Organic Consumers Association

Sewage Sludge is Being Dumped on (Non-Organic) Farms All over the US

Web note: The solution to toxic sewage sludge--already being implemented in
some European countries-- is to strictly separate out residential sewage
from industrial sewage, create a closed loop for industrial wastes, keeping
them out of the environment, and composting human waste. Dumping sewage
sludge on organic farms is strictly prohibited. See the book Toxic Sludge is
Good for You by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton for more information.

Oct. 12, 2003
Sludge wars

RED CLOVER TOWNSHIP - Joe Jerikovsky smiled as he gazed at the piles of
dark, rich fertilizer on his Carlton County hayfield.

The stuff smelled a bit like ammonia, but the phosphorus, nitrogen and
organic matter would boost yields on this 50-acre field from 140 bales of
hay this year to 200, maybe 250 in 2004. It's also full of soil-enriching
organic matter.

And the fertilizer, all 600 tons of it, was free.

Jerikovsky and dozens of Northeastern Minnesota farmers can thank Duluth
and Cloquet residents for their windfall. Every time we flush our toilets,
we're sending more free fertilizer their way.

"It's the ultimate recycling," said Lauri Walters, environmental program
coordinator for the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District. "We're giving
nutrients back to the land that we took out of it."

Not everyone agrees, and it's not just the "yuck" factor that's driving
their opinions. Opponents say treated human waste is unproven,
environmentally unsafe, and unhealthy for animals and people.

They contend that excess nutrients can pollute waterways, and that
bacteria, diseases, heavy metals and other chemicals are being poured onto
farm fields without proper oversight.

"It's disgusting to think that everything we pour down our drains and flush
down our toilets, in our homes and hospitals and paper mills, is ending up
on our local farms," said Inese Holte, a Lakewood Township resident and
longtime opponent. "What we're doing to our rural neighbors is awful. The
farmers will take it because they are hurting and it's free. But we
shouldn't be giving it to them at all."


Using human waste as fertilizer is nothing new. Asian cultures have done it
for centuries. In Milwaukee, sludge has been treated, dried, bagged and
sold to Midwest gardeners for more than 60 years. The brand Milorganite,
for instance, is available at Northland hardware stores and nurseries.

Still, the fact that our waste ends up on local farm fields surprises some
Northland residents.

More than 40 million gallons flow into the WLSSD treatment plant each day.
After a multitude of treatment stages and dewatering, it's whittled down to
75 wet tons of sludge per day, nearly 29,000 tons annually.

Five days a week, 52 weeks a year, five semi-trucks leave the WLSSD plant
hauling treated sewage sludge -- called biosolids -- to Northland farms and
mineland reclamation sites.

Federal and state regulators, waste disposal specialists, and many farmers
say the process is a safe, responsible and inexpensive way to eliminate our
human and business waste. Pouring nutrients that humans consume back into
the land is beneficial, they believe.

"Cow manure isn't treated at all. It isn't regulated at all. And what's
fertilizer made from? Oil. Do we really want that on our fields?" asks
Carlton County farmer Mike Salzar, a supporter of using sludge as
fertilizer. "This stuff works. And it's safer than anything else we put on
our fields."


Recycling sewage sludge on fields has become the disposal method of choice
for most of the 15,000 municipal wastewater plants across the United
States. More than 60 percent of the 5.6 million dry tons of sludge produced
nationally ends up on fields -- 3.4 million tons total, according to the
Environmental Protection Agency.

Since 1992, when Congress banned the dumping of treated sludge in oceans,
land application has skyrocketed past incineration and landfilling, the
other two approved options for sludge disposal.

The EPA promotes spreading it as fertilizer, calling it the preferred
disposal option. Incineration is less favored because it requires the
consumption of fuels that contribute to air pollution. And burying the
stuff takes up space in hard-to-permit landfills.

Superior still landfills its sludge at a facility in Sarona, Wis. But 98
percent of Wisconsin communities use land application.

The WLSSD closed down its sludge incinerator in 2000, in part because it
was aging, but also because of air-pollution concerns. The agency's citizen
board opted for farmland spreading. It started in earnest two years ago.

"Recycling this from something otherwise thrown out or incinerated into
something useful and beneficial, if we do it right, is the right thing to
do," said Kurt Soderberg, WLSSD executive director.

In Minnesota, all but one of the state's 250 municipal treatment plants
that produce sludge do at least some land application. The exception is
Grand Rapids, which landfills all its sludge because it's mostly paper mill
waste that's too fibrous to spread.

Some facilities land-apply all of their sludge, some just a little. In the
Twin Cities, most of the sludge still is incinerated, but about 10 percent
is sent to farm fields.

