The History of Sludge for Agricultural Application

Reader Contribution by Lidia Epp
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It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in late October 2014. My husband and I were enjoying a soft shell crab sandwich at the Blue Crab Festival in West Point, Va., just a few miles from our home.  Local arts and crafts were on the display, the Main Street was filled with people, cotton candy carts, draft beer stands, merry-go-round, the usual.

A lady with the Sierra Club baseball hat and a handful of flyers came over and asked if we know about the problem with biosolids.

“Biosolids?” we both asked in unison. “What’s that?”

“It’s a municipal sewage sludge and industrial waste that is applied to the farmland as a fertilizer.  A company called Synagro applied for a permit to spread industrial waste on 17,000 acres in our area over the next 10 years. This practice is mostly unmonitored and the permit is very likely to be granted,” she answered, frowning.

“WHAT?!” we screamed, in unison again, and looked at each other in horror. This woman is crazy! This just can’t be!

Take the Red Pill

Do you remember the first Matrix movie, the scene where Neo is given a choice of blue or red pill? On that October day, together with a bite of a soft shell crab and a gulp of draft beer, we swallowed the red pill of biosolids. There is no going back. We had to face the reality and it is scary.

Well, that day seems now a lifetime ago. The lady was not crazy — we were uninformed. The “Sierra Club lady” turned out to be Tyla Matteson, the Chair of Marine Issues at the Virginia Chapter of Sierra Club.

Tyla has been a tireless opponent of land sludge applications. She attends City Hall meetings in central Virginia counties, and General Assembly sessions where new bills are introduced attempting to put on hold the agricultural use of sludge. Together with local residents, Tyla organizes meetings to inform the public of the dangers of this practice. And the public outcry and opposition are growing.

The History of Sludge

But let’s start from the beginning:

It all started in 1972 with the passing of Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act. It is the only pollution law that explicitly requires consideration of land-based alternative disposal.

1972 was also the year that Congress passed the Clean Water Act, with major revisions in 1977, 1981 and 1987. Last revisions, in 1987, resulted in amendments directing the EPA to research and promulgate the land applications of sewage sludge. A year later in 1988, Congress passed the Ocean Dumping Ban Act, thus eliminating all but land disposal method of sludge.

The Act went into effect in 1992, also the year when the PR firm of Powell Tate was hired by the industry to devise a plan for gaining public acceptance of sewage sludge land disposal. And so the names “biosolids,” “industrial residuals,” “natural fertilizer,” and “organic nutrients” were invented.

EPA quietly removed the sewage sludge from the list of HAZMAT and in 1993, sewage sludge federal regulations were published in the Federal Register as the “Part 503 rule,” promulgated under the authority on the Clean Water Act, Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 503.

In 1986, Synagro Technologies Inc. was founded, a company currently operating in 34 states, specializing in agricultural disposal of sewage sludge and industrial waste. Or, to be politically correct, “biosolids and industrial residuals management.”

The company is ridden with lawsuits and bankruptcies. The most prominent case, the bribery scandal involving a Detroit councilwoman, prompted Synagro’s last wave of restructuring and buy-outs.

Regulatory Failure

The Part 503 rule is a set of federal guidelines for the oversight and monitoring of agricultural use of sludge. The science behind those rules is grossly outdated, based on 1970 understanding of environmental sciences, biology, toxicology and pathology.

The futility of these EPA guidelines to protect public health lays not only in the fact that the regulations include a very narrow scope of pollutants required to be monitored (just nine heavy metals and only two species of bacteria), but  they also don’t reflect  recent scientific findings. They regulate an infinitely small fraction of environmental pollutants, while ignoring a vast majority of dangerous components of sludge.

Sludge’s Threat to Public Health

What back then was considered safe, is now classified as carcinogen. In 1993, the phrase “endocrine disruptors” was not even invented yet! Endless lists of chemicals were then deemed safe: flame retardants, flocculent polymers, surfactants, pharmaceuticals, synthetic hormones, pesticides, and plasticizers.

Those pollutants are not broken down by the wastewater treatment processes. They are concentrated a million fold and then applied to agricultural land. They are sold to the public as “natural fertilizer.”

Applied to soil in public parks, school playgrounds, farms and forests, they create a risk of human exposure to an increasingly complex combination of dangerous chemical and biological agents. Over 500 synthetic organic chemicals are now reported in sludge. None are regulated.

It has been reported that surfactants are present in biosolids in high levels and degradation products are highly toxic. Pharmaceuticals are designed to work at very low concentrations.

As the level of complexity of pollutants rises, the synergistic effect of that complex mixture will have increasingly greater effects on human and animal health.

How to Go Forward?

Soil continues to receive high levels of municipal and industrial sludge and this practice continues to go virtually unmonitored. It’s happening in the agricultural areas where “Class B” biosolids are spread, and in the towns and cities all across the country where Class A biosolids  are used as a “natural fertilizer.”

It’s a major environmental disaster in the making and our society will pay a heavy price for those practices. Each and every one of us is at risk, and the exposure to the environmental pollutants in sludge will have a detrimental effect on the overall health of society and each of us individually.

There is a great need for a new approach to the dilemma and what to do with the inevitable byproduct of our consumer lifestyle – the sludge. Instead of “disposing” it, we will need to find new ways of repurposing it and employ new, emerging technologies to address the growing danger of biosolids land application.


Virginia Public Hearings

Video: Sewage Sludge on Our Farms

Video: Dr. Mercola Discusses Biosolids

Dr. Lewis Asks the Important Question: ‘Who Regulates the EPA?’”, (Aug. 27, 2015). The Oconee Enterprise on Focus for Health

Grens, Kerry. “Snyder, Sludge Fighter.” (Nov. 1, 2006). The Scientist.

Photo by Thomas Miller

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.

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