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Sludge Scandal in Georgia: Biosolids Regulation, Scientific Integrity Hang on Court Ruling

A federal judge in Athens, GA is about to rule on a lawsuit filed by a former EPA research scientist and two dairy farmers over fake data EPA and the University of Georgia published to support a controversial EPA regulation. The case, which has national implications, involves treated sewage sludge, called "biosolids," regulated under EPA's 503 Sludge Rule. Biosolids typically contain unknown levels of pharmaceuticals, pesticides, organic solvents and other industrial pollutants and is widely used to fertilize farms, lawns, and home gardens.

David Lewis, a 32-year veteran research microbiologist in EPA's Office of Research & Development, published research linking biosolids use to widespread illnesses and several deaths. One case he studied involved hundreds of dairy cows, owned by the families of Andy McElmurray and William Boyce, which died after ingesting forage grown with biosolids produced by the City of Augusta, GA.

EPA's Office of Water, which developed the 503 Rule, issued UGA a grant in 1999 to help EPA investigate the cattle deaths. Augusta's records of the quality and application rates of its biosolids filed with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources mysteriously disappeared. Augusta recreated these records and gave them to an EPA employee, Robert Brobst, who published them in the UGA study. They falsely indicated that the quality of Augusta's biosolids dramatically improved in 1993 when the 503 Rule passed, and that its biosolids were applied at much lower than actual rates.

EPA used the study, which concluded that Augusta's sludge did not pose a risk to animal health, to convince the National Academy of Sciences to disregard the Georgia cattle deaths and conclude that there's no documented evidence that EPA's 503 Rule has ever failed to protect public health. Experts hired by the dairy farmers discovered the fraud; and Lewis and the dairy farmers filed suit when UGA refused to retract the bogus data.

Andy McElmurray filed a separate lawsuit when the USDA refused to compensate him for his land being too polluted to grow crops. U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Alaimo ruled in his favor, stating there was a "broad consensus" that the data Brobst gathered from Augusta were "unreliable, incomplete, and in some cases fudged." "In January 1999, the City rehired [a manager] to create a record of sludge applications that did not exist previously."


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