Jorja Dufresne, who oversees the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's
sludge-regulation program, says about one-third of all sludge created in
the state ends up on fields.


Mike Salzar's Blackhoof Township-based Roaring S Ranch is a large beef cow
and calf operation, leasing property from 37 landowners. He's farming about
800 acres of crops and another 1,300 acres of pasture, and he spreads the
WLSSD's "Field Green" biosolid on as many acres as he can -- about 450.

He's been spreading WLSSD sludge in various forms for a decade, including
the past two years with the district's new anaerobically digested material.
Salzar said the fertilizer is better than commercial products because it
has a slower release of nutrients and contains useful organic matter to
help recharge the soil. Best of all, it's free.

"I couldn't operate if I had to buy commercial fertilizer," Salzar said,
noting the difference would be thousands of dollars each year, his margin
between profit and loss.

Years ago, he saw how his dad converted sandy soil near Cold Spring, Minn.,
into lush crop land using that town's mostly untreated sewage sludge. He
said the WLSSD's product is much safer and just as good.

"Humans eat the best food, and this is the byproduct from that," Salzar
said. "The complaints about industry waste are unfounded. Industry just
isn't putting that much bad stuff down the drain any more."

Kathleen Hamel, WLSSD's operation and maintenance supervisor, agrees.
Pretreatment of industrial waste before it reaches WLSSD, coupled with
educational and regulatory efforts to remove pollutants such as mercury,
have improved the "quality" of WLSSD sludge dramatically in recent years.

Sewage flowing into the WLSSD is some of the least potent in the nation,
district officials say, because there is little heavy industry
contributing. That, coupled with the district's new multimillion-dollar
anaerobic digester system, keeps harmful materials out of the final
product. Levels of metals reaching WLSSD through untreated sewage are less
than half of what they were a decade ago.

The WLSSD's treated sludge now contains only "background" levels of metals,
about the same amount found in soil naturally. And most pathogens such as
E. coli and fecal coliform are reduced to nearly nondetectable levels, well
below state and federal standards.

The level of mercury in WLSSD sludge is so low, for example, that it would
take 1,500 applications on one field to exceed current EPA standards, and
nearly the same number for lead.

Instead, the number of applications is limited. And the WLSSD spreads only
on fields with little slope, so the nutrients don't run off into streams
and wetlands. It also follows strict setbacks to keep away from lakes,
streams and wetlands.

Moreover, district engineers closely monitor what type of soils and crops
are at each site, and apply only the amount of nutrients that the plants
can use. That avoids adding excess fertilizer to the environment.

The PCA's Dufresne says the WLSSD's sludge is among the cleanest in
Minnesota, and Hamel says the WLSSD shouldn't be compared to the handful of
treatment plants in other states where problems have occurred. The WLSSD's
end product is better than federal standards for all bacteria and metals,
she notes.

"We can't account for problems at a few other operators around the country.
But we can be sure that we are producing the best product possible," she
said. "Don't condemn what we are doing because something went wrong once in


Sludge opponents aren't convinced the substance is safe. They point to a
2002 National Academies of Science report that found EPA regulation of
sludge is based on "outdated science."

Moreover, the report said, federal oversight is lax, with little guarantee
that what's inside the sludge is as harmless as claimed.

"Additional scientific work is needed to reduce persistent uncertainty
about the potential for human health effects," it said.

But the report stopped short of linking land-applied sewage sludge, often
called biosolids, with any specific health problems.

"There is no documented scientific evidence" that EPA rules have failed to
protect public health, it stated.

EPA responded this spring, promising updated sludge standards and stronger
oversight of what's in sludge and where it's going. But, so far, the agency
hasn't made any changes.

The report's seemingly conflicting findings -- information and regulation
is lacking yet sludge is generally safe -- seem to mirror the national and
Northland debate.

While supporters say the process works, opponents say there's no guarantee
that each batch of sludge spread on a field is safe. They point to dozens
of incidents nationally, even worldwide, where people claimed sludge made
them sick. And they worry that the current technology won't work to keep
things like the SARS virus, pharmaceuticals and other problem substances
out of the sludge spread on fields.

Tom Richards, who owns land in Blackhoof Township in Carlton County, says
the WLSSD's sludge smells bad, especially when it's not turned into the
soil immediately. He believes there are too many questions about what's in
the sludge to allow continued spreading on fields.

"My wife and I began to become concerned about sewage sludge during the
summer of 1999, when sludge was applied to hay fields on two properties
adjacent to ours," Richards said. "When the wind blew from the right
directions, the odor was nauseating, to say the least, and was something we
were forced to deal with for months until winter set in. We were forced to
breathe the noxious chemical stew on our own property."

