Undisclosed Report: EPA Knew It Was Toxic

Posted Oct. 2, 2002
By Sheila R. Cherry

A fight for independence once again is centered on Pennsylvania. Small-town opponents of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) biosolids program are seeking legislative independence from what started as a governmental solution for a hazardous-waste problem. That solution, according to EPA's own findings, is a deadly one.

In 1981 the federal government began its shift from regarding sewage sludge from urban wastewater-treatment plants as a pollutant to promoting it for rural land as fertilizer, which later would be called "biosolids." This suited politically correct notions of ecological balance: cleaning America's waters by recycling human waste into food for humanity. Angry farmers and rural residents with little use for ideological instruction on the quiet pleasures of ecology may be forgiven if they regard land application of urban sewage sludge as hit-and-run dumping of hazardous wastes in the countryside.

Meanwhile, companies that earn millions from contracts to haul the residue from wastewater-treatment plants to disposal sites assure government-wary farm families that, when managed properly, Class B sludge can be handled very safely and that it is good for the soil. Industry representatives insist it is treated according to government standards so that pathogens largely are removed, but rural residents — inured to the smells of farm animals and their manure — sometimes describe the stink of sewage sludge dumped on the land as "horrific."

Documents obtained by Insight now confirm that EPA and other federal agencies have been aware all along that stench is not the only issue with biosolids [see "Sludge Mess in EPA's Back Yard," March 25, and "Will EPA Clean Up Its Sludge Policy?" Feb. 25]. As allegations mount of illness and deaths related to aerosolized emissions from sludge applied to land, officials at both the federal and state levels will be called on to tell what they knew, when they knew it and why they didn't do anything about it.

Discovery documents obtained from the EPA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) by the National Whistle-blower Center, and analyzed by Insight, show that the EPA has known about widespread groundwater contamination from sewage sludge perhaps since the early 1980s. In fact the documents show that EPA's Biosolids Management and Enforcement team asked EPA's Region Eight biosolids coordinator to document "biosolids horror stories." The request elicited a list of sites where groundwater has been contaminated by land-applied sludge.

The documents indicate that, because of its high nitrate composition, elevated nitrate levels in groundwater near sludged fields can be used to indicate contamination from sewage sludge. The EPA was informed that other contaminants from sewage sludge, such as toxic organic chemicals, heavy metals, and bacteria and viruses also are leaching into the groundwater. Indeed, EPA officials were told in a Region Eight memo in May 1999 that wells at seven of the 11 sludge sites tested for groundwater contamination had more than twice the maximum contamination level (MCL) allowed for nitrates in drinking water, which is 10 milligrams per liter or 10 parts per million.

Wells in Springfield, Ill., and Orlington, Minn., had as much as 15-20 times the MCL for nitrate. Samples of water in the soil column at two other sites — Lisbon, Maine, and Torres-Martinez Indian Reservation in California — had 30 to 120 times the MCL. The Lisbon site, officials reported, is 10 miles from Lewiston, Maine, and the Torres-Martinez site is three miles from Mecca, Calif.

The data collected indicated a widespread groundwater-contamination problem. A summary of the documents explained that some of the data showed elevated nitrate levels where groundwater samples were taken up-gradient and down-gradient of the sludged fields, as well as before and after sludge was applied.

One table listing information on sites with groundwater contamination from sludge shows that EPA and state officials were well-aware of the proximity of the contaminated groundwater to populated areas. For example, state officials in EPA Region Four reported that in Carrollton, Ga. (which was described as "presently out of service"), sludge was applied at a rate of more than 10 tons per acre per year at two sites with groundwater depths of 10 feet to 25 feet. The sludge site, officials noted, "is one mile from Carrollton, a town of 14,000 inhabitants."

In Allendale County, S.C., officials noted a "heavy overloading of sludge" at the contaminated site where the water-table aquifer flows toward the adjacent Lower Three-Run Creek "and is two and a half miles from Martin, a town of less than 1,000 inhabitants."

Near Las Vegas, N.M., sludge was applied to a site at a rate of up to 400 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year. "Nitrogen loading was excessive," the report showed. The groundwater ranged from 40 feet to 80 feet, and the site was two miles from the town of 40,000 inhabitants.

In Grand Island, Neb., sludge injection began in the fall of 1980. Four 20-acre sludge sites were expanded to an additional 40 acres in 1983, and the site expanded farther in 1984, according to officials, to a space that "almost doubled the existing land for injection." The groundwater was only about 10 feet below the surface. Officials pointed out that "Nitrate concentrations increased sharply between 1982 and 1984. It appears the advent of irrigation precipitated increased nitrogen leaching at the site." The sites are located only a mile from this town of 37,000.

