By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
In a Tanglewood office tower, visitors who feel the urge can ride an elevator to the top floor, round a corner and walk into a small restroom. They can gargle from a complimentary bottle of Cool Mint Listerine or use the toilet bowl covers, known as Health Gards, free of charge. There is no coin-operated lock on the door, no plaque saying "Customers Only" and no tuxedo-clad attendant inside hawking towels for tips.
But here in the national headquarters of Synagro, the public lavatory reaps dividends. An employee in an adjacent stall flushes his commode, sending his poop on a journey that will end in one of the corporation's trucks, which will dispose of the waste for the city. "We always joke that when we go on bathroom breaks," the employee says, "we're just adding to the bottom line."
The bottom line, in Synagro's case, depends on a lot of derrieres. The company contracts with municipalities across the country to rid them of their sewage sludge. It in turn uses the sludge to feed a growing, feces-based economy. Thousands of farmers and ranchers who once boosted their harvests with cow manure or synthetic fertilizers recently have been converted by Synagro to using human waste. The company even sells sludge -- or biosolids, as it calls it -- to golf courses and ships it to Florida citrus groves.
Farms and fields are now the final resting places for the majority of the nation's poop -- thanks in large part to Synagro's efforts. In 1998, the company operated in three states and logged $20 million in annual revenue. Last year, it worked in 37 states and grossed $300 million. Nearly every toilet bowl in every major city in the United States fertilizes its coffers. One of the 100 largest corporations in Houston, it reigns over a doo-doo empire.
This revolution in waste disposal was born of an era of pink antibacterial hand soap, treacly air freshener and increasing scrutiny at the other end of the pipes. The Environmental Protection Agency has argued that spreading sludge on farmland is safer than old methods of disposing of it in rivers and oceans. Synagro agrees, and pledges in its mission statement to "enhance the environment and the quality of the communities that we serve."
Typical of such communities is the small town of Guy. A Fort Bend County ranching hamlet 40 miles from Synagro's headquarters, it became, in 1997, a destination for the contents of Houston's toilets.
Not everybody would have called the town lucky. Dr. David Lewis, at the time a high-ranking EPA scientist, criticized the agency's handling of sludge, arguing that it was creating "the Mount Everest of environmental problems." Lewis cited the example of 11-year-old Tony Behun, who rode his motorbike through a sludge application site in Pennsylvania in 1994 and fell ill with skin lesions, fever and respiratory problems. He died four days later.
Yet the sludge trucks hit Guy before the debate over the science. "The first day they came out," says Keith Massey, a retired Baptist preacher, "it smelled just like I was in a crapper."
The trucks rumbled past Massey's house all that day and into the night. They dumped their loads in a nearby pasture, heaping them into gelatinous piles. Massey's nine-year-old granddaughter awoke around midnight. She ran for the toilet, stopped short and threw up.
You shall have a place outside the camp and go there, and you shall have a spade among your tools, and it shall be when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and shall turn to cover up your excrement. Since the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp to deliver you and to defeat your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy... --Deuteronomy 23:12-14
During his 44 years preaching the word of God in small-town churches, Massey saw a few miracles. His Bible's yellowed and soiled pages converted sinners to believers, pulled a teenager off drugs and healed a bitter soul who had lost a brother. Massey knew God could feed the hungry and part the Red Sea. So the preacher appealed to Him to part a sea of sludge.
The scripture, however, didn't do much to sway James Yelderman, the owner of the pasture near Massey's house, who said his sleepy land needed a boost. So Massey asked Yelderman if he wanted a flock of angry neighbors. Yelderman said he wanted the sludge.
The spring wind rustled across the water sedge, whipping the stench through Massey's open windows. He was building his modest ranch-style house by hand, with the help of his favorite Carpenter, and still hadn't installed air conditioning. A print on his wall showed an old-fashioned barn and a saucer moon. A plaque on his microwave said, "Teach Kindness."
Massey picked up his telephone that week and asked the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (now the TCEQ), to kindly intervene. Donna Phillips, the commission's local sludge team leader, sniffed out the problem, reporting that the goop piles "didn't smell like 'good' quality sludge." A truck driver told her a Houston wastewater plant was having aeration problems. Phillips tested a sample of the sludge two months later and found the pH levels were below federal standards.
