Sludge, a free fertilizer for farmers, can pose health and environmental risks | News Feature | Indy Week
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Sludge, a free fertilizer for farmers, can pose health and environmental risks 

Sludge is generally applied to fields in spring and fall. This sludge came from Burlington's Wastewater Treatment Plant and was spread onto the field by Synagro.

Photo by Sue Dayton

Sludge is generally applied to fields in spring and fall. This sludge came from Burlington's Wastewater Treatment Plant and was spread onto the field by Synagro.

Dotting the verdant 400 acres of pasture at Braeburn Farm, on the outskirts of Snow Camp, are New Zealand Red Devon cattle and warmblood dressage horses like Thoroughbreds and Hanoverians. The farm is divided into 27 pastures where cattle graze every day. Rotating the cattle among the pastures allows the grass to grow and minimizes the need for spraying the fields with chemically loaded fertilizers.

Dr. Charles Sydnor, now a neuro-ophthalmologist, founded Braeburn Farm in 1975, fulfilling his dream of becoming a part-time rancher with his wife, Cindy, who began training horses and teaching riding lessons. Over the past 35 years Sydnor's farm has become one of the Triangle's leaders in the national locavore movement with its grass-fed beef, pasture pork, lamb and goats.

But Sydnor did not always use conservation principles and pasture rotations to preserve his farm's integrity. Before he did a total remake of Braeburn Farm 10 years ago, Sydnor, like many North Carolina farmers, was using sludge, also known as biosolids, on his farm.

For 30 years, sludge has been applied to farmland throughout the U.S. to fertilize fields that grow food for livestock and, in some cases, humans. Yet it's only in the last decade that sludge has garnered attention from citizens, scientists and the FDA because of the uncertainty of its contents.

Sludge isn't just a byproduct of waste that creates optimal fertilizer; it can contain heavy metals, bacteria like staphylococcus (the cause of staph infection) and thousands of chemicals yet to be tested for safety by the FDA.

Sludge begins as human waste, manufacturing chemicals, landfill runoff—essentially, anything that flows down a drain, which makes knowing its contents nearly impossible. Sludge infiltrates the food chain through livestock that ingest sludge while grazing on sludge-applied fields or eating food grown in those fields. Sludge comes full circle when people eat the crops grown in the field, consume the meat or drink the milk of animals that directly or indirectly ingested the sludge. It can also enter waterways used for drinking water or irrigation.

In the Triangle, thousands of acres of farmland are spread with sludge generated from wastewater treatment plants and then hauled and applied by Houston-based Synagro Technologies, Inc., the largest recyclery of waste in the United States and a company with a problematic environmental record. While there are federal and state rules governing sludge, there is little enforcement or monitoring of the practice. And local governments have no voice in regulating the sludge that is sprayed on fields in their jurisdictions.

In the early '90s, the National Federation of Wastewater Treatment Plant Operators held a marketing contest to find a new, more appealing name for sewage sludge. From 250 suggestions, "biosolids" was chosen, but frankly, sewage sludge is largely shit. Manure. Dung. Guano. You can change the name, but it still smells the same.

If sludge were only manure, it would be less alarming. But sludge can contain thousands of chemicals, including arsenic, lead and mercury; parasites, radioactive material (found in urine from patients receiving chemotherapy) and microbes that cause diseases such as hepatitis A and food poisoning—even after the sludge has been treated at the wastewater treatment plant—according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Sludge can include triclosan, an antibacterial chemical found in many soaps, toothpaste, mouthwash, toys and plastic kitchenware. Because triclosan been linked to "superbugs," immune deficiencies, birth defects and other health problems, the FDA in April announced it's investigating the chemical's safety. (Many European countries and Canada have banned it from supermarkets and in materials that touch food.)

The waste heads to a municipal wastewater treatment plant, which could receive materials from sources as varied as factories, schools, hospitals, laboratories and funeral homes, as well as runoff from landfills, septic systems and storm drains.

