German politician Otto von Bismark once remarked that "those who love sausage and the law should never watch either being made."
The same could certainly be said of sewage disposal and the rules that govern it. Although no one "loves" sewage, many farmers and politicians are enamoured of the trend toward using more and more of it as a soil amendment on farm fields. However, if recent developments in Ontario are any indication, what was originally promoted as a safe disposal option for cities and towns -- and a free source of fertilizer for farmers -- has become highly controversial.
On one side of the debate are cities like Toronto that -- in response to concerns over air pollution -- plans to close its aging multi-hearth incinerator at the Ashbridges Bay wastewater treatment plant. Six years ago the city decided that half of the roughly 53,000 tonnes of sewage sludge the plant generates each year would be applied on farmland, the rest processed at a new $23-million pelletization plant and sold as fertilizer. The pellet program is modeled loosely on an American sludge fertilizer product that's been marketed for decades under the brand name "Milorganite." (The sludge that made Milwaukee famous!) The program got a shaky start when one of the stockpiles of Toronto pellets went into spontaneous combustion on a farm field in Darlington this summer and took days to put out. But Toronto officials say their new documentation explains proper storage requirements and will help avert such accidents in future.
Says Kiyoshi Oka, a senior engineer with Toronto's water pollution control unit, "Applying biosolids on farmland is perfectly safe if the rules are followed. It's better to recycle this nutrient resource than simply landfill or incinerate it."
Certain urban activists agree. Karey Shinn and the grassroots Safe Sewage Committee led the fight to shut down the Ashbridges Bay incinerator. In August 2000, Ms. Shinn told the Toronto Star, "[Land application] is a vast improvement over blasting tons of the stuff into the air."
On the other side of the argument are residents in the rural areas that receive these wastes. Many believe that cities like Toronto are simply transferring urban pollution to the countryside.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that, at a minimum, many people have had to literally flee their homes for days to escape the fumes from recently sludged fields. Worse, some claim to have suffered respiratory infections and, in various cases, other ongoing negative health effects they believe stem from exposure to aerosolized sludge or contaminated well water.
In August, Enid Lipsett and her family fled their weekend home near Cobourg to escape the overpowering effects of sludge spread on a farm across the road. Her 10-month-old granddaughter was hospitalized from a respiratory seizure and intestinal attack. Castleton's Virginia Kostiuk, her husband Michael and four-year-old son had a similar experience that left the couple ill and traumatized. An infirm elderly couple from Marmora Township have laboratory evidence that suggests that elevated levels of lead, barium and strontium in their bodies relate to water from their well that was contaminated by unsafe storage of municipal sludge on their property over a number of years. Oakville's Laurie and Allan Eagles have launched a $2-million lawsuit against Halton Region and a waste contractor. They believe that their family's numerous respiratory problems, unexplained nausea, nosebleeds, intestinal disease and other illnesses were caused by the unsafe storage of Toronto sludge near their home over several years in an unlined, open pit that sometimes overflowed. (For detail, see "The Right To Harm," in the October/November 2001 edition.)
One of the people leading the charge of concerned rural citizens is Maureen Reilly, an outspoken critic who became a full-time environmental researcher after she first encountered sludge sprayed on a farm field near her rural property in Kirkfield, Ontario.
Says Ms. Reilly, "In its rush to end incineration, Toronto has utterly failed to develop reasonable alternatives. In protecting its sludge program, the city is offending many communities and has put the health and well being of rural residents at risk."
So who's right? Are rural residents alarmists? Or is there reason to be concerned?
The timing of such questions is appropriate. Partly in response to the E. coli drinking water tragedy in Walkerton in which seven people died and hundreds fell ill, Ontario's environment ministry is exploring the issue through two initiatives that should interest stakeholders across Canada.
The first is Bill 81, the Nutrient Management Bill, which will update the rules that govern the management of manure, sewage sludge, paper mill sludge, and so on. No standards or regulations have been proposed to date, but the bill provides an opportunity for the province to chart a new course in sludge pollution prevention, if it chooses. Any new rules will probably be phased in over five years. These could range from minor tinkering with the current Guidelines for the Utilization of Biosolids and Other Wastes on Agricultural Land (first introduced in March 1996) or something more radical.
The second initiative is a consultation project administered through the Recycling Council of Ontario (RCO) that will explore opinions and potential modifications to the biosolids guidelines. Given the hundreds of pages of complaints on file in government offices in Niagara, Peterborough, Ottawa, Clarington, Warkworth, Prince Edward County, Cornwall and elsewhere, the consultants will likely get an ear-full.
A brief history of slime
Up until the mid-1970s sewage was landfilled, incinerated or simply released, untreated, into the environment. Incredibly, in Canada today some municipalities like Victoria, B.C. and Halifax, N.S. continue to discharge their sewage into surface waters untreated -- a shameful situation.
Sludge spreading evolved in the United States in the mid-1970s as an alternative to these practices.