Meanwhile, the trucks kept rolling in. They rumbled down the gravel roads and dumped the sludge onto a staging area, where manure spreaders picked it up and trundled across the fields, whisking it left and right off conveyors. Or they shot it out in arcing blasts through pressurized water cannons.
"It was just horrible trying to sleep," Massey says. "You could almost taste it, it was so rank."
Complaints about the sludge mounted through the summer. Truck drivers reported picking up loads that were dark and fetid. According to the Herald Coaster, a local newspaper, residents described themselves as prisoners in their own homes. The stench was so bad that children were sometimes unable to wait outside for the school bus.
Yet the problems for Massey's family were worse. Fecal dust blowing from the open-bed sludge trucks and nearby fields caused his two young grandchildren to develop coughs and runny noses, he claims. And Massey says a doctor diagnosed him with a bacterial stomach infection and prescribed three varieties of antibiotics. He claims the physician likened his stomach to those of "kids in a third-world country that play in the sewer."
Growing increasingly frustrated with the persistent stench, Massey resorted to threats, according to state records. On a tour of a sludge site with TCEQ and Synagro officials, he stopped his pickup along a road, climbed out and pointed to a Synagro office where a worker was sitting outside. He reportedly said: "I have a .44 that I could take over there right now and put an end to all of this." When TCEQ investigators visited a few months later and told Massey that the odor near his house was merely "slight and intermittent," he bitched them out. He called a high-ranking agency official and complained, saying he knew how to take care of the problem with "a bullet in the back of the head." The agency informed him by mail that it no longer would respond to his calls, but that only provoked him. A truck driver with Enviroganics, another company that was applying sludge nearby, reported that the retired preacher pulled a gun and fired into the air to persuade him to stop working.
Environmental attorneys wanted to charge $30,000 to help Massey sue -- money he didn't have. TCEQ officials in Austin couldn't help him either. "I didn't have enough money even to take them out to lunch," he says.
State officials say they never abandoned Massey or the residents of Guy. "It's been a pretty exhaustive investigation of all of the allegations out there," says Bryan Eastham, who later took over as the region's sludge team leader. "It's gone on for six or seven years, total, and out of multiple investigations out there, there were a couple of minor violations, which were resolved."
Massey eventually changed his approach. He bought a dust mask to wear while mowing the lawn. "I just felt like I had to do something," he says.
But his family's health problems worsened. Less than two years after the sludge spreading began near his property, his daughter delivered baby Kade, who was born with cerebellum hypoplasia, an obscure brain defect caused by a buildup of fluids inside his head.
Although the doctors who diagnosed Kade couldn't be reached for comment and there is no direct evidence pinning his medical condition on sludge, Massey cites anecdotal links. A few months earlier, he discovered a stillborn calf in a pasture where sludge had been applied. Lawsuits in other states have claimed ties between sludge and health and reproductive problems in cattle. Some doctors have argued that sludge also could cause birth problems in humans.
After his birth, Kade stayed in Texas Children's Hospital for six weeks, spending much of that time on a respirator or under an oxygen hood. Doctors drained infections in his ears with plastic tubes. Pressure on his brain mounted, and the physicians eventually performed another operation when he was three years old. They cut his head from ear to ear, pulled the skin down and restructured his skull. Kade had barely talked before the operation. Afterward, his vocabulary was cut in half.
For the other Massey grandchildren, life in the country resembled life behind an urban latchkey. When the wind blew across the pasture, they stayed indoors and watched television. A five-month-old grandchild who moved in with the family later that year developed a 103-degree fever. He had never been sick, Massey says, yet repeatedly ran fevers afterward and saw a doctor bimonthly.
Massey drove to Richmond that May and told the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court that the EPA and the TCEQ were in the pocket of the sludge industry. "I pray that you will help us to protect our children," he preached in the pages of the Herald Coaster. "I'm in this alone..."
Massey might have been a rogue prophet at the time, but his plight didn't go unnoticed. Four months later, Synagro threatened to sue him for defamation based on his comments. "[Y]ou have stated that the spreading of sludge is using land as a 'pay toilet,' " said a letter from the company's attorneys, "and that the spreading of sludge by Synagro produces an obnoxious odor, affects air quality, and is linked to a number of health issues such as increased risk of birth defects, fetal abortions and stillbirths."
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
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.
"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."
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."
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."
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.