Wretched Excess

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

Water flows out of the reactors, through a series of filters, and into the Ship Channel. Meanwhile, the heavy fecal material settles to the bottom of collecting pools, where it is sucked into pipes, strained through a separator to weed out debris and partially wicked of moisture in pools known as thickeners. It's now ready to be groomed for the field.

Hyare leads the way into the bowels of the plant's roaring sludge-processing facility -- a massive five-story factory where signs say, "Carelessness Is Dangerousness." Controlled via computer monitors in a turquoise-tiled office, 21 whining centrifuges dry the sludge and drop it onto conveyor belts. Nearly every surface in the plant is covered in varyingly thick layers of black dust.

At some Houston facilities, the sludge would be handed over to Synagro at this stage and hauled out to a ranch. The EPA calls such material "class B" biosolids because it still contains some pathogens. This was the type of sludge applied near Massey's house. Farmers often prefer it because it's free.

Ronald Gerston is concerned about Synagro's plans 
to spread sludge near his farm in Lissie.
Daniel Kramer
Ronald Gerston is concerned about Synagro's plans to spread sludge near his farm in Lissie.

The 69th Street factory, however, is more advanced. Inside a mixer known as a cage mill, the sludge is blasted with 1,200-degree gas. Massive vacuum fans, which sound like Godzilla's hair dryer, then suck it into a five-story chute. The heat transforms it into dry pellets that are nearly devoid of pathogens. An adjacent silo stores them and dispenses them into Synagro's trucks. Farmers, home gardeners and anyone else can purchase and use this "class A" product from Synagro without a permit.

Synagro contends that both class A and class B materials are safe. "They are equal as long as you follow the rules under both," Thomas says. "And that's actually where there has been a lot of improper public perception."

But the rules also allow sludge to include much more than processed poop. Biosolids can contain trace amounts of Prozac and birth control pills; organic chemicals such as dioxins and PCBs; and heavy metals. Wastewater treatment plants can't remove many such toxins, which form a large part of what gets poured down the drain in industrial Houston.

"I mean, you can [also] find things in ice cream and hot dogs," Thomas says. "...Just because something is in there doesn't mean that it's problematic."

For the debate about sludge to spill over into the halls of Washington, more papers needed to clog the pipes.

In 2001, Robert Hale, a researcher with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, made a splash in Nature when he questioned the limited scope of the EPA's sludge risk analysis. Hale detected in sludge high levels of brominated flame retardants, which have been banned in Europe because of their potential toxicity. The risk assessment never determined what levels of the flame retardants were safe, Hale says, nor did it study the vast majority of the 100,000 other chemicals that are likely present in municipal waste.

Pressed on the issue, the EPA's scientists "really haven't had a satisfactory response to that," he says.

Major scientific institutions soon began to echo Hale's concerns. A Status Report issued in 2002 by the EPA's own Office of the Inspector General concluded that the "EPA cannot assure the public that current land application practices are protective of human health and the environment." A few months later, a National Academy of Sciences panel called for more research on sludge application, arguing that there was still "persistent uncertainty" about its safety.

The reports also questioned the EPA's ability to enforce its own sludge policies. The ten EPA regions that year employed approximately nine full-time workers, who covered all areas of biosolids management across the United States. (The EPA was unable to say whether staffing levels have increased since then.) Yet even when sludge is applied properly, the material might not meet federal standards. Ellen Harrison, director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute, reviewed data on sludge from a New York State waste treatment plant that year and found strong evidence that it had been bungled or fudged.

Meanwhile, Lewis's work kept the EPA's nose on the trail of sludge-related illnesses. He analyzed 54 health cases that had been reported near sludge sites, and reported an unusually high incidence of staph infections -- common bacterial infections that can lead to serious illnesses if not treated. Most of the doctors he interviewed already believed their patients' problems were linked to sludge. And yet the victims "were typically not getting anything but the runaround" from the EPA and state agencies, Lewis says.

Some of the health problems were severe. The same year Tony Behun rode his motorbike through a sludge-covered field in Pennsylvania, Daniel Pennock, a teenager in the same state, walked across a sludge site and died shortly thereafter of a bacterial infection. And a year later, Shayne Connor went to sleep in a house 300 feet from a sludge field in New Hampshire and died from interactions of irritant chemicals and pathogens in the sludge, experts argue. Synagro disputes the alleged connections.

Lewis's analysis went on to become the seventh-most-accessed article ever to appear in Biomed Central, a set of major medical journals. Even so, the EPA said it planned to hold Lewis to his labor dispute agreement. Senator James Inhofe, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, wrote a letter to EPA Administrator Christine Whitman asking her to intervene. But no matter: In May 2003 Lewis was fired.

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