EPA Deregulates Sewer Sludge

These days a home gardener hoping for a bumper crop can walk into the local nursery and pick up a bag of the multipurpose Milorganite. "Natural organic fertilizer," the bold-faced hype proclaims. The fine print explains: "This product meets 'Exceptional Quality' standards as defined by the EPA." But just two years ago that same fine print warned: "Should not be used on food crops ... most natural organic fertilizers contain trace amounts of heavy metals." What's up? Milorganite hasn't changed. It's the same old shit, or, more precisely, sludge from the Milwaukee municipal sewer system. Nor has there been any change in the composition of the other leading municipal sewage fertilizers: Houston's Hou-actinite, Los Angeles' Nitrohumus and Chicago's Nu-Earth. But there is one difference. These products have all undergone linguistic detoxification. Sewer sludge, which was once considered hazardous waste and judged too dangerous to be used on food crops, has been deregulated by the EPA and redefined as an agricultural fertilizer. And fertilizers, as marketable products, are exempt from the laws that govern the disposal of hazardous waste. In effect, the EPA has found a way to make the waste problem that once plagued 15,000 publicly owned sewer plants disappear, at least in name. Each year about 4 million metric tons of municipal sludge -- about half of the total produced annually in the United States -- are dumped on farm land. That sludge is derived chiefly from human excreta and from the water wastes of 130,000 industrial plants. Typically, municipal sewer sludge contains PCBs, dangerous pesticides such as chlordane, chlorinated compounds such as dioxin, heavy metals such as arsenic and lead, viruses such as Hepatitis A, eggs of parasitic worms, etc. Cornell University's Toxic Chemical Laboratory recently tested 50 municipal sludges and found that two-thirds contained asbestos. "You test it and you find so much -- dioxin, PCBs, DDT, asbestos -- it's an endless list," says Cornell toxicologist Donald Lisk. "Urban sewer sludge is a huge problem." In fact, according to the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, of 30 municipal sludges analyzed in 1983 only seven were considered suitable for land application. The sludge from the other 23 plants contained elevated levels of one or more heavy metals, such as lead and cadmium. But that was using the older, more stringent standards. The EPA began the linguistic detoxification of sewage sludge in 1984, when it issued a beneficial sludge use and disposal policy that permitted the controlled use of treated sewage as fertilizer. In 1993, new regulations governing this sludge policy were written into "Part 503" of the Clean Water Act. These regulations, which in the sludge community are referred to as "503," further redefined the waste, deeming it "clean" enough for unrestricted use in America's gardens and fields. This transformation occurred, not because the sludge was suddenly cleaner -- though better treatment methods have helped to lower the concentrations of some heavy metals -- but because the EPA raised the limits of acceptable exposure to some pollutants so that most of the nation's sludge could be classified as "clean." For example, the new regulations increased the amount of lead that can be applied annually via fertilizer sludge from 111 pounds of lead per acre to 267 pounds per acre. The arsenic level was raised from 12.5 pounds per acre to 36 pounds per acre. The allowable amount of mercury jumped from 13.4 pounds per acre to 50 pounds per acre. And the amount of chromium permitted ballooned from 472 pounds per acre to 2,672 pounds per acre. In fact, under 503, sludge sold as fertilizer can be so contaminated with toxins that, according to the EPA, such sludge cannot be legally landfilled. 503 regulates only 21 carcinogenic pollutants found in sludge. These include 10 heavy metals, but not the other 15 inorganic priority toxins on the EPA's Superfund list. As for the permitted level of dioxin in sludge, the EPA is waiting to finish its never-ending dioxin reassessment before setting sludge limits for that poison. Germany, by contrast, has sharply curtailed the use of sludge fertilizer due to the danger posed by dioxin. In effect, 503 circumvents the 1984 hazardous waste amendments to the Solid Waste Disposal Act, which regulate the dumping of sewage sludge. The new regulations also stipulate that no person, corporation or government body may be held liable for any damages caused by the use of sludge fertilizer. The EPA admits that when drawing up 503 it did not take into account the possible impact of sludge contaminants seeping into the water supply and leaching into the soil. Nor has the EPA examined how sludge fertilizer might affect wildlife. Of particular concern are animals that eat worms. Earthworms, not surprisingly, contain a lot of dirt and also accumulate heavy metals in their body tissue. But earthworms aren't the only animals that can be contaminated with dangerous levels of heavy metals. In setting sludge safety standards for humans, the EPA assumed that children can safely absorb 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, estimate that levels as low as 10 