Sludge and the EPA
On September 18, 2001, just a week after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Christine Todd Whitman announced, “We are very encouraged that the results from our monitoring of air quality and drinking water conditions in both New York and near the Pentagon show that the public in these areas is not being exposed to excessive levels of asbestos or other harmful substances. Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C. that their air is safe to breath (sic) and their water is safe to drink.” The EPA had reacted quickly to the events of September 11th, establishing 10 continuous air quality monitoring stations near Ground Zero, testing the air quality in other parts of the city and near the Pentagon, testing drinking water quality at 13 sampling points in Manhattan, and checking dust samples in Lower Manhattan. It appeared people in and around New York and the Pentagon had dodged a bullet. Unfortunately, it wasn’t true.
In 2003, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the EPA issued a 165-page report, EPA’s Response to the World Trade Center Collapse: Challenges, Successes, and Areas for Improvement,claiming that the agency didn’t have “sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement. At that time, air monitoring data was lacking for several pollutants of concern, including particulate matter and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).” The report leveled several other criticisms, including that, “The White House Council on Environmental Quality influenced, through the collaboration process, the information that EPA communicated to the public through its early press releases when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones.”
The nation was gripped by the horrors of September 11th. Television was broadcasting continuous coverage of the rescue and recovery efforts in New York and at the Pentagon. The devastation was impossible to miss. Common sense told us that the EPA’s findings could not possibly be correct. By the time the OIG report came out in 2003, thousands of responders and recovery workers at Ground Zero were suffering from a variety of illnesses, many of them respiratory conditions or cancers. Just 3 years later, Detective James Zadroga, who had been among the first responders, who had narrowly escaped injury when WTC 7 fell later that day, and who had put in over 470 hours digging through the debris in the months that followed, was the first of the 9/11 responders to die of the respiratory illness he contracted while working there. He was 34. The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2009, currently moving slowly through Congress, seeks to provide protection and services to the thousands of the sick and dying who were told the air was safe to breathe by their own government’s Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA’s failures in the wake of September 11th were widely reported. Not so widely reported are the numerous other cases where the EPA has failed just as miserably. Sewage sludge is just one such case. The story of the EPA’s failure to respond to the dangers of sewage sludge is a long and complicated one that follows, in part, the same arc as the story of the EPA’s response to the attacks of September 11th. According to the OIG, the EPA had insufficient evidence to support its claims about air quality in Lower Manhattan. The OIG has expressed the same concerns about the EPA’s claims about the safety of applying sludge to land. The EPA was unduly influenced by the White House to downplay the level of toxicity in Lower Manhattan. In the case of sewage sludge, it’s the sludge industry that has exerted its influence over the EPA. The sewage sludge story gets worse. It’s an outrageous history that is decades old.
Testifying before the New Hampshire legislature in 1998, EPA scientist Dr. Alan Rubin said “[sludge] wasn’t too toxic for the ocean. The reason we got it out of the ocean was basically an image-political deal.” Dr. Rubin was dismissively referring to the Ocean Dumping Ban, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan a decade earlier on November 18, 1988. The ban came about thanks to the efforts of a New Jersey-based group called Clean Ocean Action who objected to the dead sea that was being created just beyond the approximately 90 miles of coastline from Sandy Hook to Atlantic City. The ban prohibited the dumping of sewage sludge and industrial waste into the ocean, effective December 31, 1991, allowing municipalities time to find other means of disposing of their tons and tons of waste. The three methods that municipalities turned to were landfilling, incineration, and land application. Each method posed its own substantial risks to the environment. Sludge put into landfills eventually eats through the lining, contaminating groundwater. Incinerated sludge pumps toxins into the air. Sludge applied to land as a fertilizer contaminates the water, the air, the soil, the vegetation grown in the soil, and the meat and milk of the animals who graze on the vegetation. That sludge contains toxic chemicals and pathogens has never been in question. Who better, then, to put in charge of developing the regulations to monitor its use as a fertilizer than Dr. Alan Rubin? Well, just about anyone, but that’s not how the EPA saw it. Incidentally, if you’re curious why Dr. Rubin was testifying before the New Hampshire legislature, it was because he had gone there to refute the testimony of Dr. David Lewis, an EPA scientist-turned-whistleblower who had linked the death of Shayne Conner, a 26-year old New Hampshire man, to exposure to sludge. By the time Dr. Rubin and his colleagues set about writing the 503 rule, short for Code of Federal Regulations’ 40CFR503 that created the standards for disposal of sewage sludge, the EPA had been promoting land application for years. Meanwhile, the agency turned a blind eye to the known hazards of spreading sludge on land. As early as 1974, the EPA issued a report entitled “Methods for the Utilization or Disposal of Sludges.” Here is the Seattle Sewer District’s response to it. The limits suggested for the metal content of sludges will not allow many large cities to use sludge for agriculture unless the metal content is reduced. If metals are removed at the source, it will represent a large cost to industry and ultimately to the consumer. There will be a demand on the natural resources for the chemicals needed to remove the metals, and there will be chemical and metal sludge to dispose of. If a cost benefit analysis is carried out, it would appear doubtful that the value of using sludge in agriculture could equal the costs. The proposed guidelines would appear to favor landfill or incineration. In 1977, EPA Director Douglas Costle issued a memo openly supporting the land application of sludge and the Clean Water Act of 1977 further encouraged the practice by offering incentives to wastewater treatment plants that incorporated treatment practices for sludge to be land-applied. That same year,the General Accounting Office issued a warning to the EPA that “sewage sludge products having high amounts of cadmium are being sold or given away to the public for uncontrolled use.”Nevertheless, the EPA continued to promote its use by publishing a study entitled, Institutional Constraints and Public Acceptance Barriers to Utilization of Municipal Wastewater and Sludge for Land Reclamation and Biomass Production, that read more like a public relations campaign in which the EPA encouraged the use of both “aggressive” and “passive” public relations tactics as needed to win the hearts of the public.
