Margie Newman was horrified when her 11-year-old grandson, Shane, ran in the house one day with a nosebleed that soaked two towels. The culprit of the nosebleed, as well as her other grandson's migraines and rashes, Newman says, is the stinky stuff called biosolids that lies on farmland just 100 feet from her Riverside County, California, home.
Biosolids -- the politically correct term for highly treated sewage sludge -- are a by-product of wastewater treatment commonly applied to agricultural land as fertilizer.
About 300 miles away, Burt Ray shovels the same sludge that Newman says is toxic out of his truck and onto a Buckeye field. Ray is a truck driver for Synagro, the nation's leading biosolids management company. He recounts a time when he was covered from head to toe in the tar-black, gelatinous substance during a mishap loading his truck. He just washed it off and went on his way in fine health. "That's when I knew this stuff was plum good," he says.
The striking polarity between the experience of some California residents and waste management workers like Ray leaves the average Joe wondering what the real deal is. A national debate about the potential health risks of sludge simmers, with little compelling evidence either way. Meanwhile, new bans on sludge in some Southern California counties mean more biosolids could be coming to an Arizona field near you. Local waste-management companies are gearing up for a possible influx of California sludge, while Phoenix Water Services is planning on building new treatment facilities that would make the city's own sludge cleaner.
Early this summer, Newman and a handful of other Riverside County residents claimed that the sewage sludge was making them ill, and, after raising a stink about it, convinced the county to ban the land application of some grades of biosolids. The debate that heated up in Riverside has prompted other Southern California counties to adopt similar bans.
As some of the wastewater treatment plants affected by the bans search for new places to dispose of their sludge, roaming eyes land on Arizona. Most California plants seem to have enough farms to send their sludge to, but some have had contracts in Arizona since the '80s, "just in case," says Synagro spokesperson Lorrie Loder. A San Diego wastewater treatment plant, which has had a contract with an Arizona biosolids management group for years, started shipping its shit to Yuma a month ago. In June, Synagro's office in Goodyear renewed its registration with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to apply sludge from 13 California wastewater treatment plants to Arizona soil, but none of those plants has started shipping sewage sludge here yet. Orange County Sanitation District officials have also said they plan on sending their sludge our way.
Whether two or 20 more California plants decide to send sludge to Arizona, it will only be a small plop in the proverbial toilet. Last year 67,000 dry tons of biosolids were applied to 11,400 acres statewide. Arizona was one of only eight states that recycled more than 90 percent of its own biosolids by applying them to farmland. The national average is 40 percent.
"If there was ever a place in the whole world that biosolid application on land makes sense, it's here," says Rob Fehrmann, technical services manager at Synagro's Goodyear office. The hot, dry climate and wide-open spaces make Arizona an ideal destination for sludge. Plus, the demand for sludge is higher than the supply. Arizona farmers are on Synagro's waiting list to receive the nitrogen-rich organic material because it is a free to low-cost fertilizer used to increase the yields of crops not for human consumption, like cotton and alfalfa.
But despite Synagro's assurances that the stuff is safe, small groups of protesters have sprung up across the country crying that "sludge syndrome" has caused illness and even death. Twenty residents in Greenland, New Hampshire, experienced eye, skin and throat irritation, and respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses in 1995. Greenland resident Shayne Conner, 26, died from respiratory distress that his family and Dr. David Lewis, a microbiologist in Georgia, attribute to the sludge. An 11-year-old Pennsylvania boy, Tony Behun, died in 1994 from an undiagnosed bacterial illness just days after a bike excursion through a sludge-covered field. A handful of other illnesses has been reported in Washington and Ohio. As in California, counties in Virginia and New Hampshire have reacted to residents' complaints by enacting bans or restrictions on the land application of sludge.
Though there have been occasional complaints about the smell from residents in Arizona, inspectors have not found violations in the application of sludge, according to ADEQ records.
ADEQ officials say they seriously doubt that Arizona's sludge would ever cause, or has ever caused, illness here. The state spreads only the cream of the crap on its soil, they claim. All residential waste -- from carrot peelings to poop -- and pre-filtered industrial waste that enters a treatment plant goes through a series of biological processes, creating a sludge that is cleaner than cow manure and not as stinky as you would think, they explain.
While the Environmental Protection Agency's federal regulations are meant to be self-implemented by waste management companies like Synagro, the supervision and enforcement of those rules vary from state to state. Arizona has made it a requirement that all applicators of sewage sludge register with ADEQ and provide detailed annual reports. State-certified labs measure levels of certain pollutants in the sludge, and applicators report the exact amount applied to each location. Buffer zones from houses, wells and water tables are also required.
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.
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.
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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.