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Web Note: The use of toxic sewage sludge as fertilizer on farmlands is strictly prohibited under organic standards.

June 26, 2003

Sludge Spread on Fields Is Fodder for Lawsuits

By JENNIFER 8. LEE The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/26/national/26SLUD.html

The farmers outside Augusta, Ga., say the hay had a musty chemical odor and was dark and mottled. But they fed it to the cows. Then the cows started to waste away, growing so thin that their ribs could be counted through their skin, the dairy farmers say. The cows died by the hundreds. "We just couldn't save them," said Andy McElmurray, whose family has been farming here since 1946. "They wouldn't respond to antibodies. They wouldn't respond to IV fluids. They wouldn't respond to anything. They just ended up dying." The McElmurrays and the Boyce family, which owns another farm in the area, Boyceland Dairy, blame the fertilizer they used on their hayfields ‹ processed sewer sludge from the city of Augusta, which they say was tainted by industrial waste from surrounding factories.

When the families sued the city, Jim Ellison, the lawyer for Augusta, argued that the cows' deaths were unrelated to the sludge. On Tuesday, a jury sided with the Boyces, awarding them $550,000 in damages. The McElmurray suit is pending. Since Congress banned ocean dumping starting in 1992, using processed sewer sludge as fertilizer has become the most popular way for municipalities to deal with waste. Sixty percent of the 5.6 million tons of sewer sludge disposed of in the country is processed, relabeled "biosolids" and applied to land, according to industry figures.

There have been no conclusive scientific studies on the link between sludge and health, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates the sludge fertilizer industry, has agreed to do more research. But industry representatives and the E.P.A. say complaints are an exception to an otherwise successful effort. "Biosolids, properly applied, are safe," said George Clarke, a spokesman for Synagro, a leading waste management company.

In fact, many farmers say processed sewer sludge is a cheap and effective fertilizer, and organic farmers prefer biosolids over chemical fertilizers. "It actually raised my protein content in my wheat that goes for milling," said Andy Domenigoni, a farmer in Winchester, Calif., who is disappointed that his county banned sludge just over a year ago because of health concerns. But some farmers say that E.P.A. regulation has not guaranteed safety. There are 15,000 municipal wastewater treatment plants in the United States ‹ too many for inspectors to visit regularly. These farmers contend that toxic residues in improperly treated sludge have hurt health, crops and land. One Georgia farmer, H. J. Peterson of Stockbridge, sued DeKalb County in 1995, saying 61 of his cows died after eating hay grown using sludge; the suit is pending. Chris Bryan, 31, a road construction worker from Dublin, Ga., said that tainted hay used in building roads made him and other workers ill.

Mr. Bryan said nausea, chills, shaking and liver damage forced him to go on disability leave for four months. And Atwater, Calif., was cited in 1996 by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board for excessive sludge applications after 13 cows on two farms died of nitrate poisoning. Some environmental and citizens groups are culling what they call anecdotal evidence of problems linked to sludge. The Cornell Waste Management Institute has compiled more than 250 sludge-exposure complaints in more than 25 communities, ranging from dust inhalation to water runoff contamination. The list includes four lawsuits; two cases involve deaths.

One suit was settled, and the others are continuing. James B. Slaughter, a lawyer for Synagro, said the complaints were relatively few given as "many locations as we are talking about, for as many states, and as many years." In a 2002 report, the National Academy of Sciences looked at the science behind sludge. "The committee recognizes that land application of biosolids is a widely used, practical option," the report said. It noted that while there was "no documented scientific evidence" that the sludge regulation had failed to protect public health, "additional scientific work is needed to reduce persistent uncertainty about the potential for adverse health effects." The agricultural use of sewer sludge strikes a delicate balance.

Most processed sludge is organic enough to be fertilizer, but toxic enough to be regulated. A 1978 E.P.A. memorandum acknowledged the toxic substances in sludge but said the risks "just have not been demonstrated to be that great." Sludge should be considered separately from other toxic wastes because "it contains nutrients and organic matter which have considerable benefit for land and crops," the memorandum says. "Most industrial wastes do not have such benefit."

A Georgia Department of Environmental Protection report, made public through the Augusta lawsuits, called for ending use of the fertilizer. "The land application program should be shut down immediately," it said, in part because the wastewater facility was "grossly neglected." Mark Pollins, director of the water enforcement division at the E.P.A., said his office had to prioritize use of its limited resources. "The agency addresses significant harms first," Mr. Pollins said. He said the agency issued about 390 administrative orders relating to sludge from 1997 to 2002 ‹ 110 of them punitive. Nonetheless, the E.P.A. inspector general, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Research Council, each citing the growing anecdotal evidence, have issued reports urging more research into the effects of sludge. The E.P.A. issued a proposal for research in April. "We're taking a hard look at the issue of the science," said Pamela Barr, a deputy director of the Office of Science and Technology in the E.P.A.'s office of water.

Critics are skeptical that the E.P.A. can objectively assess the program, given its promotion of sludge since it set new regulations in 1993 under the Clean Water Act. For example, a 1994 E.P.A. brochure says that biosolids may "protect child health." The brochure cites a study showing that animals that ingest "biosolid-treated soil and dust may have a decreased absorption of lead into the blood stream, thus lessening the potential for lead-induced nerve and brain damage." A researcher with the Sierra Club, Caroline Snyder, said, "Instead of protecting the public, they are right there in there with industry promoting the practice." One of the agency's most senior scientists left as a result of a dispute over sludge research. In May, the agency terminated the scientist, David Lewis, a 32-year veteran who had published an article in the journal Nature raising questions about the agency's sludge research. "To me, of all the environmental issues, this is Mount Everest," said Dr. Lewis, who won the agency's top science award in 2000.

The Labor Department ruled in 1996 and 1998 that the E.P.A. had retaliated against him for whistle-blowing. Other groups say the E.P.A. research proposal is not rigorous enough. "It's not looking at health outcomes," said Ellen Harrison, the director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute, who helped write the National Research Council report. Ms. Harrison said most of the research was being done by groups with a history of promoting sludge. "There has to be a change in the way that E.P.A. operates," she said, "so that it's not just lining up the same old guys." Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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