So groundwater was being contaminated by sludge dumping on the land, and at least some federal authorities knew it, but kept it all a deadly secret.

Meanwhile, to farmers and other locals, dumping refuse from human sewage was counterintuitive and they remained alert. Tina Daly, chairwoman of the Sludge Team of the Pennsylvania Environmental Network, says that at the root of the sludge air- or water-contamination problem, especially in Pennsylvania, is the system through which general dumping permits are issued and what constitutes "beneficial use." These two regulatory tools are embedded throughout the regulations, she said at a public hearing in Mount Carmel. Daly says it is outrageous that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) can hold "hearings" and issue a general permit to a sewage-treatment plant that allows sludge from that plant to be spread on the land anywhere that is deemed to have a suitable "plan," and all the hauler has to do is notify the abutters.

Daly called on local lawmakers present to end the practice of general permitting, which she charged gives average citizens no recourse to the land application of sludge. "We could ask that DEP go back to issuing individual permits where local on-the-record public hearings would be required, but we would rather call for a ban," she said. That may be a tough sell in Pennsylvania this year. The Philadelphia Water Department has a general permit that expires in December.

So it's city mouse versus country mouse. In a 1998 internal EPA memo obtained by Insight, an official recalled to a colleague: "The push to use sewage sludge on crops comes from the EPA Water Office, which in turn is pressed by big-city sewage authorities, particularly Chicago." In an internal e-mail the EPA official lamented, "The EPA Science Advisory Board [SAB] was asked to evaluate the health effects of using sewage sludge on crops. The person in charge of the SAB study was the director of the Chicago sewage authority. The study didn't even discuss health effects but lauded the recycling benefits. Again, so much for science."

Meanwhile, this stuff stinks. In 2000 a workshop cosponsored by Duke University, the EPA and the National Institution for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders produced a report published in the Journal of Agromedicine that discussed the potential health symptoms associated with ambient odors. People are exposed to odor every day, some of which can be unpleasant rather than unhealthy, it noted. But beyond short-term health complaints such as nasal congestion, headaches, diarrhea and shortness of breath, for sensitive individuals such as asthmatic patients, exposure to odors may induce health symptoms that persist for longer periods of time and aggravate medical conditions. According to the report summary, "It is not known at present if there is a cumulative impact of exposure to irritants/odors from agricultural operations and municipal wastewater-treatment facilities on neighbors over time, as has been documented for workers continuously exposed to odorous swine facilities."

The EPA quietly was shifting to a neutral posture, moving away from its aggressive promotion of land-applied sludge as safe.

Here and there one encounters embarrassed professionals. A principal author of EPA's biosolids rules, Alan Rubin, acknowledges even to his critics that if humans and other species are exposed to the pollutants in sludge at sufficient doses and over sufficient periods of time, still there is risk of adverse health effects. Rubin is an avid promoter of sludge for fertilizer as both a former representative of a sludge-industry group, the Water Environment Federation, and then as principal author of EPA sludge rules. He has insisted that the EPA rules, also known as Part 503 Rules, established numerical standards, management practices and site restrictions which, if followed precisely, make land-applied biosolids perfectly safe.

A growing chorus of sludge victims is equally insistent that in the real world not all enterprises in the multibillion-dollar industry of processing and hauling away big-city sewage obediently are playing by EPA rules. Rural residents and the EPA's OIG say the agency's cash-strapped biosolids program has no way to ensure compliance once the hauler leaves the treatment plant. They further say that as long as sludge isn't backing up into highly populated city streets, state authorities either are reticent or helpless to stop violators as the Region Eight report indicated.

The dynamic of the debate has forced the matter to the grass-roots level of local governments and individuals often drawn into the argument after getting a whiff of the piles of sludge next door. The fed-up opponents of sludge in Pennsylvania, for instance, are preparing to make land application a political issue. The Tuesday after Labor Day, State Rep. Robert Belfanti and a motivated crowd of roughly 200 gathered after work at Mount Carmel High School for a House Democratic Policy hearing focusing on land-applied Class B sludge. Belfanti said he would try to convince members of his caucus of the need to take a united position on the issue of land-applied Class B sludge, which already has been spread over 5,000 acres of the Keystone State's abandoned coal-mine land.

