Wretched Excess

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

"My personal opinion is there were just two or three people driving this whole process of getting rid of me," Lewis says, "and it was the people who were connected with developing the sludge rule."

Getting rid of Lewis, however, didn't make running damage control over sludge any easier for the EPA. A month later, a jury in Richmond County, Georgia, found that sludge from the city of Augusta was responsible for polluting farmland and killing 300 cows at the Boyce family farm. A similar case involving the adjacent RA McElmurray Sons dairy is on appeal. Andy McElmurray says contaminants in sludge, such as cadmium, weakened the cows' immune systems, causing deaths and stillbirths.

"There is the danger that is not told to the landowner or the farmer; he gets caught in a trap," McElmurray says. "You will see contaminants on your land that are not reported to you, that one day may come back and catch you."

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.

Despite such examples, the EPA later denied a request lodged by environmental groups to ban sludge spreading. It noted that ten years' worth of research went into drafting the sludge policies. Dr. Alan Rubin, who authored the sludge rule for the EPA and retired from the agency in January, says any toxic chemicals in sludge are likely present in such low concentrations that they shouldn't pose a threat. He stresses that there isn't a single documented case in which sludge has been proved to be the cause of a major human health problem. And he says subsequent research has failed to back up some of Lewis's assertions.

Lewis's theory linking sludge to staph infections was later addressed by Dr. Ian Pepper, director of the University of Arizona National Science Foundation Water Quality Center. In a study partially funded by Synagro, Pepper reported that he had analyzed biosolids from 15 locations and failed to find any strains of Staphylococcus aureus. He argued that the findings disproved the staph theory.

Yet Lewis disputes that claim. Pepper's study searched for only one variety of staph and used outdated methods, he says. It examined sludge fresh from treatment plants but didn't look at older sludge that could pick up and incubate staph. Furthermore, he adds, staph infections need not be picked up directly from sludge. If inhaling sludge dust compromises the immune system, it could make it easier to contract the infections elsewhere.

What most scientists agree on is that important questions about the safety of sludge remain unanswered. In an attempt to resolve them, the EPA and a diverse group of sludge stakeholders met two months after Lewis was fired and put together a committee that, to date, is still in the planning stages of commissioning more research on sludge, including reports of health complaints. But some critics note that the effort is organized by the industry-dominated Water Environment Research Foundation. As a result, says Caroline Snyder, director of Citizens for Sludge-Free Land, "federal grants go to sludge-friendly scientists."

Instead of waiting for more research to emerge, other countries have taken a precautionary approach. The Netherlands bans almost all land application of biosolids, and Switzerland is phasing out the practice. Other European countries regulate additional substances in sludge and impose limits on heavy metals that are more than three times stricter than those in the United States.

In lieu of deferring to the EPA, states and rural localities have sometimes regulated sludge on their own. Biosolids companies in Texas and many other states must apply for permits to spread class B sludge and must mark sludge sites with signs. Dozens of rural regions have enacted restrictive fees on sludge. Class B biosolids have been completely banned by 15 counties in California and seven counties and eight townships in Minnesota. Yet some communities find they can't close the floodgates. Courts recently overruled local bans on sludge spreading in Pennsylvania and Florida, arguing that such authority rests with the state government.

Activists wanting to learn more about sludge increasingly called and e-mailed Lewis. And yet he was simultaneously yanked further out of the trenches. His disputes with the EPA gradually permeated onto the UGA campus, souring his job prospects. "I was realizing that I was in a really huge bind," Lewis says. "With EPA in Washington soliciting help from industry to basically totally discredit me as a scientist, it was dawning on me that I probably wasn't going to be able to get a job anywhere."

Lewis wrangled with Synagro and the EPA over allegations and counterallegations of defamation. Meanwhile, the ingredients for sludge kept coming. American Standards, Kohlers and Totos formed myriad tributaries of a widening delta.

A few months after Lewis spoke at the sludge meeting in Massey's community, God finally intervened. Yelderman, the local rancher who used the sludge, got off work at the Dow Chemical plant, suffered a heart attack on the drive home, crashed his car and died. His brother agreed to stop applying sludge on the family land, and the last load was dumped two years ago.

Larger agricultural outfits have made similar decisions. Organic farmers forswear biosolids, and Del Monte, Western Growers and the H.J. Heinz Company refuse to accept produce grown on land treated with sludge. The National Farmers Union has enacted a policy stating: "The current practice of...spreading hazardous wastes and Class B biosolids on land surfaces...should be discontinued."

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