Solids and wastewater are separated. Liquid leftovers are recycled. Solids remain on the bottom of the treatment tank. Sludge is what can't be recycled any further.

Wastewater treatment plants are required to analyze sludge according to regulatory requirements before giving it to farmers. However, testing involves looking for just a handful of chemicals, some toxic metals, levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and coliform bacteria, which can indicate the presence of other pathogens in the waste.

"Nothing specific, like MRSA or any other specific diseases that could be present," says Sue Dayton, N.C. Healthy Communities director for Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL).

Contaminants in sludge, particularly triclosan, can survive treatment at the wastewater plant and end up in farmland sludge. Recent studies by John Hopkins University researchers estimate that more than 100,000 pounds of triclosan are spread on farmland each year. When exposed to sunlight, triclosan is converted into dioxin, which, at high levels of exposure, can cause cancer, and at low levels, a range of serious health problems.

Despite the uncertainty of sludge's contents, municipalities have to find some method of disposing of it. They give it away to farmers, who, already cash-strapped, can use it as free fertilizer instead of expensive commercial products.

"No one really knows what is in any particular batch of sludge/ biosolids," said Dr. Jeffrey White, associate professor at N.C. State University's Department of Soil Science. "The list of potential pollutants and pathogens in sludge is a long one, and currently there are no regulatory standards and associated analytical requirements for many of them. The same is true of drinking water, although the regulatory standards for drinking water are much stricter than those for biosolids."

Sam Groce, Chatham County's livestock agent with the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, acknowledges he is concerned about biosolids containing heavy metals, but says he is more worried about Chatham farmers who can't afford fertilizers and lime.

"It is a viable fertilizing source," Groce says. "I've heard all this debate that's going on, and it's making the farmers out to be the bad guys. Who's generating these biosolids? People who live in town."

In the '90s, Sydnor was approached by Synagro about using sludge/ biosolids on his farm. He agreed to try it.

"When you look at fertilizer you are basically looking at the nitrogen, phosphate and potassium levels," he says. "The reason any farmer will go to biosolids is that one of the most expensive components of fertilizer is phosphate, and biosolids are very high in phosphate."

Although he saved money on fertilizer, after a few years Sydnor grew concerned. "I noticed areas of grass that wouldn't do well, and the stench was awful; if you went near it your eyes would burn."

Sydnor called Synagro, which had supplied the sludge, and asked for someone to visit his farm. "Their representative just could not answer my questions about what was in it, and as a physician I had some questions about pesticides and pharmaceuticals," Sydnor says. " I realized they didn't know what was in the biosolids."

According to Jean Creech, Synagro's North Carolina technical services manager and spokesperson, the company explains the composition of biosolids to farmers before they receive material.

"Biosolids are typically about 70 percent organic matter and provide two of the three primary nutrients that plants need to grow —nitrogen and phosphorus," Creech says.

When pressed about the term "organic" matter, Creech explains, "When I used the term 'organic' I was saying that biosolids are 'of, relating to or derived from living organisms.' This is the traditional definition of 'organic.' It is an accurate description of the biosolids."

Dayton notes that it is misleading to say "biosolids is organic, because many people believe 'organic' means 'natural' or 'toxic free.'"

Synagro has contracts with more than 600 municipal wastewater treatment plants, including those in Burlington and Durham, in 37 states. The company has a checkered environmental record nationwide. Within the last 10 years, according to EPA documents, the Maryland Department of the Environment fined the company $27,000 for violating air regulations; Pennsylvania environmental officials fined it $35,000 for sewage sludge storage and land application violations, which included failing to prevent runoff from entering nearby waterways and spreading sludge on a landowner's property without permission. In Virginia, dozens of complaints have been filed against the company over allegations of road damage, odor, groundwater issues and truck traffic.

