The Sludge Scam: Should Sewage Sludge Fertilize Your Vegetables

Laura Orlando

Originally published in Dollars and Sense, May/June 1997.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.

The king promised Humpty Dumpty that with all his horses and all his men they'd pick him up again. But Humpty learned the truth. Broken, he waited and waited, never to find himself together again.

And so it goes with sludge. Since the early 1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working with the waste management industry and municipalities to establish sewage sludge, the semi-solid waste byproduct from municipal sewage treatment plants, as a safe fertilizer for application on land. But a growing number of your neighbors, farmers, and environmentalists are crying foul. They say sludge is toxic and must stay out of life cycles and thus off the soil. They say the stakes are too high to wait and see if the EPA can pick up the pieces when its sludge policy comes crashing down and leaves in its wake a health and ecological disaster.

Municipal sewage treatment plants collect the domestic waste of over 75% of the U.S. population at a cost of over $15 billion per year to local rate-payers. These publicly owned treatment works also collect the private industrial waste from commercial enterprises and factories. In 1992 alone, local governments spent $20 billion on sanitary sewers and sewage treatment facilities. That same year, corporations collecting and disposing of the byproducts from these facilities earned $352 million. Since 1970, it has cost U.S. taxpayers over $100 billion to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and extend the coverage of public treatment facilities to more households and industries.

Sewers and sewage treatment plants are big business. They are expensive to build and to maintain. No one wants to add to the price tag the landfilling of sludge, because it is the American taxpayer that will have to pay the piper. So call it a fertilizer and spread it on land. It's the cheapest option and, at first glance, the most environmentally benign and media savvy solution to an enormous problem.

For the EPA, the trouble with sludge is twofold; the near doubling of sewers -- and therefore doubling of sludge -- as a result of the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1988 Congressional ban on ocean dumping. Municipalities have enormous quantities of this material and the EPA is in charge of regulating where it can go. For the rest of us, the trouble with sludge starts with the flushing of industrial tanks and ends with an unpredictable potpourri of chemicals, nutrients, bacteria, fungi, and heavy metals.

Treatment plants have various degrees of sophistication, though most in this country have the capacity for what is called secondary treatment. Sewers bring to the treatment plants whatever is poured, flushed, or dumped into their drains from domestic, industrial, and commercial sources. A combination of biological and mechanical processes render the wastewater "clean," that is, it satisfies federal pollution regulations. What can be extracted from the wastewater is either hauled away in trucks to landfills or is found in the sludge. There is no magic here. What goes in has to come out. The better the treatment process is for the water the worse the quality of the sludge.

The federal Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) attempts to keep track of toxins in the United States. The Washington D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, in its report "Dishonorable Discharge: Toxic Pollution of America's Waters" used TRI data to estimate that 1.5 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were transferred to public treatment facilities between 1990 and 1994. 450 million pounds ended up in water bodies from the discharged "treated" wastewater. The rest -- over one billion pounds of chemicals -- are in the sludge, were broken down, or evaporated into the air. The Environmental Working Group notes that their numbers are "drastically underestimated."

Eastman Kodak, Monsanto, Dupont, ITT, Procter and Gamble, Sun Chemical, Ciba-Geigy, Upjohn Co, James River Paper Co., 3M, the garage down the street, your neighbor's paint shop, your toilet and millions of other industries and households are connected to the network of sewers that cover this nation.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which sets the regulations on hazardous wastes, excludes domestic sewage. If you dump your hazardous waste into the nearest river, you are breaking the law. If it is dumped in the sewer, you may be doing nothing illegal. The EPA does not include so-called "transfers" of toxic chemicals to sewer systems as an official "release" of a toxic chemical into the environment (EPA 1996, Environmental Working Group). The Clean Water Act does call for voluntary compliance by some industries for pretreatment of their waste - but looking at the Toxic Release Inventory numbers, it doesn't look like anyone is paying much attention to what is going down the drain.

Selling the idea of sludge as a "safe fertilizer" started in earnest after the 1988 ban on dumping sewage sludge into the ocean. The first order of business was a name change: sludge had to go, so the Water Environment Federation (WEF), an industry sponsored organization formerly known as the Federation of Sewage Works Associations, went into action.

In 1991, the Name Change Task Force of WEF settled on "biosolids," defined as the nutrient-rich organic byproduct of the nation's wastewater treatment process. Change the name and you redraw the battle lines. It's not about sludge disposal anymore, it's about "organic" fertilizers, "biosolids recycling," and "composting." Consumers, gardeners, and farmers are confused, and rightly so.

The Water Environment Federation, whose membership is almost entirely drawn from those who have a stake in the sludge production business -- treatment plant mangers and operators, state and federal employees, waste management corporations, engineering firms, construction companies, and equipment manufacturers and suppliers -- became the chief non-governmental spokesman for "biosolids." It wrapped itself in the language of environmentalism and locked arms with the EPA.