Municipal sewage sludge may contain heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, arsenic and lead, as well as organic contaminants like dioxin, PCBs, pesticides and alkyl phenols (detergent agents). These materials pose a health and environmental threat when burned in low-temperature incinerators or released into water.
Sludge also contains pathogens, spent pharmaceutical substances, and resistant bacteria strains (potential "superbugs") that survive secondary treatment within in-vessel anaerobic sewage composters. Sheep eating cabbages grown on sludge have developed lesions of the liver and thyroid gland. Pigs have elevated levels of cadmium. Biosolids workers are at risk of exposure to salmonella, shigella, camylobacter, cryptosporidium, giardia and enteric viruses. Although sludge-spreading proponents sometimes dismiss their critics as hysterical, it's reasonable to at least wonder whether any potential unforeseen danger lurks in our recycling of sewage -- and everything sewage contains -- onto the land base on which we grow our food. And on which animals graze whose milk and meat we ultimately consume.
"The U.S. EPA has acknowledged that the data on health risks from pathogens from land-applied sewage sludge has not been addressed," says Maureen Reilly. "Therefore the National Academy of Science has struck a panel of experts to develop a risk assessment." She notes that some wastewater industry panelists were perceived to have a conflict of interest and were removed. Ontario funded a review of toxins in Ontario sludges, she says, by members of the Water Environment Association of Ontario (WEAO), a municipal/industrial group, to determine which ones are well understood and which ones are not. The conclusions of this review have not been made public.
A 1996 British royal commission into sludge found that common sewage treatment systems of the kind used in Canadian cities are not effective in killing viruses or the eggs of intestinal worms. It recommended that sludge be pasteurized.
Some experts have concluded that gasification and high-temperature technologies that capture the methane in sludge for energy generation may be the most environmentally sound disposal methods. However, these are expensive and have mostly been sidelined by public officials who believe that sludge spreading is safe.
In their ironic 1985 book Toxic Sludge is Good for You! John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton recount the amusing story of how the Water Environment Federation (the WEAO's U.S. cousin) struck a name-change task force to determine a PR-friendly name for sludge, the spreading of which on farm fields had come under attack. In June 1991 the task force selected the term "biosolids" from more than 250 suggestions that included "humanure," "geoslime" and "bioslurp."
In 1992 the U.S. EPA modified its Part 503 technical standards which regulate sludge application on farmland, reclassifying what was previously designated a hazardous waste as "Class A" fertilizer. Along the way, sludge-spreading programs were re-christened with the somewhat Orwellian term "beneficial use." (Try protesting against that!) The EPA further modified the Part 503 regulations to allow more heavy metals in sludge fertilizer.
Canadian provinces developed their sludge standards largely in imitation of the Americans and, like them, implemented guidelines, and not more powerful laws and regulations, to administer sludge spreading. Critics say that in Ontario, site-specific Certificates of Approval usually contradict the biosolids guidelines which themselves contradict the provisions of Regulation 347 (the waste section of the provincial Environmental Protection Act). This can lead to practices in the field that are the least cautionary. One example is that Certificates of Approval allow the environment ministry's district managers to use their discretion and reduce the precautionary distance that sludge is spread from water wells, which happens frequently.
The tanks are coming
Back in 1981, Ontario generated approximately 192,000 tonnes of sludge, of which about 60,000 tonnes were spread on agricultural land. Seven years later the amount had almost doubled to 360,000 tonnes, yet still only 60,000 tonnes were land-applied. This was partly because Toronto -- the largest generator -- incinerated its sludge and provincial rules dictated that sludge from paper mills be classified as industrial waste. By 1993 the paper sludge was reclassified as an organic waste eligible for use as a soil conditioner.
Today, the amount of sewage sludge spread on farmland has more than doubled to approximately 123,000 dry tonnes. This is in addition to the enormous and growing amount of animal manure from intensive hog farms and livestock operations. Rural municipalities have no choice but to accept it, as the province recently re-wrote the rules in favour of urban sludge.
For instance, Simcoe County's objections to sludge spreading were overruled by Ontario's environment ministry on the grounds that "the county's waste management mandate does not extend to agricultural utilization" and a municipality has no authority to regulate a "normal farm practice."
The "right to farm" panel hasn't had a test case on sludge spreading, so the ministry's judgement might not be founded on fact or tribunal opinion. In any case, "right to farm" legislation was originally passed to protect farmers from nuisance complaints about dust and noise from their operations. The spraying of odorous biosolids on fields was probably far from the minds of legislators.
There's "money in muck," as they say. It's estimated that a city like Toronto typically pays a hauler about $109 per tonne to dispose of its sludge on farmland. The hauler is allowed to put eight tonnes of sludge on a hectare (about two acres). In this case, a 100-acre farm would receive about 400 tonnes of sludge. A waste hauler, therefore, could earn over $40,000 by applying a single application of sludge on such a site.
Haulers may not pay farmers to take the sludge, as this would make farms "waste disposal sites" requiring permits like a landfill. Some haulers, however, encourage farmers to see the benefits of sludge by leasing the land from the farmer.
