A Family Takes Action After PCB Contamination

A homesteading family begin taking grassroots action after learning that their property was contaminated with PCBs from treated sewage sludge.

| November/December 1976

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    The Nehrig's were told it might be 100 years before their land would be safe again for farming.
    PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

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The idea of putting digested sewage sludge on crop and pasture land—in place of synthetic fertilizers—seems to be a natural. After all, what better way to [1] build rich topsoil and [2] help solve the country's solid waste disposal problem . . . than to use plain ole sewage sludge as fertilizer?  

"What better way indeed, " said Ron Nehrig a year ago when he and his wife, Sara, decided to apply sludge to their five-acre Bloomington, Indiana farmstead. "I'd spent a fair amount of time researching the idea and could find nothing wrong with it, " explains Ron, "but to put my mind at ease I called the city engineer in charge of the local treatment facility and asked him about the presence of heavy metals—and other pollutants—in the digested sludge. The man assured me the wastes were entirely safe to use. "  

Tragically, the city engineer was wrong. As Ron and Sara later learned—after they'd spread 100 tons of sewage solids on their land—the city's wastes were contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB's) . . . an exceedingly toxic and persistent class of industrial chemicals that—in this case—had been put in the sewage by a nearby Westinghouse factory.  

In MOTHER NO. 41, Ron Nehrig told us how he learned of the presence of PCB's in Bloomington's sludge, and how he came to accept the fact that his farmland had been ruined for food production for, possibly, as long as the next 100 years. Below, Ron discusses the progress that he and other Bloomington residents have made toward bringing an end to PCB pollution in southern Indiana.  



We'd followed the almost-daily reports in the Bloomington newspaper about PCB's in the city's sludge for several weeks, but the full impact of what the polychlorinated biphenyls were doing to our lives didn't really hit my wife and me until April 19, 1976. That was when the State Board of Health called to tell us that the milk from our cow, Blossom (who'd been grazing on the sludge-treated land), contained 5.0 parts per million (ppm) of the toxic chemicals . . . twice the limit established for milk by the Food and Drug Administration.

Although we thought we knew the answer, we asked the Board of Health man if this meant we had to stop drinking the cow's milk. Strangely, he wouldn't give us a definite "yes" or "no". All he would do is tell us the test result.






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