Sewage Sludge: Beneficial or BioHazard?

Prior to passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, U.S. sewage treatment liquids and solids were commonly piped into rivers, lakes and other water bodies. EPA was created at around this same time, as the federal regulatory agency in charge of protecting the environment (and public health related to the environment). It took just a few years for EPA to become coopted to instead serve the sewage treatment industry, when they began aggressively promoting agricultural use of sewage sludge in 1978.

Some expressed concern from the start. In particular, they noted that sludge contains heavy metals and other toxic contaminants that tend to accumulate in soils. By 1991, enough problems had emerged that EPA ‘fixed’ the problem by re-branding: they put a positive spin on the program, now ALWAYS calling sludge ‘biosolids’, and carefully ALWAYS referring to applications as a ‘beneficial use’. These two phrases are used over and over again, which encourages citizens to think positively about this ongoing program. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), as the state agency charged with implementing EPA standards within Oregon, also routinely uses the same pro-biosolids phrasing — at public hearings, in permit documents, and in news releases.

Biosolids Continue to Accumulate at Molalla STP

freshly applied sludge

Molalla sewage treatment plant (MSTP) is one of thousands of sewage treatment plants (STP’s) in the United States. Every one of these STP’s collects Influent (water and whatever is in that water), then processes it, then disposes of the resulting outflow byproducts.

The key outflow byproducts generally come in two forms: solid and liquid. The solid byproduct is commonly called ‘Biosolids’ (previously known as ‘Sludge’, before a ‘softer’ name was invented), while the liquid byproduct is commonly called ‘Effluent’ (also known as ‘Wastewater’).

Biosolids accumulate in the STP ponds and must eventually be disposed of. They can be trucked to qualified landfills, or they can be used as a fertilizer, provided that they have tested clean for that use. However, the so-called ‘beneficial use’ of biosolids is hotly debated, because there have been cases where dangerous contaminants have been spread with the biosolids. Evidence in the courts has shown sometimes this contamination happens by accident, and other times it happens due to knowing failure and deceptive recordkeeping by various system operators.

EPA Whistleblower David Lewis spoke up about the bad science behind adoption of policies to rename sludge as ‘biosolids’, and the health hazards associated with expanded application of sludge on our farmlands. Take a look at Mr. Lewis’ article: ‘Sludge Magic at EPA’.

Two Georgia Dairies Destroyed by Biosolids

One of the most damning examples of both the failure to regulate sewage sludge and the lethal consequences of contaminants in that sludge happened in Georgia. Beginning in 1979, two dairies near Augusta, GA began accepting free sewage sludge to fertilize corn and other crops for feeding their herds. By 1985, one of the dairies herds began showing symptoms that years later were recognized as sludge-related molybdenum poisoning. By the late 1990’s, accumulated toxins began a die-off, killing dairy cows by the hundreds. Sludge applications were stopped, but milk continued to be sold to the Public. Forensic analysis eventually determined high concentrations of PCBs, cadmium, molybdenum, thallium and arsenic had poisoned the dairy herds. Both dairies eventually went out of business.

Andy McElmurray was one of the Georgia dairy farmers. He provided detailed testimony before a Congressional committee on September 11, 2008. This is a very informative read. It details ten years worth of litigation, starting in 1998, which eventually proved not only that biosolids hazards caused millions of dollars in damages at two Georgia dairies, but also that officials on the local and federal level had knowingly ‘fudged’ data.


See also:

  • Fall 1995: Let Them Eat Sludge — the third quarter 1995 issue of ‘PR Watch’, focused on spin by EPA and sewage treatment industry lobbyists such.
  • February 2004: Congressional Testimony — Dr. David Lewis recounts his experiences at EPA, where he blew the whistle and suffered retaliation. Excerpt:  “…Based on my 31 years of experience at the EPA, I can assure the Members of this Subcommittee that EPA has completely politicized the scientific peer-review process, both inside and outside the Agency.  I want to bring two examples to your attention. These examples illustrate the almost unbelievable extent to which the EPA has corrupted the scientific peer-review process in order to support certain political agendas and further the Agency’s self-interests. These examples involve EPA’s efforts to cover up problems with its 503 Sludge Rule – a rule that allows processed sewage sludge (biosolids) to be used for mining reclamation and similar uses within the purview of this Subcommittee. EPA promulgated the Rule in 1993 despite the fact that it failed the Agency’s internal scientific peer-review process….”
  • March 2006: Did pollutants used as fertilizer kill cattle? — NBCnews.com story, still viewable online. Also, downloadable as a 4-pg PDF.
  • February 2008: Judge Alaimo’s Decision [PDF] — 2/25/2008 45-page decision in McElmurray v. USDA, directing USDA to allow McElmurray to apply for compensation (for loss of plantable acreage caused by biosolids).
  • September 2010: UGA Wins, Scientific Integrity Loses — statement by Dr. David Lewis after a U.S. Circuit Court Judge dismissed a biosolids-related lawsuit on a technicality.