On February 24th President Trump signed Executive Order 13777 ( E.O. 1377). The Order directs EPA’ s Regulatory Reform Task Force to evaluate existing regulations and make recommendations regarding their repeal, replacement, or modification. The usual public comment period for federal regulatory changes is sixty days. However in this case stakeholders and the public are given only thirty days to present documented evidence.
Still, E.O.1377 is an opportunity for those of us who oppose the land application of municipal sewage sludge (aka biosolids) to have our voices heard. Deadline is May 15th to submit a comment on Docket No.EPA-HQ-OA-2017-0190.
21st century sewage generated in industrialized urban centers contains tens of thousands synthetic chemicals, biological pathogens and other pollutants. According to a little known law: the Domestic Sewage Exclusion – every entity connected to a sewer can legally pipe its hazardous waste into Publicly Owned Treatment Works ( sewage treatment plants or – POTWs). Once this waste enters the treatment facility, the industry is no longer liable for any damage that might occur down the road. Here most pollutants are removed from the water and transferred to the resulting sludge (aka – biosolids). Several EPA Inspector General Reports have warned that hundreds of priority pollutants end up in the treated water and in biosolids. (https://www.epa.gov/office-inspector-general/report-more-action-needed-protect-water-resources-unmonitored-hazardous) Yet EPA regulates only 9 toxic metals and two indicator bacteria. Despite the failure of pretreatment programs, sewage piped into POTWs is exempt from hazardous waste laws once it enters the treatment plant.
Land application of sewage sludge became a reality after the promulgation of the Clean Water Act in 1972. By the year 1991 dumping sludge into the ocean was outlawed and that’s when EPA published section 503 of the Clean Water Act, (the 503s), the current federal law that governs the disposal of sewage sludge. The 503s permits almost any contaminated waste mixture to be land applied, as long as it contains some nitrogen. “With the stroke of the pen, EPA transformed sewage sludge from hazardous waste into a beneficial fertilizer” – writes Craig Collins in his book “Toxic Loopholes – Failures and Future Prospects for Environmental Law”.
Thanks to the vigorous promotion of biosolids, dumping this unpredictable complex mixture of harmful substances on arable land under the pretense of “applying natural organic fertilizer” has become a routine agricultural practice all across rural America.
Land application of sludge has been linked to livestock mortalities, pollution of wells, chronic illnesses, life threatening respiratory infections, and several human deaths.
Every year as this practice continues – credible evidence is mounting that land applied sludges are harming human health, agriculture, and the environment. Those who dare to speak up are promptly silenced and discredited , their careers ruined. For example, when Dr. David Lewis, formerly a high ranking microbiology research scientist with the EPA, began to publish articles documenting illnesses and deaths linked to sludge exposure; he was terminated by EPA . Natural News will be releasing a documentary – “Biosludged” later this year addressing this issue, where Dr Lewis’s case is an important part of the narrative.
The question comes to mind – why would EPA want to silence and discredit scientists ringing the environmental alarm bell? Who are the beneficiaries of the toxic “fertilizer” scam? One doesn’t have to look far – the corrupt close association of EPA with the waste management industry. Between 1992 and 2002 New York City alone spent about $2.5 billion on sludge management programs. Most of that money went to big waste management contractors who haul the dewatered, concentrated toxic waste from POTWs to rural communities where it miraculously becomes “natural fertilizer” and it’s offered to unsuspecting and uniformed land owners.
Beneficiaries of sludge land application include industries that can pipe their hazardous chemicals into POTWs; sludge brokers like Synagro who are well paid for every ton they remove from our large cities; municipalities that need an inexpensive and convenient method to get rid of sludge by shipping it to the countryside; and finally, top EPA and USDA managers who co-authored the 503s, who are still in charge, and whose reputations are based on the assumption that land application is safe. Yet these agencies ignore even their own data that questions its safety.
Then there are state biosolids coordinators, industry funded academics, regional biosolids organization like the Northeast Biosolids and Residuals Association ( NEBRA) that gets paid by EPA to promote the practice, and the Water Environment Foundation (WEF). These entities have practically unlimited funding at their disposal to defend the status quo. And defend they will!