"Sometimes cash croppers agree to receive the sludge on leased fields," says Ms. Reilly. "The actual land owner may not know about the sludging. I have four of these 'walk away' scenarios in front of me right now."
According to her, one large disposal company recently bought large tracts of farmland expressly for the purpose of spreading sludge.
"They thus vertically integrated their operations," she says.
On the surface, the guidelines for biosolids appear to offer environmental safeguards for this expanding and apparently lucrative business. Biosolids are not to be spread on approved lands within 90 metres of individual residences and they must be 450 metres away from a residential area. Biosolids must be 15 metres from any watercourse (provided that the sewage biosolids are immediately incorporated into the soil), 15 metres from any drilled well and 90 metres from all other wells, including dug wells.
Soil samples from fields to receive sludge are supposed to be analyzed for pH and phosphorous, and application rates must not exceed the "five-year loading criteria." They may not be applied in frozen conditions.
According to Toronto's Kiyoshi Oka, "It's in our interest to ensure that Toronto's biosolids are handled in an environmentally appropriate manner and in compliance with the provincial guidelines and applicable statutes."
But critics charge that many of the criteria in the guidelines are discretionary and, with inadequate oversight, opportunities abound to cut corners. They say that Ontario's environment ministry, which has lost one third of its staff in recent years, lacks the resources and manpower to administer sludge spreading operations. Contractors are required to pay qualified inspectors to oversee sludge spreading, but the inspectors do not have the union protection and job security afforded to regular government employees.
"It certainly has the appearance of the fox guarding the hen house," says Ms. Reilly, "when the supposedly independent inspectors are paid by the sludge contractors."
The worm turns
Farmers who accept sludge say it saves them in the order of $100 per acre in tilling and fertilizer costs. Yet the question arises, why should urban ratepayers subsidize farmers in this way? Rural opponents question whether crop yields really increase from sewage spreading. Is this truly "nutrient management," they wonder, or just a thinly disguised expedient disposal option?
"The vast preponderance of science on beneficial use," says Mr. Oka, "supports the contention that it is a safe practice when programs are properly administered."
And there are certainly reports that support this contention. But other credible studies have emerged that are disturbing.
In 1999, McBride and colleagues at Cornell's Waste Management Institute published a detailed critique of the risk assessment the U.S EPA conducted in developing its standards. The researchers discovered a series of data gaps and "non-protective policy choices" that resulted in "regulations that are not adequately protective of human health and the environment."
According to Ellen Harrison, director of the institute, "Risk assessments can hide a multitude of assumptions and bad data, and that's what they [the government] did."
Rural resident Jim Poushinsky coordinates a local citizens' group called OCAP (for "Osgoode Citizens Against Pollution by Sewage"). He points to a recent peer-reviewed study by scientists Dowd, Gerba and Pepper at the University of Arizona, published in the Journal of Environmental Quality. The researchers devised a model for predicted risk that demonstrated that people may need to be 10 kilometres away from a Class B sewage spreading site to be "safe,"' i.e., to have the risk of infection in healthy adults diminish to one in ten thousand.
They determined that there is a 14.4 per cent risk of bacterial infection and a 52 per cent risk of viral infection at a distance of 500 metres from a spread site if there is a light wind (11 mph) and 24-hour exposure.
This measurement is shocking in that sludge spreading routinely occurs in Ontario in conditions even more likely to trigger an infection. Spreading sometimes occurs near schools, nursing homes and other residences whose occupants may be infirm or immunosuppressed. If the researchers' model is correct, it supports the suspicions of rural people that they may indeed have been made sick by sludge spreading.
Dr. Tom Bates sat on the committee that formulated Ontario's original sewage spreading guidelines. He has written that the standards were simply educated guesses, as the science was inexact at the time. For instance, the panelists took the known average level of toxic heavy metal in ordinary soil and arbitrarily doubled it -- and that became the guideline. No standard was set for organic contaminants such as dioxin as there wasn't data back then. And no account was taken of new bacterial strains such as the E. coli that devastated Walkerton. Pathogen standards related primarily to issues of concern involving rats, and other vectors. None of the people on the original committee was an expert on pathogens, he states. He and his colleagues assumed the preliminary standards would be altered over time.
But they weren't, and their educated guesses remain the foundation of today's sludge standards. This, despite studies that show that pathogens may re-grow in sludge stored on or spread upon fields.
In conclusion, it may be that a carefully administered agricultural application program -- with independent oversight and enforceable extra safeguards -- could function as proponents hope and claim. But it's clear from the evidence that the guidelines, and the standards upon which they're based, are overdue for a detailed and impartial expert review. And it's clear that the real-world activities of sludge disposal contractors require greater oversight, if only to offer the public some peace of mind. The regulations need to be precautionary and enforced -- not a cloth that can be twisted and stretched to cover any eventuality, to make disposal easier. This is certainly not an ordinary farm practice and should be excluded from "right to farm" legislation. A stringent approach is needed that keeps sludge far away from water wells and vulnerable people.
The status quo, quite literally, stinks.
Guy Crittenden is editor-in-chief of this publication.