What had been going on within the agency during this time was a sludge war, according to another EPA veteran-turned-whistleblower, William Sanjour. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 had defined municipal sewage sludge as solid waste, not hazardous waste. According to Sanjour, “… the result of this inclusion was not to strengthen the laws concerning the safe use of municipal sludge but rather to weaken the regulation of hazardous waste disposal.” Shortly thereafter, Sanjour’s office, the Office of Solid Waste, became part of the Water Office. The result was that industrial waste was considered hazardous waste subject to strict regulation while the same industrial waste that made it into the sewage system was solid waste and subject to far less strict regulation under the Clean Water Act, regulation whose development was delayed for months due to another battle going on at the EPA over their Construction Grants Program. The program provided funding for constructing the wastewater treatment facilities incentivized by the Clean Water Act that could treat sludge for land application to address the increasing demands to find an alternative to ocean dumping. According to Sanjour, EPA’s own Science Advisory Board recognized that no municipality would want to construct plants to manage sludge if they knew how hazardous it was, so writing regulations that would have made it clear was delayed.
By the time of the publication of the Institutional Constraints study in 1981, it was clear who had won the sludge war. A decade later, the Ocean Dumping Ban was going into effect and so the EPA re-doubled its efforts to improve public perceptions of sludge fertilizer. An organization called the Water Pollution Control Federation was there to help. In 1977, its director, Robert Canham, had criticized the EPA’s enthusiasm for land application of sewage sludge, expressing concerns over the spread of viruses contained within. By 1991, however, the Federation had reversed its position on sludge and, in fact, led the search for a new, more palatable name for the stuff. They created a Name Change Task Force and asked Federation members to participate in a naming contest in their newsletter. Here are just some of the 250 responses they got: “all growth,” “purenutri,” “biolife,” “bioslurp,” “black gold,” “geoslime, ” “sca-doo,” “the end product,” “humanure,” “hu-doo,” “organic residuals,” “bioresidue,” “urban biomass,” “powergro,” “organite,” “recyclite,” “nutri-cake,” and “ROSE,” short for “recycling of solids environmentally.” The task force chose the perfectly greenwashed term biosolids, defined as the “nutrient-rich, organic byproduct of the nation’s wastewater treatment process.” Shortly thereafter, the Federation changed its own name to the even more vague, more feel-good name, Water Environment Foundation and accepted a $300,000 grant from the EPA to promote the use of sludge fertilizer. One enterprising WEF member contacted the good folks at the Merriam-Webster to request that biosolids be added to the dictionary. They replied that one can’t simply make up a word and get it in the dictionary. The EPA was more than happy to use the made-up term when the 503 rule was finally written in 1993.
Given the EPA’s stance on sewage sludge, it’s not surprising that the 503 rule is weak, at best. It regulates only nine heavy metals and establishes acceptable levels higher than those in Europe and elsewhere around the world. It requires minimal testing of pathogens. It does state that, “Nothing in this part precludes a State or political subdivision thereof or interstate agency from imposing requirements for the use or disposal of sewage sludge more stringent than the requirements in this part or from imposing additional requirements for the use or disposal of sewage sludge.”
However, the EPA must have known at the time, or has surely learned in the years since the 503 rule was written, that state and local governments were likely to accept the rule wholesale and that, as the lead agency, it was up to them to take the lead on developing more stringent regulations. The stories about the EPA and sewage sludge could fill a book. Our downloadable handout, EPA Timeline, summarizes several of them. While the goal of groups like the United Sludge-Free Alliance is to put an end to the practice of using sewage sludge as a fertilizer, the reality is that we need to do a much better job of regulating its use in the meantime. Moreover, we need to be investing right now in developing alternative uses for sludge. The EPA and municipal governments turned to sludge fertilizer as a quick and easy way of dealing with the millions of tons of the stuff that could no longer be dumped in the ocean. As a result, we transferred the problem from the water to the land. We don’t need to transfer the problem from the land to the air in our haste to stop the use of sludge fertilizer. We can’t afford it.
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