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A Tree-Hugger Reflection on Sludge

Industrial residuals application in King William Co. Virginia
“You all are just a bunch of a tree-hugging, Bambie-eyed, bleeding heart liberal professors! You all sit in those ivy-league colleges of yours, sipping frappuccino and writing gobbly-gook articles about how bad biosolids are, but you don’t know first thing about the hardships of a farmer! Guys from the state office told me this is a natural fertilizer and it’s treated and monitored for any bad stuff! And it’s free!“

A football player sized farmer in a tattered Carhartt jacket and work boots caked with dirt (or biosolids?), his face flushed with frustration, was waving his finger in my face after the DEQ subcommittee wrapped up its public hearing and granted yet another 10 year permit to Synagro Technologies Inc. to spread industrial residuals in my neck of the woods. I got my allotted three minutes to tell the apathetic looking committee members why agricultural application of biosolids is a very bad idea, but it didn’t look like even one of the seven of them cared. They glanced at their smartphones, picked fingernails and drank cold coffee, looking quite ready to vote and call it a day.

I got in my car, parked near the General Assembly building in downtown Richmond, VA and hit the road. I took a day off from work to attend the hearing, whatever was left of the day I figured I will use to take care of some house chores. It’s almost an hour drive back home, we live deep in the countryside of central-eastern Virginia, on a picturesque 6 acre “hobby farm." Tree-hugging… I said to myself. How did he know that? I do sometimes fight the urge to hug my crabapple tree, especially in the late fall when I’m done picking all the fruit to make crabapple butter. The tree is producing tons of small, sweetly tart fruit. Then I slave for days at the stove to process endless jars of the crabapple butter, a staple for breakfast in our kitchen. As far as the hardwood beyond our property - there is definitely less to hug these days.

Last crabapple's harvest 

New Kent County where we live is being aggressively deforested by a motivated army of loggers and developers. Jarring, devastated landscape they leave behind is either developed for one more cookie-cutter subdivision that nobody wants or needs, or it’s turned into a farming field where the “genetically enhanced” corn, soybeans or cotton are grown. The best option for those barren places is to be reseeded with the loblolly pine for a quick growing, harvestable timber. I don’t somehow feel like hugging loblolly pines. Bambi-eyed… Not a chance! A quick check in a rear view mirror- naaah, he definitely is wrong on that one. What was the other thing? Bleeding heart… Yes, my heart bleeds often lately when I see what is happening to our beautiful countryside. The irresponsible, greed-motivated practices of loggers, the cash strapped farmers inviting biosolids distributors to spread toxins on their farmland under the pretense of a “free natural fertilizer”. He is right, my heart bleeds a lot these days.

Liberal. No - I’m most definitely not a liberal, but that’s probably a subject for another discussion.

Frappuccino? Didn’t try that one yet. Once a week or so, when I have a moment, I treat myself to a tall latte at the coffee shop on the campus. I work at a state college, so the Ivy League we are not. And, I’m not a professor. Never found the time in my busy life nor the conviction and determination to pursue a doctorate. I don’t regret it any bit, I love working in the lab, hands-on daily experience of transforming theoretical ideas into concise scientific protocols and implementing them into a tangible results. I guess I’m more of a doer than a thinker. As far as writing goobly-gook articles, I suppose I’m partially guilty on that charge, although my articles are about molecular biology and genetics; sludge — not so much.

My involvement in the anti-sludge activism is not a part of my job. I do that in my spare time and it’s the result of my deep concern about what this disastrous practice is doing to our countryside.

How can I tell this farmer that I’m not his enemy? Come to think of it, anti-sludge folks are just as close to his allies as it gets. We are perhaps a different breed, but we surely share love and reverence for the land and do our best to truly be its stewards. How can I tell him that in my humble opinion, who he really needs to be furious at is the Big Sludge industry? And the people that approach farmers about the “nutrient-rich natural fertilizer” they will deliver for free to his farm.

And the industry paid for and bought so-called “scientists” that receive “research grants” from the Big Sludge to write enthusiastic publications on benefits of the sludge. They assure farmers with all the authority and seriousness of an accomplished professional that biosolids are a wonderful option for the natural composting. It’s such a wholesome practice, they say - just like grandpa used to do when he butchered some chicken and buried guts and feathers by the vegetable garden. I don’t know the exact numbers, but chicken guts and feathers (laden with arsenic) are a rather small percentage of the sludge coming from CAFO animal processing plants… Just because the corn grows tall, it doesn’t mean the sludge applied to your land is good for you and your family’s health.

I know of a farmer that has been using biosolids on his land for some 20 years and is an outspoken advocate for this “natural fertilizer”. Yet he simply refuses to consider the possibility that his young son’s untimely death due to cancer could be related to what he puts in his soil and what is in the dust the wind carries from his fields…. I met a couple with two teenage sons, both boys suffer from asthma and allergies. The neighbor, the father’s brother, uses biosolids on his farm and will tell you that this is one crazy idea that his two nephews’ health issues are in any way related to the sludge. Those farmers and their families are the first line of victims this environmental disaster claims.

How can I tell them to step away for a moment from a dollar and cents point of view and look around; is there maybe an autistic child in your family that was born since you’ve been using biosolids on your farm? Did your mom come down with Alzheimer’s even though there is no family history of that disease? Or maybe your older brother developed Parkinson’s at the age of 50? Is your wife perhaps suffering from constant rashes and eczema? Do you happen to have COPD or chronic cough? Are your grandkids allergic to just about every food item, cats, dogs, pollen, dust and things you didn’t know anybody can be allergic to?
It’s time to wake up and smell the biosolids. And when you do, please join us — we will fight this battle together.

Photos by Thomas Miller and Lidia Epp

Lidia Epp is active with a local group of residents concerned about the agricultural application of biosolids, a dangerous practice that devastates farmland. She corroborates with local activists, politicians and scientists to bring public awareness to this issue and advocates for changes in state and federal regulations of biosolids land use. Read all of Lidia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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