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Sludge Train: Toxic Biosolids Permitted in Virginia

biosolids spreading

On April 1st, which ironically also happens to be April’s Fools Day – a permit was issued for another 10 years’ worth of sludging activities in Louisa County in central Virginia, the region already heavily affected by the biosolids land applications.

The county’s Farm Bureau president gave a short presentation during the permit’s DEQ hearing. He stated that there is no documented evidence of adverse health effects of agricultural application of sludge, hence – no need to worry about such a thing. During those DEQ hearings, no sludge permit request is ever denied; no public questions or concerns are ever really addressed. This hearing was another “dog and pony show”, a hoop Synagro LLC. needed to jump through to gain more jurisdiction over the company’s sludging activities.

The comment by the Farm Bureau president really rubs me the wrong way. Let me tell you why.

The proposed argument, that no sufficient documented epidemiological data on sludge as a health hazard means no danger to human and animal health – is simply absurd. First, there are several publications to the contrary; you can see a small sample in my footnotes.

Second, the deficiency in knowledge doesn’t make us right; usually it makes us dead wrong. Remember the tobacco industry some 20 or more years ago? They were quite busy assuring the public that there is no connection between smoking and lung cancer. All the while countless beagles, rats and monkeys were dying from smoke inhalation experiments in laboratories across the country.

There is no denying it now - or is there? The largest ever legal settlement called “Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement” was signed in 1998.

Beagles in smoke inhalation experiment

Toxic Risk from Biosolids

It is about time to look the truth in the eye regarding the health consequences of exposure to sludge applied on farm land.

Smoking is, at least initially, a lifestyle choice. A rural resident doesn’t have much of a choice about whether to inhale the pathogen-ridden dust blowing from a field of biosolids across the road.

There is no shortage of data pointing to the airborne sludge dust as a source for almost all contaminants, toxins, and pathogens known to man, see my footnotes below. The cigarette-lung disease causation is a very straightforward concept. With the sludge being such a cesspool of any contaminant invented by man, the cause and effect scenario gets more complicated. You can - quite literally – choose your poison.

Except the choice will be made for you by the sludge distributor and it will be based on the source of the sludge. Kind of like second-hand smoke, a child doesn’t choose what he breaths in – Camel or Marlboro, in a household of smoking parents.

Will the folks in Louisa get to inhale a dust from the municipal sludge of the city of Alexandria? Or will it be industrial residuals from the paper mill in West Point? Or maybe biosolids from Tyson Foods CAFOs? What they will be subjected to will determine the set of symptoms they could experience; the severity of symptoms will vary depending on an individual’s  immune system.

An infant or an ailing elderly will respond differently than a healthy 20-year old. How to measure that, how to compare? How to determine what chronic or progressive illness could be associated with what contaminant blown from a sludged field?

Federal Guidelines for Biosolids Monitoring

The issue is a complex one, just like the mix of pollutants that hides in the sludge and the physical health of nearby residents. To make matters even more difficult to sort out, the federal guidelines for biosolids monitoring, the Part 503 rule, calls for a sporadic monitoring of just a few heavy metals, a couple of indicator pathogens and the nitrogen levels.

Numerous recent studies show that number of pollutants, pathogens and toxins detected in the sludge is actually in tens of thousands! All of those are completely unmonitored!

One would think that the state and federal agencies whose goal is to protect and ensure public health would spring into action! But then – take Flint, Michigan….

The federal and state funds should be pouring into research institutions across the country calling for comprehensive and multidisciplinary studies investigating the environmental and public health consequences associated with agricultural use of municipal and industrial waste as fertilizer, right? Wrong! See my interview with Dr David Lewis; the unbiased, non-industry funded research is discouraged at the best, and silenced in many cases, by the very agencies that should be sponsoring such research.

EPA actually devised a plan to bypass citizen’s opposition to the agricultural sewage sludge disposal.

And I can’t stop but wonder – why is that? Could it be that the reason behind it all is simply profit? After all, we all are sludge producers. The growing “supply” of municipal and industrial waste is a liability, a burden to society.

And then somewhere along the way, that burden of what to do with the toxic waste morphed into a commercial opportunity. For the localities accepting sludge for storage, the sludge distributors distributing it all across the country, for the unsuspecting farmers opting for “free natural fertilizer”. I’m sure there are many more players in this game; I’m just not clever enough to think of them. But it seems like a real gravy train for many. Or – a sludge train.

So what about rural residents choking on toxic dust? Well, it is unfortunate; they are the collateral damage. But there aren’t that many of them anyway, those rural communities are only sparsely populated. And remember, EPA has a plan to control that problem!

Or maybe I should “rethink my position”, which was the suggestion given by Virginia’s DEQ Director David Paylor to one committee member at that April Fool’s Day hearing. Roberta Kellam of the Eastern Shore, the sole member of the State Water Control Board, stated that she could not see the beneficial agricultural use of the sludge and expressed concern over the “deficiencies in knowledge” on this issue. She was the only NO vote for the new permit, it was therefore granted and so the sludge train goes on.



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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