Wretched Excess

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

Nevertheless, Synagro's search for ranchers to replace the Yeldermans quickly moved forward. Fourth-generation rice grower Ronald Gerston soon discovered that Synagro was seeking a permit to spread Houston sludge near his family's farm in Wharton County.

The Gerston family raised concerns in a public meeting but decided fighting the permit was a waste of time. Unless someone could scientifically debunk the proposal, TCEQ officials would approve it. Neither citizens' fears about smells nor recent scientific studies questioning the overall safety of sludge would sway them.

On a recent winter afternoon, Gerston's paddies were shallow lakes. A swollen creek consumed a muddy road near the spot where Synagro planned to send its sludge trucks. Peering out at his neighbor's soggy land, Gerston argued that the waste might be swept downstream or seep into abandoned wells and contaminate groundwater. "On the Gulf Coast," he said, "you've got in excess of 40 inches of rainfall that will cause flooding almost anywhere."

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.

A coastal breeze swept across his land and over the quaint town of Lissie, where ornate Victorian homes and a turn-of-the-century church were clustered less than a mile down the road. A swing in one yard dangled from a tree bough. In another, an outdoor chair sat among potted plants. A yard was filled with bikes, a tricycle and a trampoline.

The sludge permit is still pending.

"You would need a scientist and a lawyer on call to fight this," said Gerston's brother, John. "The way they do it, the law is on Synagro's side."

A few miles closer to Houston, Massey walks out of his house on a clear, cool morning, climbs into his squeaky F-250 Lariat and drops the windows. He chugs along a fence line and down flat, graveled Wolfgang Road, passing a hawk and wading herons. The sludge is long gone, and the wind carries nothing but the smell of wet earth and winter grass.

Yet Massey's nose won't let him forget. He points past a thicket of trees to an abandoned sludge-dumping depot. "That's where they piled it up," he says. "I can almost smell it now."

Massey says he still feels the sludge's lingering effects. He takes pills three times a day from a cluster of large bottles to control the knots in his stomach. And his five-year-old grandson is most likely permanently brain-damaged; he has yet to utter more than a few words.

At least Massey was able to call on Lewis to help challenge the government on its own terms. The Gerstons won't have that option.

Worn down from staving off threats of lawsuits and fearful of attacks on his colleagues, Lewis forswore all involvement in sludge issues in a December e-mail to his friends, and stopped staying current on sludge research. "The bottom line is that I have taken this effort as far as humanly possible," he wrote.

"So, please let me know how everyone is doing, but if you're not feeling well because of sludge, please don't mention it to me because there's nothing I can do right now but pray for you. If sludge is causing the problem, God will know it without you having to tell me."

Massey is fond of the saying that God answers prayers in three ways: yes, no and wait. Only time will tell if other scientists pick up where Lewis left off.

More U.S. cities might eventually choose to process their sewage into cleaner forms, send it to landfills or incinerate it. But the EPA won't soon wash its hands of sludge. Past the toilets and waste plants, the Terra-Gators and fecal fields, and the harvests of beef and oranges, America's waste flows back to its dinner plates. There is no magic flusher, no end of the line.

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