These are lifetime careers at stake; soil and environmental scientists, managers, engineers – an army of people who vested their livelihoods in the land application of sludge; one of the greatest environmental deceptions of our time. They will not spare their vast financial and legal resources and efforts to flood this docket with comments and requests to repeal EPA sludge regulations. The irony is – many of those regulations indeed should be repealed, they are ineffective and outdated. But they need to be replaced with much stronger, efficient and effective regulations; rather than giving more green light to all of the sludge trains across the rural America!
Isn’t this scenario a perfect example of two foxes and a hen voting what’s for dinner?
How do we – the country folks – even stand a chance to be heard against the loud and powerful choir of the sludge alliance?
Most of the rural residents affected by biosolids have a limited access to internet and have few if any, computer skills. Many of them are not skilled at all at writing comments, memos or letters: “In soliciting comments, the EPA has requested that commenters be specific, include supporting data and cost information, and provide suggestions for repeal, replacement, or modification” reads the memo from EPA.
I ponder this information and think about an elderly woman in central Virginia. Her little house in a rural community of Louisa County is surrounded by sludged fields. She is in her late 70-ties and doesn’t read very well. Now she also suffers a wide array of respiratory problems, ever since Synagro LLC started to spread sludge all around her 1 acre property. Will she possibly be able to navigate the protocol of replying to the docket by the May 15th deadline with “specific comments including supporting data and cost information”?! Will many of us have the time and skills to do so?
I’m at the loss of words….
But then – I think again. Aren’t we the “forgotten” who will be forgotten no more? The farmers and gardeners, the blue collar folks all over the rural landscape. Small town environmentalists and conservationists. Families living for generations in this same community, this same house, with few acres of arable land where they grow their crops. Now surrounded by sludge, their orchards’ apples caked in toxic dust blowing from sludged fields. Shallow wells with drinking water laced with PCBs, nanoparticles, endocrine disruptors and God knows what else. Aren’t we the quintessential Electoral College? How can we make our voices be heard against the WEF, NEBRA, Synagro and the rest of the sludge alliance?
Congress stands squarely on the side of the sludge industry. Since 1977 it has given the EPA over $24 million just for a promotion of sludge as a safe and beneficial fertilizer. The funds are earmarked for the biosolids lobby to claim that the practice is based on science and that opposition to the land sludge application is based on ignorance.
But the tide could be changing. As more people become aware of the hazards of this toxic waste, its contents poisoning drinking well water and soil, sickening livestock, contaminating food and depreciating land values, the opposition is growing stronger.
Pollution is not an act of God, force of nature or fate. Quantitative Risk Assessment – is a misleading model that agencies use to gauge adverse environmental and health impacts; a model totally inadequate to assess the real impacts of complex unpredictable mixtures. What is needed instead is to research and document the condition of those citizens who must daily breathe the air, drink the water, and eat the produce grown on sludged land.
The biosolids program was implemented decades ago without an adequate assessment of human and environmental impact and without the rural communities’ knowledge of its potential and real harm. The risks are multiplying as new pathogens and new chemical compounds are making their way into POTWs; permutations and interactions practically endless.
As individuals we must respond proactively to this status quo. We must insist that federal agencies are held responsible and accountable. As a society we are collectively responsible for the choices we make of what we allow into our soil, air and water. We can no longer allow, afford, and justify the degradation of our natural environment to the detriment of future generations. We are the Electoral College of our land and we can’t be forgotten any longer.
Craig Collins: Toxic Loopholes – Failures and Future Prospects for Environmental Law. Cambridge University Press. 2010.
David Lewis: Science for Sale – How the US Government Uses Powerful Corporations and Leading Universities to Support Government Policies, Silence Top Scientists, Jeopardize Our Health, and Protect Corporate Profits. Skyhorse Publishing Inc. 2015.
The Dirty Work of “Recycling” America’s Sewage Sludge http://www.sludgefacts.org/IJOEH_1104_Snyder.pdf