(The company wields enormous financial and political power. According to The Michigan Citizen, a Detroit City Council member plead guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit bribery after switching her vote to grant a $1.2 billion waste disposal contract to Synagro. Coincidentally, before the vote, she received $6,000 from Synagro.)

Since Sydnor couldn't confirm what was in the sludge, he stopped using it. He says farmers should question what's in the product, "even if Synagro and the EPA tell them it's fine."

It's Memorial Day weekend, and Elaine Chiosso, Cynthia Crossen and Daniel Tolfree stand knee-deep in the swirling waters of Cane Creek. With a net, Crossen, the Haw River Watch coordinator gently scoops debris and leaves into a 12-quart plastic basin, while Chiosso, the Haw Riverkeeper, examines the underside of slick river rocks she gathers along the creek bed. "Here's a freshwater sponge," she says, "and look at that leech!" She places the leech in a petri dish filled with creek water, and Tolfree, an organic farmer, peers through a plastic magnifying glass to look at the creature more closely.

Crossen and Chiosso are teaching Tolfree how to look for signs of a healthy creek. For Tolfree, whose farm lies downstream from fields being applied with sludge, runoff concerns have led him to contact the Haw River Assembly and find out if the creek is healthy or ailing.

Cane Creek cuts its way through the heart of Alamance County farmland, following an ancient path within the Haw River watershed. In 2007 in Alamance County, 969 acres of farmland were deluged with more than 19 millions of gallons of sewage sludge. Some of that sludge was produced by Burlington's Water Resources Department, which generates 10 million to 14 million gallons of sludge annually. Farmers generally use about 13,000 gallons of sludge per acre, according to the city's Water and Sewer Operations Manager Eric Davis.

Under contract with the Burlington Wastewater Treatment Plant, Synagro trucks those solids from the WWTP to fields in Alamance, Orange, Guilford, Chatham, Caswell and Randolph counties, where it is applied.

For the past 30 years, Tolfree has nurtured his 23-acre organic homestead, Millarckee Farm, in southern Alamance County; his produce is a regular feature at the Carrboro Farmers' Market. Upstream from Millarckee, farmers grow corn for ethanol, and leased fields are routinely spread with sewage sludge. Tolfree, who uses Cane Creek for irrigation, worries about what's draining from those fields and flowing downstream to his farm.

Since state environmental officials don't regularly test parts of Cane Creek, Tolfree says, "I have no idea on whether this creek is getting more or less polluted."

Back at Millarckee Farm, Crossen has calculated Cane Creek's water quality score ranks as good, with 20 points on a scale of 0 to 22. Tolfree says he's relieved to have the tools he needs to monitor the creek's health, but he still worries about the practices of farmers upstream. Near Cane Creek, fields of corn have just been fertilized, and what lurks beneath the soil is unknown.

"It is impossible to get a lot of testing down without deep pockets," Tolfree says.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources hasn't tested Cane Creek since 1998. The state Division of Water Quality recently tested nearby bodies of water but skipped Cane Creek; the portion near Tolfree's farm, according to a DENR spokesperson, isn't part of the agency's monitoring plans.

"North Carolina currently operates one of the most extensive water quality monitoring programs in the nation," says Susan Massengale, public information office for N.C. DENR. "Comprehensive monitoring challenges remain." She called monitoring the vast number of the state's streams and rivers lakes, estuaries, wetlands and groundwater "a formidable task."

"DENR isn't questioning Synagro," counters Tolfree, who as a farmer earns about $25,000–$30,000 a year. "As long as they follow the 503 rules [which regulate the application and disposal of sludge] and do the proper paperwork, it doesn't matter that a small farmer like me is irrigating out of a creek that is downstream from those fields getting sludged."

Under federal law, the soil of sludged farmland is tested only once a year, and the EPA requires monitoring for only nine toxic metals.