WEF received a $300,000 grant from EPA to "educate the public" about the "beneficial use of sludge." Dr. Alan Rubin, who served as the chief of the EPA's sludge management branch, was loaned to WEF in 1994. The EPA continued to pay half his salary while he became the nation's leading cheerleader for "biosolids." WEF hired Powell Tate, a powerful Washington-based public relations and lobby firm, to draw up the strategic and communications plan to push public acceptance of "biosolids." This 44 page document laid the groundwork for an all out assault on those who would question the safety of using sludge as a fertilizer.

Publications on "biosolids recycling" were churned out at an impressive speed. The level of confidence in biosolids from these publications -- put out by waste management companies like Wheelabrator Water Technologies, state environmental protection agencies, and industry sponsored nonprofits -- is impressive. They do not flinch when they say that " the amounts of metals from biosolids application are usually no larger that those that exist naturally in soil. In fact, many of these trace metals are beneficial or essential nutrients for people. These metals are common ingredients in vitamin tablets and enriched breads and cereals." (from a Wheelabrator brochure titled 'What New England Should Know About Biosolids Recycling and Land Application').

After the name change and marketing behind it were put into place, the next step in the sludge shenanigans was regulatory revision. The use or disposal of sewage sludge is regulated by the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 40, Part 503 (colloquially called "503s"). In 1992 those regulations were revised, relaxing the standards in each risk category. A 1989 letter from the commissioner of New York's Department of Environmental Protection, Harvey Schultz, to William Reilly, the head of the EPA, is an example of the kind of pressure the EPA was under to change its standards. Schultz said that "the City of New York found that compliance with the pollutant standards (503s) will be difficult, if not impossible to achieve for 80% of the city's sludge."

The 1992 revisions of the 503s reflected the commissioner's concerns. Acceptable cumulative load limits (accumulated amounts) increased for every heavy metal regulated by the 503s: lead increased from 110 to 265 pounds per acre, zinc jumped from 150 to 2,469 pounds per acre, arsenic levels were raised threefold, chromium ballooned from 467 to 2,645 pounds per acre.

With these and similar changes in the 503s, beneficial use (the industry euphemism for the practice of disposing of sludge on farm land) became the mantra of municipalities and industry. Cities already had been spreading sludge on land or selling it as "organic" fertilizer to gardeners and fertilizer manufacturers. Now they had a new badge to flash, one that boosted their profile and further legitimized their actions.

The 503s regulate 10 heavy metals, pathogen (disease causing organisms) levels, reporting, record keeping, application, management and general requirements. Dioxins and most of the 700 to 1,000 new chemicals added annually to the 60,000 chemicals currently used in US industry are not regulated. The rules are "self-implementing" and any testing that is done, is done by sludge producers themselves.

A recent publication from Cornell University's extension service recommends that farmers "limit the total cumulative load of metals in soil to no more than 1/10 the cumulative loading limits set under federal 503 regulations." Why? Because some heavy metals and excesses of others ingested by aquatic organisms, wildlife, and humans can cause physiological mayhem; troubles like kidney disease, hypertension, liver damage, neural damage, structural change in tissues, and reproductive problems. On average, the 503 regulations for cumulative loading of heavy metals are eight times higher than those set in Denmark, Canada, the European Economic Community, France, and the Netherlands.

Why the discrepancy? Europe uses "non-degradation standards" aimed at preserving farmland free from contamination for future generations. The EPA uses "risk assessments," which seem to have floating benchmarks, a high tolerance for risk, and no consideration for the synergistic effect of the chemicals regulated and unregulated in municipal sewage sludge (combined, some chemicals are much more dangerous than they are as individual substances).

A panel convened by former EPA administrator William Reilly warned in 1992 that research at EPA was "uneven and haphazard."David Lewis, a microbiologist at the EPA, wrote about the agency's science "gridlock" in 1996 article in Nature, and used sludge as an example. He said political pressure and court-imposed deadlines prevailed when the agency finalized its sludge rules in 1992. The regulations relied, in part, on experiments Lewis and others labeled as "sludge magic" with little relevance to the real world.

The composition of sludge changes as often as materials are flushed into the system. On any given day, according to Cornell University and the American Society of Civil Engineers, Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs); chlorinated pesticides such as DDT, aldrin, endrin, chlordane, and 2,4,-D; heavy metals from wood preservatives, pesticides, metal plating, and batteries; bacteria; viruses; fungi; chlorinated compounds; flame retardants (asbestos); petroleum products; industrial solvents; nitrogen; phosphorous; potassium; and dioxin can be found in sewage sludge. These substances can be highly disruptive to life, resulting in reproductive problems, disease, and death. But as with many pervasive reproductive toxins, carcinogens, and persistent toxic metals in the environment, there is no smoking gun to identify the culprit.

