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October 7, 2014

Opinion: Local group says disposal of sewage sludge on farms, forests is a bad idea for public health

Special to the Journal

A recent article in The Hill (Timothy Cama, Sept. 24, “Auditors fault EPA for lax chemical safeguards”) informs us that we are part of a national problem of toxic sewage sludge disposal that impacts our air, land, crops and waterways.

Raw sewage and its two main byproducts — wastewater effluent (liquid) and sewage sludge (solids) — represent disposal challenges for counties and municipalities nationwide. These toxic wastes must be disposed of properly to protect our health and safety, but that should not include land disposal into our living environment.

A new report from the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Inspector General called “More Action Is Needed to Protect Water Resources From Unmonitored Hazardous Chemicals” said the EPA “doesn't do enough to stop hundreds of hazardous chemicals from getting into waterways via sewage plants.”

This is in line with the direction the European Commission has taken to protect people and the environment from exposure to toxins in sewage sludge.

The OIG report states that, “The EPA regulates hazardous chemical discharges to and from sewage treatment plants, but these regulations are not effective in controlling the discharge of hundreds of hazardous chemicals to surface waters, such as lakes and streams.”

A recent article in the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce by Pam Elardo of King County's Wastewater Treatment Division stated that, “For decades, King County's Wastewater Treatment Division has created resources from sewage such as biosolids, a nutrient-rich substitute for fertilizer sold under the brand name Loop... Decades of research from universities, the EPA and the National Academy of Sciences shows that biosolids are safe for people and the environment when used according to regulations and best management practices.”

However, when considering the statements made by the EPA, the King County article presents a weak and deceptive portrayal of the sewage sludge disposal problem. The statements illustrate King County's failure to recognize the dangerous and toxic nature of the byproducts of our wastewater treatment system.

King County disposes of residual solids from wastewater treatment into our Cascade forests and on our rangelands and farms under the guise of it being a nutrient-rich substitute for fertilizer. This toxic sewage sludge contains fecal and other wastes of more than a million and a half people, and presents a substantial health risk.

In Washington state, the Department of Ecology is the permitting agency for our wastewater treatment plants, and takes its regulatory guidance from the EPA.

There is substantial scientific evidence that the adverse human and environmental health effects of exposure to sewage sludge far outweigh the benefits of its use as a soil amendment, compost ingredient or fertilizer substitute.

Decades of research from universities, EPA, state Department of Ecology and the National Academy of Sciences shows that sewage sludge is unsafe for people and the environment, and must be subjected to rigorous toxicology testing prior to any land disposal.

Optimally, land-disposal of sewage sludge will be abolished. All that we wash, clean, rinse, flush and drain from our homes, yards, gardens, roadways, parks, businesses, universities, hospitals, clinics, major medical centers, industries, and more flows to our wastewater treatment plants, ultimately to end up in our air, on our lands and in our foods and waters.

The King County article in the DJC states further that, “Through a combination of conservation, investment in energy-efficient equipment and making the best use of renewable resources, the Wastewater Treatment Division is doing its part to reduce its carbon footprint.”

At first glance, perhaps, but an additional danger lurks in the generation of greenhouse gasses produced by land-disposed sewage sludge. The adverse effects on global climate change are likely more than have been calculated. When considering the high cost of fuel and the emissions generated by the sludge-laden double dump trucks that make the 400-mile or 600-mile round trip hauls per day from Seattle's wastewater treatment plants to the farms of central and eastern Washington, greenhouse gas production likely far exceeds the carbon capture potential imagined by land-disposed sewage sludge enthusiasts.

None of the proponents of land-disposed sewage sludge have ever conducted a safety or toxicology test on these sewage wastes, based on standards designed to safeguard human and environmental health. The contents of sewage sludge remain unknown, and the toxicity of whatever is in sludge has not been evaluated. The testing that is performed, is designed simply to enable minimally regulated disposal.

Consensus thinking of researchers in the field is that there is more exotic chemistry going on in a wastewater treatment plant than can be understood. The human and environmental health effects of the novel toxins remain unknown, and perhaps they are unknowable.

The toxins in our land-disposed sewage sludges are freely available to bioassimilate into our food crops and food animal feed crops, as well as flow to the waters that support shellfish and food fish resources. The laws and guidelines established for sewage sludge management were designed to be protective of human and environmental health, yet built-in exemptions and exclusions enable these untested toxic wastes to be disposed in our living environment.

Fortunately, there are much safer alternatives available for dealing with sewage sludge. More European countries are switching to proven high-temperature thermal processes such as thermal decomposition, which are capable of recovering phosphates while destroying the pathogens and toxic organic chemicals in the sewage sludge. Processes like these enable the ecologic-economic utilization of sewage sludge.

Reduced greenhouse gas emissions and protection of human and environmental health will provide countless benefits. Working to shield our air, soil, food and water from toxic waste is anticipated to benefit commerce, the environment and our quality of life.

Richard Honour is executive director of The Precautionary Group in Kenmore, an environmental sciences company dedicated to evaluating the adverse human and environmental health effects of long-term exposure to low levels of environmental contaminants and pollutants. He is a specialist in infectious diseases and soil microbiology, with a doctorate from the University of California, Riverside. Contributing authors are Derek C. Poon of The Precautionary Group, Philipp Schmidt-Pathmann of Zero Landfill Initiative and Neomer, and Patty A. Martin of Safe Food and Fertilizer.

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