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Activists Fight Biosolids Land Application

The interview below is with Caroline Snyder, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Dr. Snyder was one of the first faculty members in the nation to design and teach interdisciplinary Environmental Studies and Environmental Science courses. Before retiring, she chaired the Department of Science, Technology, and Society. Professor Snyder did her undergraduate work at Radcliffe College and received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1966.

For the past 20 years, Dr. Snyder has researched the politics and science of using contaminated waste, such as municipal sewage sludges, as “fertilizer.” After co-chairing  the N.H. Sludge Management Advisory Committee, she founded Citizens for Sludge-Free Land. She is a charter member of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Dr Snyder has testified nationwide on the inadequacy of the current land application policies and the attempts by industry and EPA to suppress negative data concerning this controversial practice and has served as an unpaid expert witness in sludge-related litigation.

In October 2005, her paper, “The Dirty Work of Promoting ‘Recycling’ America’s Sewage Sludge” was published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. The paper was reprinted under the title "Sewage Sludge Recycling Poses a Threat to Human Health" in Garbage and Recycling (Greenhaven Press, 2007). In March 2006, she was invited by KGET-TV of Bakersfield, Calif., as one of three national experts to participate in an hour-long forum on the land application of sewage sludge. In May 2008, Dr Snyder debated Dean Michael Klag of the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomsberg School of Public Health on Democracy Now on a pilot project in low-income Baltimore neighborhoods that recommended adding sludge compost to lead-contaminated front yards to decrease childhood lead poisoning.

 Nicola Valley B.C. anti-sludge protesters

The above photo shows one of three road blocks put up by a concerned group of native and non-native "protectors" (not protesters) in support of the Chiefs' Moratorium against importing biosolids into the Nicola Valley traditional territories. Members of First Nations are playing an active and important role in the anti-biosolids movement in Nicola Valley in British Columbia, Canada.This remote region is a site of biosolids land application for the Vancouver area.

Dr Snyder, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today about your fight against the land application of sludge. What made you decide to tackle the sludge issue?

In 1996, I learned that the New Hampshire Legislature had put in place emergency sludge rules because of a wrongful death case in Greenland NH. Days after, 6,000 tons of sludge had been stockpiled and spread on a 10-acre hayfield in this residential neighborhood, dozens of neighbors got seriously ill. One young man whose open bedroom window was located only a few yards from the treated field died of respiratory failure. Incidents like this were happening in many other regions of the country.

In all cases, the federal and state agencies either did not return repeated phone calls by the victims or denied any connection between the reported illnesses and sludge exposure. In fact, they assured people that spreading sludge on farms was strictly regulated and perfectly safe. I was shocked. It looked like a cover up to protect special interests. Was the government really spending our tax dollars to promote a practice that was making people sick? I needed to know the truth.

What is the role of an activist?

We track sludge incidents in Canada and the U.S. We collect impartial scientific information to counter the misinformation being spread by Government agencies. We  publicize blatant disregard of rules and guidelines and fraudulent practices.  We advocate regulatory reform to protect public health, sustainable agriculture, and the environment. To that end, we provide communities with a Tool Kit they can use to ban or restrict the practice.

Can you give an example of government  fraud uncovered by one of your activists?

In 1998 one of us examined N.H. sludge test results and discovered that these results were routinely and illegally being changed so that Lowell, Mass., sludge, which at that time did not meet the more stringent state rules, could now be land applied in New Hampshire.

What specifically do activists do to educate the public and media about sludge?

We work with other activists, victims, farmers, scientists, attorneys, farm, health, and environmental organizations. We write letters to the editor and op-eds; we appear on radio and TV programs; we issue press releases; we plan public meetings; we testify before legislators; we show documentaries; we take photos and videos; we organize demonstrations.

Who spreads misinformation and why?

Top EPA and USDA managers who wrote the current outdated 503 sludge rule and stake their reputation on those rules.
1. Sludge brokers, such as Synagro, who profit from the practice.
2. Municipalities who need an inexpensive way to get rid of their daily tons of sludge.
3. Every industry in the country that can legally pipe its hazardous waste into sewage treatment plants.

What are effective tactics to fight sludge?

Activists are the ground troops in the trenches. Because we are outnumbered and out funded, some of us resort to guerilla tactics. This is done effectively by small ad hoc anti-sludge groups scattered around the country, appearing and disappearing like mushrooms, difficult to locate and hard  to identify, so that our opponents have no idea who we are, how many of us there are, who our leaders are, where we are, or when we will strike next.

Nicola Valley B.C. activists

Activists in Vancouver at the Regional government meeting - pushing for changes to guidelines around how and where biosolids are applied in BC. The assembly passed a motion to support these changes! (Chief Marcel Shackley of Nicola Valley, B.C., holding the sign front center).

What are some of your successes?

In the last 15 years, we have come a long way. Many towns and counties have banned or restricted the use of sludge. Close to a hundred  environmental, health, and farm groups, spearheaded by the national Sierra Club, oppose land application. Major food processing companies like Heinz and DelMonte do not accept produce grown on land that has been treated with sludge. Today, no community in North America welcomes the arrival of a sludge truck.

What are the three things that outrage you most?

Government agencies are using our tax dollars to persuade farmers, the public, legislators, and the media that sludge is safe, rather than using these funds to explore safer and more sustainable sludge disposal options.

Using the nation’s dwindling arable land as a repository of persistent toxic pollutants. Healthy soil must be preserved for future generations, especially now that climate change weather  impacts many areas that are historically producing food and fiber.

Groups like the North East Biosolids and Residuals Association (NEBRA) that get paid by EPA to preach the gospel of biosolids and that attempt to silence and discredit scientists and citizens who do not embrace that gospel. Research linking biosolids to serious health and environmental impacts is mounting. Yet, sludge is literally forced upon communities. As they have legitimate scientific concerns about the practice, they should be able to ban it.

Nicola Valley B.C. anti-biosolids activist

Trip by a horse, running and boat to the provincial capital in Victoria — to bring the members of Parliament  soil and water - to tell them the story of the struggle to keep those traditional territories toxin free for future generations. Picture shows various members from bands in the Nicola Valley including Chief Sam and Grand Chief Percy Joe.

Photos credited to members of the Friends of the Nicola Valley.



2. Sierra Club profile of Dr. Snyder

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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