Giving Us Crap

Farmers say it's nourishing. Critics say it's noxious. Either way, tons of California sewage is headed to Arizona.

The assurances of ADEQ are echoed in voices tinted with exhaustion by locals like Fehrmann. "There are 10,000 scientists saying it's good and two scientists saying it's bad," Fehrmann says. In part, he refers to Dr. David Lewis, an EPA microbiologist assigned to the University of Georgia.

Though Lewis does not speak for the EPA, his personal anti-sludge sentiments have been noted nationwide. He argues that the years of research waste industry leaders point to have studied the effects of sludge on crop production, soil and water, but haven't measured how sludge affects human health.

"I feel that applying pathogenic material where people live is just not a good idea," Lewis says, adding that those with pre-existing respiratory problems or compromised immune systems would be susceptible to bacteria from the sludge. He admits, however, that there is no proven, direct link between the illnesses and sludge.

Critics argue that researchers have studied the effects of sludge on crop production, soil and water, but not how it affects human health. Last year alone, 67,000 dry tons of sludge were applied to Arizona soil.
Critics argue that researchers have studied the effects of sludge on crop production, soil and water, but not how it affects human health. Last year alone, 67,000 dry tons of sludge were applied to Arizona soil.

Synagro employees seem almost offended by Lewis' allegations that sludge causes sickness. Rick King, operations manager at the Goodyear office, points out the window as he cruises by Buckeye cotton fields in his truck. "I farmed for 20 years and these people we are applying [sludge to their fields] are my friends and neighbors," he says. "I wouldn't apply it if I wasn't sure it was safe."

Many waste management industry leaders describe those claiming "sludge syndrome" as a population in the midst of mass hypochondria -- a mob of people scared by their own shit.

"[The bans] have been more politically driven than scientifically driven," says Synagro spokesperson Loder. Fehrmann suggests that the problem is not illness but odor. He describes the protesters as city folks who, assuming that what smells bad must be bad for them, are trying to get the country scent of sludge out of their backyards. Loder points out that some of the complaints in Riverside were completely erroneous. As reported by the Press-Enterprise, one woman's complaint of illness because of sludge was dismissed when the county found that she actually lived next to a field that had been treated with cow manure, not biosolids.

While the EPA waits for results from a study by the National Academy of Sciences on the risks associated with land application of biosolids and an evaluation of sludge regulations, the wastewater industry is responding to the pressures of public perception.

Many sludge protesters say all they want is for the level of treatment to be taken up a notch, and the City of Phoenix is responding. Phoenix Water Services is at the forefront of a national trend to convert its wastewater treatment plants to produce only Class A biosolids, which go through a more intensive process than regular sludge but have less plant-enriching nitrogen. The conversion means fewer pathogens and should only cost customers a few extra cents per month, according to James "Bing" Brown, Water Services spokesman. Though Phoenix is making the transition by choice, some plants in California are being forced to make the switch simply because county bans don't allow Class B to be used as fertilizer anymore.

The conversion will take a few years and more than a few million dollars, but it is a compromise that people on both sides of the sludge debate can live with. Fehrmann thinks of it as an unnecessary practice -- he compares it to using bottled water in a washing machine -- but admits that the action would improve the public image of biosolids. Even a skeptical Lewis says the application of purely Class A biosolids would be okay with him.

Meanwhile, Margie Newman hopes her grandson's headaches will subside as the ammonia smell of the sludge dissipates. Back in Buckeye, Burt Ray accidentally smears a little goopy sludge on his tattooed arms while he scrapes it from the inside walls of his truck. He watches while the black substance is spread on the land. It plops and splatters as it's tilled in, changing the dusty Arizona soil from terra cotta to an uneasy shade of brown.

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