micrograms of lead will permanently lower a child's IQ. Further, the EPA's risk assessment compounds this problem by assuming that food grown with sludge fertilizer will be evenly consumed by the total population. But that is certainly not the case for families who exponentially increase their exposure by using unlabeled sludge fertilizers on their home gardens. Nor did the EPA evaluate multi-year applications of sludge fertilizer and the resulting toxic buildup of those pollutants, such as heavy metals, that stay in the soil without decomposing. In fact, for these very reasons, the National Food Processors Association still advises its members not to buy food grown with sludge fertilizer. But all that may be changing. Ketchup-maker H.J. Heinz, which once opposed the concept of sludge farming, is waiting for final approval of the practice from the National Academy of Sciences, which is studying the issue. And should the academy endorse farming with sludge fertilizer, the National Food Processors Association will not only go along with that verdict, but, what's more, it will "strongly oppose" any labeling of food grown on sludge-fertilized land. In drafting 503, the EPA also failed to explore how the land-dumping of millions of tons of contaminated sludge will pollute groundwater. Of particular concern are the wells upon which rural residents depend. The agency realizes there is a risk. In 1986, when 503 was still on the drawing board, the EPA declared: "Low concentrations of a pollutant such as arsenic are a significant risk if that sludge is to be landfilled or land farmed. ... A potential for contamination of surrounding or underlying soil and/or groundwater does exist from disposal of sludge containing pollutants." But those concerns seem to have been discarded in the EPA's detoxification of sludge.The EPA is also ignoring the threat to public safety posed by biologic pathogens that enter sludge through human and animal excrement. In 1989, the EPA documented the presence of 25 infectious agents in sewage sludge: five bacteria (including Salmonella), nine viruses (including Hepatitis A), five intestinal worms (such as tapeworms and hookworms), five protozoa (one of these, Cryptosporidium, killed 100 people in Milwaukee) and one fungi (Aspergillus, which also can be fatal). According to the EPA, "If sewage sludge containing high levels of pathogenic organisms or high concentrations of pollutants is improperly handled, the sludge could contaminate the soil, water, crops livestock, fish and shellfish." Because of the dangers from human and animal pathogens, the EPA, when writing 503, divided sludge fertilizer into two grades, A and B. Grade A, considered an "exceptional quality" fertilizer by the EPA, is heat-treated to reduce disease-bearing organisms. The use of grade A fertilizer is totally unregulated. It can be freely applied on all lawns and human-food crops. Grade B fertilizer, because it has not been heat-treated, is only allowed on above-ground crops such as wheat and corn. Despite these gradations, the exceptionally pure grade A has just as many chemical contaminants as grade B does. And, ironically, the heat-treating responsible for grade A's "exceptional quality" is an ineffective method of killing bacteria, viruses and parasite eggs. According to a 1992 study by a group of University of Arizona soil scientists, present sludge-treatment methods do not effectively kill human pathogens. The researchers concluded: "Significant numbers of pathogens exist in sludge even after stabilization and treatment. If these pathogens can remain viable for extended periods of time, groundwater sources beneath sludge disposal and land application sites may become contaminated. ... Once in groundwater, they may travel significant distances from the site. ... Viruses [which can survive in the ground for months], because of their small size, probably have the greatest potential of all pathogens for actually reaching groundwater and being transported from the site." Sludge from New York City is particularly infected with human pathogens. Eleven of New York's 14 sewage-treatment plants are not up to modern treatment standards. Half were built in the 1930s. In addition, the city does not know how many industries discharge waste into the municipal sewer system. City environmental officials regulate only 1,090 industrial plants, and estimate that there might be another 2,000 that are unregulated. New York City's waste is so contaminated that the state's Department of Environmental Conservation will not allow it to be applied on land in New York. The sludge is also too dirty for Pennsylvania or Ohio. So, New York City had to go further afield to find a state willing to take some of its sludge. To help in this quest, the city hired a Long Island firm, Merco Joint Venture Co. In 1992, Merco set its sights on southwestern Oklahoma. Understandably, the rural citizenry were not pleased at the prospect of becoming the Big Apple's pay toilet. Joseph Maness, an environmental physiologist at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, helped lead the successful effort to block Merco. In 1992 testimony before the Oklahoma state legislature, Maness argued that the EPA's policy of promoting