At the wastewater treatment plant, state law requires that biosolids be tested every two months, says Davis of Burlington's wastewater treatment plant. Each month, the city also tests sludge destined for farmland, even though it may not haul sludge to the farms as frequently.

However, N.C. State soil scientist Dr. White cautions that while existing regulations about sludge may have previously been adequate, "they are outdated" considering what is now in municipal waste and new information about the "potential pollutants and pathogens that may be in biosolids."

State and federal laws govern sludge applications, but there is little oversight of the practice, and enforcement is lax.

Prior to sludge application, farmers must sign a landowner agreement with N.C. DENR stipulating that before each planting season, the landowner or a representative will inform the state about any changes in the intended use for the land. For example, if a farmer switched from fescue to corn, he or she would be required to notify the state.

However, there is virtually no oversight of the sludge application program. The operator in charge of the program inspects the site after sludge is applied, but there may be no follow-up inspection.

"The program is a self-monitoring and relies on notifications by the landowner, applier, permittee and public observation," says Chonticha McDaniel, environmental engineer with N.C. DENR.

For example, although cattle are required to stay off a field for 30 days after sludge is applied, it's difficult to ensure they do. Sludge can't be spread within 24 hours of an area receiving measurable rainfall, but there's no guarantee that the applicator will follow the law.

"There is no one out there watching," Chiosso of the Haw River Assembly says. "If you have a truck of sludge that's made its way from Burlington and reaches the farm just as it starts to rain—or heavy wind kicks up—chances are that truck isn't going to turn around and go back; they will go ahead and spread the sludge."

The application permits also require that "adequate provisions" be taken to prevent wind erosion and surface runoff onto adjacent land and water, but as McDaniel points out, "due to the unpredictability of the weather, rain events large enough to result in runoff from application sites do occur on occasion." If that happens, the permittee, usually the farmer, is expected to report the violation to the state, but, again, there's no way to monitor it.

This lack of monitoring and oversight cost the City of Raleigh millions of dollars. For years, the city applied biosolids on local sludge fields, and the runoff contaminated the Neuse River. In 2002, the state fined Raleigh $80,000 for spraying too much sludge on fields in southern Wake County. The city has since spent $15 million to extend water lines to residences that had contaminated water.

The overuse of sludge happened because "someone had put out more than was recommended," says Tim Woody, City of Raleigh Public Utilities reuse superintendent. Moreover, federal law governing sludge applications wasn't formalized until 1990, after much of the damage had occurred.

Woody says the city has changed its application practices, and it has added an outside environment management auditing system. "Unfortunately it takes mishaps and problems coming to the surface to get funding for implementing more on-site regulations. We don't do the things we did 30 years ago."

While Raleigh is constantly changing its treatment processes, Woody acknowledges there are new contaminants that are entering wastewater treatment plants. "We're being asked to measure for things we don't even have the instruments to measure with."

The state Division of Water Quality itself is violating a 1992 law, the Water Supply Watershed Protection Act, by allowing fields to remain permitted for sludge application in critical watersheds in Orange, Alamance, Gaston, Caldwell, Catawba and Wake counties.

On June 21, state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Orange and Person) and the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League called for DWQ to enact an immediate moratorium on sewage sludge being spread in those critical watersheds. DWQ did not respond to follow-up calls for comment, but Dayton says the division has not responded to BREDL's request.

Local governments have little say-so over sludge application. Last fall, the Orange County Board of Commissioners discussed the practice but learned they are largely hamstrung by state law.

In 2006, Orange County agreed to pay $10,000 to the UNC School of Public Health to test air and water quality where sludge was being spread, but the study never happened due to what the county characterized as "complications."

That complication is a state law that prohibits counties from regulating sludge.

According the federal Clean Water Act, sewage sludge is a pollutant and, as such, allows states to control permitting and enforcement of it. However, North Carolina doesn't allow local cities and counties to regulate sludge in their jurisdiction, even though federal law permits it and other states have done so.