Richards and others say farmers should get some sort of liability waiver
for what's put on their fields. And sludge opponents wonder if future land
buyers will be made aware of what's on their land before the sale.

"Nobody likes sewage sludge, just as nobody likes pollution," Richards
added. "It's just that some people are unjustly profiting from it at the
expense of everyone and everything else, especially our soils and waters."

Many cases of staphyloccoccal infections have been blamed on field-spread
sewage sludge exposure. The bacteria usually is found on skin but can enter
the body in wounds or orally, including strains that are resistant to
antibiotics. Some cases have been fatal, but none has been directly linked
to sludge. Sludge opponents note that the disease is found in raw sewage
coming into treatment plants. But supporters say it has never been found in
treated sludge.

There have been a few high-profile cases in recent years that sludge
opponents cite as ample evidence sludge is unsafe. In Augusta, Ga., a
farmer was awarded $550,000 by a jury this year after hundreds of his cows
died. The farmer blamed contaminated sewage sludge spread on his field,
apparently because of high levels of the metal molybdenum.

In 1994, 11-year-old Tony Behun of Osceolla Mills, Pa., rode a motorbike
through a field where sludge had been recently spread. He developed a fever
and lesions on his arm, fell into a coma, and died within a week.

Public health officials say there is no verifiable link between the sludge
and Behun's or anyone else's death. But sludge opponents disagree, and they
have formed a loose-knit but global network aimed at ending the application
of sludge used as fertilizer. Much of their information is exchanged over
the Internet, compiling local anecdotes now shared far away.

One of those opponents is microbiologist David Lewis, a former EPA
scientist who has blasted the agency for inadequate regulation. Lewis says
Behun's and possibly other people's sickness and death are tied to exposure
to sludge.

"The science is so bad, it clearly puts public health and safety at risk,"
he told the Washington Post. Lewis, an award-winning EPA scientist, was
fired from the agency this year, he says, because of his criticism of EPA
sludge policy.

Others say the EPA is acting in concert with the sludge industry because
land application is the least-expensive disposal. The EPA even coined the
term "biosolids" to help overcome the negative images that the word
"sludge" raises. The name shouldn't disguise what's inside, said Inese
Holte, who led an effort to ban sludge from being sprayed on Lakewood
Township forests in the 1990s.

"Imagine if Duluthians were required to put the stuff in their own yards,"
she said. "Imagine someone coming up and asking for the stuff that comes
out of your sewer pipe. The rural people are paying the price for us."

Holte said the solution is producing less sewage to begin with, moving to
independent composting toilets and switching to products that don't pollute.

Until then, she said, another way must be found to dispose of sewage
sludge. She concedes it's not clear which is the least-offensive option.
But she said spreading potentially contaminated sludge on farm fields --
where it gets into the food chain, the air and waterways -- is unacceptable.

"There's no way anyone can police what's being tossed down the drains.
There are (pharmaceutical) drugs from hospitals and industrial waste from
businesses," she said. "We're just finding out that many of the detergents
we use at home may be causing" significant health problems when combined
with other materials in wastewater.

Holte notes emerging issues such as new viruses and chemicals that disrupt
normal human functions, called endocrine disrupters. Even if current
technology removes most bacteria and metals from sludge, no one can
guarantee that new, even more dangerous compounds aren't passing through.

Greg Kester, who heads the Wisconsin DNR's sludge-regulation efforts and
who served on the National Academies of Science team that drafted a sludge
report, said the debate is as murky as the science.

"I haven't seen a credible connection between health problems and a land
application. None," Kester said. "But we also should be looking more.
That's part of the problem."

Kester blasted the EPA's slow response to last year's report. In April the
agency released a response that calls for increased monitoring of local
treatment plants and verifiable standards for what's in sludge.

"Many of the responses are laudable. They would help solve the oversight
issues. But there's no commitment (from the federal government) to actually
do any of them," Kester said. "They all depend on funding magically
appearing, which, in my mind, means they know nothing will get done."

Despite the regulation problems, Kester said, the principles of recycling
sludge are sound. Science can deal with emerging issues such as endocrine
disrupters over time, he said.

"As an engineer, I believe we can mitigate the problems as they arise," he
said. "The bottom line is that (sludge) is a valuable nutrient source. It's
accepted that you want to recycle resources whenever you can. It's
certainly better than burning or burying it."

JOHN MYERS covers the environment, natural resources and general news. He
can be reached at (218) 723-5344 or at

© 2003 Duluth News Tribune and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.


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