the spreading of sludge over land "is not so much to benefit land, but rather to benefit sewage-treatment plants faced with the problem of disposal of millions of tons of sludge." After being defeated in Oklahoma, Merco went to take a dump in the unregulated fields of Arizona. In this frontier state, it found a landowner, Ronald Bryce, who was willing to spread 41,000 tons of NYC sludge over his farms. Reporter Keith Bagwell chronicled what went down in a series of stories in Tucson's Arizona Daily Star. The first shipments of New York City sludge contained petroleum hydrocarbons that were 14 to 22 times as great as the state cleanup level for tainted soil. These hydrocarbon pollutants included the potent carcinogens benzene, toluene and xylene. In addition, New York City sewer sludge spread over the Arizona farmland contained coliform bacteria from human feces at levels 33.5 times higher than the federal limit. "That sounds more like untreated sludge," the EPA's sludge inspector, Laura Fondahl, told Bagwell in 1994. Fondahl, who is based in San Francisco, is charged with the impossible task of monitoring the sludge produced and dumped in Arizona, California, Nevada, Hawaii, Arizona and Guam. But the most popular dumpsite for New York City sludge is Sierra Blanca, Texas, a poor, largely Hispanic community whose surrounding countryside is receiving 225 tons of New York sewage a day. When Michael Moore lampooned this outrage during an Aug. 2, 1994 segment of TV Nation, Merco filed a $33 million lawsuit against show backer Tristar Television, segment reporter Roy Serkoff, local activist Bill Addington and EPA whistleblower Hugh Kaufman. On the show, Kaufman had characterized Merco's operation as an "illegal haul and dump operation masquerading as an environmentally beneficial project." The company denies all charges. The run-up to the trial, set to begin next spring, has been followed closely by Sludge, the sewage industry's biweekly newsletter. Sludge's August 1 issue reports that the EPA's Office of the General Counsel has refused a subpoena to testify in the case. As Sludge explains, "Federal agencies are allowed to turn down subpoenas if deemed not in the government's best interest."Certainly the best interests of EPA officials would not be served if the general public were to realize what is going on. In 1989, the EPA came out with its proposed 503 regulation. During the public comment period that followed, industry officials came out in force to challenge the proposed rules. In an effort to settle the dispute, the EPA turned to Terry Logan, a professor of soil science at Ohio State University who, in 1984, had helped invent the concept of "clean sludge." In 1989, Logan served as co-chair of the Land Practices Peer Review Committee, which recommended that 503's proposed regulations be made less stringent. As Logan was rewriting 503 he was also serving as a board member of and consultant to N-Viro International Corp. Using a process invented by Logan, this Ohio-based company mixes sewage sludge with cement-kiln dust to make fertilizer. Logan currently serves as president of Pan-American N-Viro, Inc, an N-Viro subsidiary that was created to market this waste-disposal process to Latin America. Another consultant to N-Viro is former EPA chief William Reilly, who receives $2,000 a month for his services. During Reilly's tenure, N-Viro won an award from the agency for "outstanding technology development contributing to enhanced beneficial use of municipal wastewater sludge." In fact, the EPA financially supports the very industry it is supposed to regulate. The agency issues grants to the Water Environment Federation (WEF), a trade and lobbying organization formerly known as the Federation of Sewage Works Associations. This coalition of sewer operators has consistently opposed federal attempts to clean up the nation's water. According to Sludge, the WEF supported the Clean Water Act reauthorization bill devised by the House Republicans because "the legislation would reduce [sludge] quality by relaxing federal pre-treatment standards." This curious conflict of interest was discovered by John Stauber, founder and editor of PR Watch. Last year, Stauber and writer Sheldon Rampton were trying to come up with a catchy title for a book they were writing on the public relations industry. Inspired by a Tom Tomorrow cartoon, they hit upon the name "Toxic Sludge is Good for You." They then found out that the WEF was about to launch a campaign to convince the public of exactly that. That campaign is being headed by Alan Rubin, the man who spearheaded the EPA's sludge-fertilizer disposal program. Rubin is on "loan" from the EPA to the WEF. The April 1994 Environment Today reported that Rubin will "serve as cheerleader for a joint EPA-WEF sludge education campaign. Recalcitrant states, wary lenders and other foot-draggers are the effort's chief targets." At Rubin's side will be the best flacks money can buy. In 1992, the EPA awarded the WEF a $300,000 grant to promote the use of sludge fertilizer. In turn, the federation hired the services of Powell Tate, the Washington PR firm born from the union of former Carter press secretary Jody Powell and Bush aide Sheila Tate. Documents obtained