four pumps inside can lift enough wastewater to fill an Olympic swimming pool every two minutes. They carry the sewage up several stories and into four open-air chutes.

Outside, it smells just like a giant overflowing toilet. The chutes channel brown streams through grates known as bar screens, where an automatic rake scrapes them of unwanted trash. Hyare briskly walks past a screen peppered with tampon applicators and through a muddy tunnel.

The real dirty work at the plant is done in the next stages, inside two sets of cement, bunkerlike reactors. Nozzles inject the sewage with oxygen, and varying forms of aerobic bacteria break down many of the pathogens. "These microorganisms, they are hungry," Hyare says, "and their food is the contaminants."

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