A national grassroots effort, spearheaded by the New York-based National Sludge Alliance, to stop the land application of sludge has grown out of several horror stories from people from around the country. In Rutland Vermont, 24 months after spreading sludge on his 99 acre farm, dairyman Robert Ruane's cow's started getting arthritis and milk production dropped from 18,000 pound per year to 14,000 pounds per year. Over a two year period, 66 cows died. "They told me how much money it was going to save me on fertilizer." The municipality furnished him with two tractors, a manure spreader and a set of transport harrows. Tissue and blood samples from the dead cows pointed to severe liver damage. But the EPA labels all such evidence circumstantial.

Milk producing cows drink up to 25 gallons of water per day. Most grazing animals also ingest soil together with their food. Any metals in the water or soil would be picked up by the liver. Since the liver's main function is to filter toxins, it makes sense that Ruane's dairy cows acted like canaries in a coal mine. A 1992 Farm Journal article calls sludge a potential "land bomb." Several farm and food organizations, including the American Frozen Food Institute and the Northeast Organic Farmers Association, are calling for a halt to the practice of applying sludge to farmland.

Darrell Turner, Washington State Farm Bureau President and university researcher asks "can you trust the analysis that you get when they are desperate to get rid of the stuff at the least possible cost." If a farmer wants to test the sludge before it is spread, he or she can expect to pay $250 per sample for PCBs and heavy metals and $2,000 for a dioxin test. Once it is spread, all liability transfers to the land owner.

Millions of dollars are transferred from municipalities to sludge haulers like Wheelabrator, BFI, and Merco Joint Ventures. It's big business run by corporations who are no strangers to bullying. When Hugh Kaufman -- a champion of environmental justice and an engineer in the EPA's Hazardous Waste Division -- called the transfer of sludge from New York City to the Texas town of Sierra Blanca an "illegal haul and dump operation masquerading as an environmentally beneficial project" on Michael Moore's "TV Nation," he was sued for libel by Merco, the sludge hauler in charge of the operation. Kaufman and his four co-defendants, including TriStar Television, lost the first round in court but are appealing the verdict. Kaufman and TriStar were ordered to pay Merco $500,000 and $4.5 million respectively in punitive damages. Each were fined one dollar in compensatory (actual) damages. Kaufman argues that this was a slapsuit aimed at silencing him and others like him. According to Kaufman, no proof was offered by Merco that the information presented on the television program was false. Michael Moore said it was about "shutting up the people of Sierra Blanca" and their call to end the sludge dumping.

If sludge is not spread on land or sold as fertilizer under brand names like Milorganite, Nu-Earth, Nitrohumus, and Baystate Organic, what should be done with it? The first step is to limit its production. Take industry off the public sewer systems and do not sewer additional communities. Safe, culturally acceptable, and economical alternatives to conventional sewers exist. Use them. The Clean Water Act mandates billions of dollars for sewering. Instead, use this money to refine alternative technologies, and implement them on a large scale. Such alternatives include waterless and low-flush composting toilets paired with greywater recycling systems, biogas digesters and cluster systems fed to constructed wetlands. Many industries treat their own effluents and safely recycle waste, saving money and preventing environmental degradation. Encourage more behavior like this.

The second step is to safely contain the sludge that is being produced. Advanced technologies, such as gasification, an incineration process that does not produce dioxin, should be explored.

The regulators that set the levels of contamination in our environment do not differentiate between risk, which is an event with a known probability, and true uncertainty. Environmental contaminants in municipal sludge pose true uncertainty about the dangers they impart on human and ecological health. No public relations spin, earnest proclamations, regulations, recycling claims, or good intentions can change that.


Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies And the Public Relations Industry
John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton
Common Courage Press

Sued and Censored
Michael Moore and TV Nation on Trial for Libel
Texas Observer; March 22, 1996

Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly

International Joint Commission
Draft Lake Michigan Management Plan for Toxic Pollutants, Chapter 4

Abby A. Rockefeller
Civilization and Sludge: Notes on the management of Human Excreta
Current World Leaders, Volume 39, No. 6 December 1996
contact The ReSource Institute for Low Entropy Systems

Environmental Working Group
Dishonorable Discharge: Toxic Pollution of America's Waters

Federal regulation 40 Part 503

Agency for toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Toxicology Profiles
U.S. Public Health Service

Health effects of heavy metals

Federal, State, and Local Gevernment Revenue and Expenditures

Linda Zander
Help For Sewage Victims
803 East Main St, Everson, WA 98247

The National Sludge Alliance
P.O. Box 130
Copake, New York 12345
Tel/Fax 518 329-2120

179 Boylston Street
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130 USA
© 1997 The ReSource Institute for Low Entropy Systems