by Stauber through Freedom of Information Act requests include Powell Tate's research findings and proposed communications plan. (The EPA, which has released only a few documents, is withholding internal memos and other materials that chronicle the creation of this strange alliance. Stauber plans to go to court to obtain them.) According to the documents released, the cornerstone of the Powell Tate strategy is to promote the WEF's new name for sludge: biosolids. "The negatives of the term 'sludge' are overwhelming," notes the Powell Tate communications plan. But the necessary rehabilitation, according to the firm, is being obstructed by EPA employees who refuse to get with the program. "The EPA's use of the term 'sewage sludge' instead of 'biosolids' may neutralize the agency's efforts to gain widespread acceptance of the term biosolids," warns Powell Tate. "The research suggests that emphasizing the clear differences between biosolids and sludge will be critical to WEF's ability to increase audience acceptance of biosolid's land application. ... Achieving this goal will be markedly more difficult as long as sludge and biosolids are perceived as interchangeable or even similar products." According to Powell Tate, sludge fertilizer should ideally come to be viewed as "a vitamin pill for the earth." Manipulating the public's perception of sludge was one of the central topics at the annual WEF conference in Kansas City this past July. Powell Tate PR specialist Charlotte Newton advised WEF conferees to marginalize critics of biosolids. "Attack them in a way that does not demonize them," she said. "Do it in any way that does not make [their doubts] their fault.... You can't play to those who act weirdest." But what PR tactics can't accomplish, budgets cuts might. Sludge reports that the EPA has plans to dismantle its "biosolids" program. Michael Cook, the director of the EPA's Office of Wastewater, said the agency is "considering ways of greatly simplifying" -- in other words, gutting -- a planned evaluation of sludge dumping's ecological impact. "I think everyone agrees sewage sludge is a low priority for the agency," he said. Sewage sludge is also a low-priority issue for national environmental organizations. The Washington-based groups have been reluctant to challenge land-based sludge dumping. After winning hard-fought battles to curtail the disposal of sludge through ocean dumping and incineration, many organizations feel they do not have the energy to take on this issue -- especially since that would involve an attack on the EPA, the very agency that environmentalists fear might be eliminated altogether by the current Congress.However, the news is not all bad. On a county-by-county level, sludge dumping can be stopped. The commissioners of Rappahannock County, Va., have successfully stopped the use of sewage as fertilizer. Despite being challenged by three farmers who had been hired to spread sludge on their fields by BioGro, a subsidiary of Waste Management, Inc., the ban has been upheld in higher courts. And a growing number of environmentalists believe there are viable technologies available that promise real -- rather than linguistic -- solutions to sludge pollution. For the past 22 years Abby Rockefeller has been studying the sludge problem. These days she is devoting her share of the family fortune to finding a solution. Rockefeller, as president of Clivus Multrum, Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., markets composting toilets, which are one of the on-site, sewer-avoiding technologies that can upgrade failing septic systems. She also heads the ReSource Institute for Low Entropy Systems, a group that is working in poor communities in Latin America, teaching people economical ways of managing resources, including "so-called human waste and so-called wastewater." "We need to make the public understand what is going on," she says. "In the '70s, Sweden used sludge on land, and some of that land is now totally out of use. Because you can't control what people and industries pour down the drain, the toxicity of the sludge is unpredictable. Nor is it enough to keep industry out of the sewer system, since many household materials presently on consumers' shelves are largely toxic. But people don't know this because the EPA and some of the major environmental groups like the Natural Resource Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund [tacit supporters of the EPA's sludge-fertilizer policy] have kept their mouths shut on the subject. I had thought I could get support from environmental groups, but I was being naive." Rockefeller is more hopeful that grass-roots groups such as Neighbor to Neighbor, which in the late '80s and early '90s waged a successful boycott against Salvadoran coffee growers, may adopt the sludge issue as part of a major consumer consciousness-raising effort. "It does no good to talk about the lesser of two evils," she says, referring to those environmental groups that believe land-based dumping is preferable to incineration or ocean dumping. "They are all equally bad. Sludge is a waste, and letting people swim in it or breathe it is no worse than letting people eat it."

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