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Nature and Environment

News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.


The Sludging of Rural Communities

Sludge delivered to the farmland, next to it - the cattle is graizing.

A mother of a 7-year old boy suffering from asthma followed the rules and filled out the forms for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Virginia Department of Health (VDH), requesting that due to her child’s health issues the setback for the upcoming application of biosolids next to her house will be extended. Three attending physicians attached letters requesting that at least a one mile setback is observed.

A new biosolids permit was just issued by the DEQ to the sludge distributor and in that new permit three new sites were proposed within a stone throw of the house where the sick boy lived.

The VDH – Biosolids Medical Review Committee rubber-stamped the denial, only to allow 400ft setback instead of the requested one mile from all three application sites. The members of that committee didn’t bother talking to the mother, evaluating the child, consulting with the physicians, or visiting the site. They didn’t give a moment of consideration to the child’s health, safety or welfare, all of which was done well within the parameters of current state regulations.

This story was told to me by C.W, a resident of the same community. He too is one of the many victims of biosolids invasion into the rural Virginia. C.W. is a resident of a small community in Louisa County. His next door neighbors, landowners, sold a portion of their land. On the part of the property that remained in their possession they allowed the sludge distributor to spread biosolids and industrial residuals.

C.W. lowers his voice and leans forward, it sounds almost like a scary nighttime story you tell your grandkids – they always come at night, 3:30 am is their favorite time. First, you wake up to the noise of big, heavy dump trucks lifting their loading beds. Then – the smell comes…… and it doesn’t leave you. Ever! It permeates your skin, your hair, it’s stuck in your clothes, it gets into your nostrils and stays there. You can’t open the windows to air your home - the source of that horrid, indescribable smell is just outside your window! You get in your car and it takes a ride with you, there is no escape from it. And it makes you sick. Headache, upset stomach, nausea – those symptoms come first. Then you notice tightness in your chest, you develop a chronic cough, migraines, rashes, watery itchy eyes. There is a long list of symptoms.

Faces of Sludge Victims

C.W. became an avid opponent of sludge; he served on county and state biosolids committees, voicing his opposition since 2000. He is the chair of a regional group of activists who oppose the land application of biosolids. In 2009, when his health began to fail, he moved to Richmond, now his house in the country is up for sale. He hands me a DVD – Please, bring it back after you’re done. It took a lot of my time to talk to all those folks. That’s my way of keeping track of what is happening in my county.

I plug the DVD in to my laptop. It’s a long recording. Faces of “sludge victims”. Young and old, men and women, African-American and white. Some look visibly sick; an elderly lady struggles to get her words out, after each sentence she needs a break to catch her breath. I listen to her labored wheezing. Her whole family has upper respiratory infections. Just when everybody gets a little better – a new application of sludge comes and whole household is coughing again. Another woman, surrounded by her kids, her voice full of exasperation – all those kids got bronchitis, all of them! They missed school, they had to stay home, but home is where the source of the problem is, so they never got really better.

Three girls sit with her on the sofa, they are a little camera-shy so they just nod in agreement. More and more faces. Everybody has similar stories. House belonged to family for generations, this is where they grew up, they know everyone in town. Now they want to move away, sell the house. But how? The stench will scare any potential buyers. And if you are lucky to sell it during the time between the sludge applications, when the odor subsides – is that the moral thing to do? Hide the real reason why you are getting rid of the house so somebody else can move in and get sick?

Sludge Applications Effects on Real Estate

Current Virginia law doesn’t require disclosing the proximity of sludge applications on the real estate documents. You can trick somebody to buy a house build on a toxic land and it’s legal. There was a bill introduced last year to the Virginia General Assembly to require the disclosure of land applications of biosolids and industrial residuals in the real estate transactions – sale or lease.

That bill did not pass the House Agriculture Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee. Virginia Association of Realtors is happy; they don’t want regulations to hinder the sales.

I recently heard a story about a subdivision in rural central Virginia, a maze of cul-de-sacs with building lots, some of them with houses and families living there, others – still for sale. Then the market crash of 2008 came and nobody was buying anything. A wealthy county resident purchased several lots for a fraction of the true value, but he didn’t have plans to build a house there. He wanted to put a sludge holding reservoir in that residential neighborhood.

Local residents are fighting the project to this day, but they are quickly running out of options. The toxic sludge storage right in the middle of a residential community could become a reality as soon as all legal avenues to prevent it from happening will be exhausted.

Lasting Community Effects

There is another, social aspect to the sludge stories. Community ties are destroyed. Neighbors turn against neighbors. Sludgers versus anti-sludgers. The social fabric of those small, rural communities is torn. The community falls apart, people move out and the land became worthless. Not just worthless – dangerous to the wellbeing of its owners. It takes about two thousand years for the Earth to produce an agricultural soil. It takes just a few applications of human and industrial waste to destroy it.

But maybe I got it all wrong; the world’s largest sludge distributor – Synagro Technologies, Inc. sports a green turf logo on its home page and a reassuring promise: Your partner for a cleaner, greener world – transforming waste challenges into sustainable planet-friendly solutions.

Land application of biosolids in progress

Photos courtesy of Craig Monk

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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