Virginia is for lovers of sewage sludge?

Biosolids: an assault to our land and our communities

I came home the other night to the thick stench of biosolids (treated sewage sludge) on the wind. The trucks had been driving past our cabin for days- and sometimes into the night. I went to collect eggs and close the chickens in as I do every night. I walked in the crisp but putrid night air with a handkerchief around my face. The smell was assaulting but what was even more disturbing was the realization that the real assault is against my family, my neighbors, the land and the future health of our community.

While you may have never heard of biosolids the battle to stop it’s application on agricultural and public lands has been raging for many years. Biosolids, according to the EPA, is said to be: “…nutrient-rich organic materials resulting from the treatment of sewage sludge (the name for the solid, semisolid or liquid untreated residue generated during the treatment of domestic sewage in a treatment facility). When treated and processed, sewage sludge becomes biosolids which can be safely recycled and applied as fertilizer to sustainably improve and maintain productive soils and stimulate plant growth.” In the same breathe they admit: “Thirty years ago, thousands of American cities dumped their raw sewage directly into our nation’s rivers, lakes, and bays. Today, because of improved wastewater treatment, our waterways have been cleaned up and made safer for recreation and seafood harvest. And, because of the strict Federal and state standards, the treated residuals from wastewater treatment (biosolids) can be safely recycled. Local governments make the decision whether to recycle the biosolids as a fertilizer, incinerate it or bury it in a landfill.”  If biosolids are so valuable why would it be incinerated or buried in a landfill as a waste product?

I don’t know about you but I’m also not convinced that “…because of the strict Federal and state standards, the treated residuals from wastewater treatment (biosolids) can be safely recycled…”.  Somehow these industry standards have rendered what once was an environmental hazard into a beneficial fertilizer? Somehow our improved technological treatment can turn toxic waste into an environmentally sustainable material? Sounds a bit like magic. As go many controversial issues of public health and the environment (remember when the tobacco industry told us cigarettes were good for us?) there are layers of carefully crafted PR. A concerted effort has been made over many years to influence public opinion and to convince the general population that there is nothing to question or fear. Unfortunately, the more you look into the history of biosolids the more it appears that there isn’t just a failure to truly effectively regulate the wastewater treatment industry – there emerges an intriguing storyline that has the stench of foul play. See the presentation below:

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Not long ago I went to a local public hearing on the land application of sewage sludge (aka: “biosolids”) in our state. They were discussing changes in regulations of how the supposed fertilizer could be spread. For many years this was a hot topic in our regional area in which I live as grassroots citizen groups have attempted to stop the practice of applying biosolids to local farms. In this meeting I attended, farmers stood up and said they needed biosolids to survive. Citizens-turned-environmentalists stood up like weary warriors and for the millionth time voiced their opposition -citing even personal health problems as evidence of the toxicity of treated sewage sludge.

I have friends who were a part of citizen protest groups that attempted for years to stop the spread of sludge in our communities but it was all to no avail. Some of them had death threats. Phones were suspected to be tapped. The local struggle made national attention. And today the local citizen protest groups are totally disarmed -many of them burned out – tired of their families always under threat.

This issue splits many communities- including ours. Often the farmers are pitted against the non-farmers as if those complaining  just aren’t familiar with farm smells. Meanwhile the machinery grinds on with noone to stop it. But if I remember correctly, like David with Goliath, even the weak can bring down the strong – I consider our prayers to be stones in our hands where armies of protesters have not gained victory. Intercessory activism- crying out to the LORD for justice- is the first and greatest form of activism.

To educate yourself further on the sludge/biosolids debate see the resources below (this issue is closer to you than you think). Consider these resources as only a starting point. Please spread the word and pray with us to see the end of the land application of sewage sludge in our communities and our nation:

(video: SEWAGE SLUDGE ON OUR FARMS: A TOXIC BETRAYAL)

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The Gatekeepers: A Summary of Court Records: “Hallman & Wingate uncovers scientific misconduct designed to protect the sludge industry at all costs.” Excerpt below:

“The Gatekeepers is the unbelievable but true story of how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and University of Georgia willfully published false and misleading scientific data to protect their own political and financial interests. In the process, they destroyed two of Georgia’s oldest and most productive dairy farms and a leading research scientist who was working in the public interest. Yet, what happened in Georgia is only the proverbial tip of an iceberg below which hides a concerted national effort by EPA, USDA, the wastewater industry, and a network of land grant universities to literally farm out disposal of the Nation’s hazardous wastes by disguising them as environmentally beneficial organic nutrients. EPA’s biosolids programs are built on a foundation of false claims and scientific fraud − shielded by special interests reaping untold profits from concealing the toxic ingredients in processed sewage sludges. The biosolids industry is run by a coalition of federal and state regulatory agencies, private industries and leading universities so powerful that no Branch of Government is willing or able to clean it up. Government scientists and private citizens who investigate and report the pervasive fraud and deception that underpins this industry, and the toll it takes on public health and the environment, are afforded no tangible protection against retaliations from entities with vested interests within government, industry and academia.”

Scientific Studies of Sewage Sludge (lots of links via SourceWatch.org)

Toxic Sludge (another incredible clearinghouse of resources from SourceWatch.org explaining current potential greenwashing issues surrounding the land use of biosolids. If you buy garden compost from the store you should read this and read this.)

Toxic Sludge is Good For You (book) – Chapter 8 (A great read and explains why biosolids is not “nightsoil”)

Branded Garden Products Containing Sewage Sludge (via SludgeNews.org) (gardners please read this!)

Sludge News (great resource to stay updated)

Sewage Sludge Action Network (great links to current news surrounding sludge, your food, science ,etc)

J. Fowler

J. Fowler is the website editor and co-founder, along with his wife Pamela, of the Sustainable Traditions project. The Fowlers live with their seven children on a farm near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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