A 2005 state appellate court decision put the kibosh on local governments' attempts to regulate their sludge. In Granville Farms, Inc. v. The County of Granville, the court ruled that state regulations are comprehensive and local laws are unnecessary. "Since that is the current law, Orange County's options and all other counties' options in regulating sludge are severely limited," says Orange County Attorney John Roberts.

In Orange County, where, in 2007, 19.3 millions of sludge were sprayed on 1,817 acres, options are expensive—and onerous.

"The only way Orange County could take control of the situation would be to enact its own ordinance and then face significant and costly litigation defending the ordinance, sue the State of North Carolina, again at significant cost, or attempt to form a regional solid waste management authority with another local government," he adds.

Regional solid waste management authorities can regulate sludge with the state's permission, but, Roberts says, establishing such an authority would be expensive. "I don't think any of these options are realistic at a time when Orange County is facing budget shortfalls and cutting jobs, funding and services."

In Chatham County, the Environmental Review Board is urging county commissioners and the health department to require companies such as Synagro to notify adjacent landowners before spraying begins.

Chatham County Commissioner George Lucier, former associate director of the National Toxicology Program, says there should be a notification of intent to spray and better characterization of what's in sludge.

"It's important to note we won't do anything to adversely affect the farmers in Chatham who are struggling," he said. "Most farmers want to be good environmental stewards of their land, and they need to be given a better idea of the contents of sludge."

Currently, landowners next to sludged fields don't have to be notified about them, and signs alerting the public to the application are optional.

The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League has composed a list of recommended changes to rules, although Sue Dayton says state environmental officials have not replied. The suggested changes include written notification to residents who live or own property within a one-mile radius of fields being spread with sewage sludge. If the property owner opposes the land application, the owner may request that a public hearing be held regarding the permit to apply sludge.

Other recommendations include posting signs to limit public access to fields that are being sludged.

While many of Alamance County's citizens have spoken publicly about their concerns, Linda Massey, chair of the Alamance County Board of Commissioners, says the board has not extensively discussed the sludge issue. "The EPA is controlling that, and as long as they say it's in compliance then I'm fine with it," she says. "We don't control the sludge. It's coming from the city of Burlington, and Graham and the county isn't involved in that. We feel like that's what the EPA's for. We depend on them to tell us if it isn't OK."

Massey says farmers should be able to choose if they want sludge applied on their fields. "They don't have to do it," she said. "I wouldn't let them dump it on me if they weren't paying me to take it."

While Americans continue to generate copious amounts of waste, sludge application on farmland continues as the main, albeit highly flawed, solution to getting rid of it. In 1988, the EPA banned dumping sludge in the ocean after scientists discovered it was destroying marine habitats.

"I don't know what the solution is," says Dayton. "Our [BREDL's] stance is that we do not support incineration or burial of sewage sludge."

"Incineration promotes the generation of garbage, it does not promote conservation or reuse or the recycling of waste," adds Dayton. She says "clean" incineration does not exist. "We are now seeing a rush to burn everything: trees, tires, garbage, manure, chicken poop, sewage sludge—everything and anything that will burn."

Activists stress that the laws need reformed and enforced.

In April 2009, state Rep. Curtis Blackwood, a Republican from Union County, introduced HB 1170 "Study Land Application of Septage [partially treated waste] and Sludge." It would direct the state agriculture department to study how much sludge is being applied to farmland in North Carolina. It would also require the state to examine whether changes in the permitting process are needed to protect rural communities from the waste and whether the regulations are adequate to protect human health and the environment.

Blackwood's bill never made it past the agriculture committee, where it died. "Someone pulled it before it even got heard," says Rep. Blackwood, who believes the unknown properties in sludge make the product a public health concern.

These unknowns are too great for farmer and former sludge user Charles Sydnor. "I spent half of my life creating a farm that follows natural principles," he said. "And what a horrible thing, for me to wake up and realize that I was destroying it."

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