"Today, alarm bells are being rung by not only conservation and environmental groups," Belfanti said, "but also by leading scientists, the National Research Council, the Inspector General of the EPA, the National Centers for Disease Control, some of the major media and tens of thousands of American citizens who have lodged complaints ranging from severe odor, unexplained sores and skin lesions, nausea, illness and, in a few instances, alleged deaths of children within weeks of exposure to this form of sewage sludge."

Russell and Antoinette Pennock are the second set of Pennsylvania parents to investigate whether land-applied Class B sludge was responsible for the unexplained death of a son. The death of their 17-year-old son, Daniel, still is awaiting a credible explanation. But when reading local news articles about the death of 11-year-old Tony Behun, who died mysteriously in 1994 after motorcycling through land-applied sludge, the symptoms sounded familiar [see "Toxic Waste Used As Fertilizer?" May 15, 2000]. The Pennocks soon learned about another alleged sludge-related death, that of 26-year-old Shayne Conner of New Hampshire. All three died with staph-related infections.

When the Pennock parents contacted Pennsylvania's DEP, the reaction seemed odd. First there simply was no response. Then the Pennocks were surprised in May 2001 by a 7:15 p.m. visit from two high-ranking DEP investigators who wanted Daniel's records and death certificate, which the suspicious parents refused.

Two months later, in the middle of the afternoon, DEP Secretary David Hess showed up at the Pennocks' door for a two-hour meeting and also asked for Daniel's death certificate. The Pennocks, wary of bureaucratic motives, continue to resist DEP's requests that they surrender their son's medical records and death certificate.

In November 2001, DEP collected and analyzed soil at the suspect site where sludge had been applied in 1995. Even as DEP analysts conceded that staphylococcus bacteria were found in every sample of the soil, they assured the Pennocks the staphylococcus aureus bacteria, with which their son was diagnosed, was not present in any of the samples.

The Pennocks then requested for an independent analysis separate sample slants (test-tube cultures) of cultures grown from the DEP samples. In a February 2002 letter the DEP informed the Pennocks' attorney: "Unfortunately, the department cannot supply those slants because the private laboratory which performed the analysis has discarded the staphylococcus cultures." By now the statute of limitations for suing the state of Pennsylvania for any culpability in Daniel's death had expired. The enraged parents have begun a class-action lawsuit against the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for allegedly violating the state's sunshine law.

But the ice may be cracking. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) surprised sludge-watchers in February when it said it would reissue a directive first released in 2000 as a hazard warning (HID 10) for workers who might handle or inhale Class B sludge fertilizers. This occurred under pressure from the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, which heavily lobbied the Office of Management and Budget, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Health and Human Services. In July, however, NIOSH dropped the formal hazard warning and released the renamed "Guidance for Controlling Potential Risks to Workers Exposed to Class B Biosolids." It provided more pages for guidance and explained that NIOSH's use of the word hazard was being understood as a pejorative.

"There were apparently some political chains pulled at high levels well above NIOSH," a source laments. People close to the issue tell Insight they got the impression that officials inside the agency were being directed either to make changes or the whole hazard ID system would go up in flames. That is a viewpoint that Frank Hearl, a NIOSH deputy director, denies.

But the angry sludge critic says, "There are people in a position either to make or lose money off the disbursement of HID 10 as a hazard warning, so my guess is that whoever was twisting arms or doing what they were doing was someone making money off the sludge operation. ... I do not believe that the professionals at NIOSH would on their own have made the changes that were in that document."

Joseph Cocalis was one of those NIOSH officials before he retired this year as an industrial hygienist and environmental engineer. He does not oppose sludge reuse, but he does favor stronger regulatory safeguards on land application. Prior to his retirement Cocalis was the first author of HID 10, which addressed occupational exposure to Class B biosolids. Now, as a private citizen, he expresses personal concern about sludge applied to abandoned mine sites. Cocalis warns of the risks associated with immune-compromised populations, such as the elderly and the sick, becoming exposed to fungal growth that can be found under the crusted layers of land-applied biosolids.

After biosolids get wet and the top layers dry, Cocalis explains, particulates that contain products of anaerobic microbial activity can cling to the undersides of the crusted layer between the sludge and the land surface. But since the EPA considers reclaimed mine land as having a low potential for public exposure, it is required to be restricted from public access for only 30 days instead of the usual year of restriction required of high-trafficked sludge sites. And that still doesn't factor in windblown toxins.

See accompanying sidebars: Clustering of Biosolid Incidents by Locality and Deaths in Rollinsford, N.H.

Sheila R. Cherry is a writer for Insight.




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