Evidence suggests that programs for spreading sewage sludge on Ontario farmland are poorly administered to the point of being dangerous. Government officials routinely sacrifice the health and property rights of rural dwellers for expedience in coping with the rising tide of exported city sewage. Strategies once touted as cautious have become a travesty.
The land application of what are euphemistically called “biosolids” has been promoted since the 1970s as a benign alternative to landfill and incineration. In theory, Ontario’s guidelines protect farm fields and groundwater from high concentrations of pathogens plus copper and other metals in sludge. In reality, sludge is not pasteurized to kill pathogens and, in the City of Toronto’s case, metals content is averaged annually. Particular batches containing high contaminant levels often end up on farm fields. Sludge is also loaded with dioxin — a suspected carcinogen. There aren’t enough environment ministry inspectors to enforce the guidelines, so sludge contractors provide their own oversight. Strangely, the legal requirement to keep sludge 300 feet from water wells is routinely cut to just 50 feet by the environment ministry.
People who complain about odours and health effects are passed from agency to agency with no outcome. Even local medical health officers shrug their shoulders in the face of a strategy that’s covered by Ontario’s “right to farm” legislation, introduced years ago to protect farmers (ironically) from nuisance complaints over dust and noise from “normal” farm operations.
With sludge the legislation has become the “right to harm.”
Enid Lipsett knows this firsthand. This summer she and her family — eyes and throats burning — fled their weekend home near Cobourg after sludge was placed on a neighbour’s farm. She rushed her 10-month-old granddaughter to hospital in the midst of an unusual respiratory seizure and intestinal attack.
Virginia Kostiuk knows, too. Last May she left her Castleton home with her developmentally delayed 4-year-old son shortly after a field was sludged across the street. The sewage, she says, was literally shot hundreds of feet in the air and volatized by sludge-application machines. The family returned when the smell subsided, only to fall ill. To this day her husband Michael sleeps upright in a chair to breathe and control the flow of mucous. When Virginia went to the hospital, the doctor who X-rayed her chest noted that her rib cage was bruised from violent coughing. The couple feels trapped in their house, which they are unable to sell.
One of the worst stories involves the Smiths (not their real names), a middle-aged couple who bought a 200-acre farm in Marmora Township in 1985. The previous owners raised pigs, so the Smiths acquired a large hog-manure lagoon with their property. After this material was removed, the province used the lagoon between about 1985 and 1995 to store dewatered sludge from the Marmora sewage treatment plant. The Smiths were never paid for this accommodation. Some of the sludge was spread on their fields, uphill from their water well.
Annual tests of the well indicated heavy metals below regulated levels. The strontium seemed high, but the Smiths were told there’s no limit for this compound. However, in 1995 Mrs. Smith began to feel ill. Her doctor sent a hair sample to Animol Labs in Concord. Analysis showed that Mrs. Smith had elevated levels of lead and barium in her system, and “enough strontium for 300 people,” the doctor said.
Strontium replaces calcium in the human body, turning bones to jelly. It may also affect the liver and hormonal system. The Smiths stopped using their well and switched to bottled water. They later learned that strontium levels in their well were more than four times higher than the provincial safety guideline. The Smiths have severely below-normal hormone levels (akin to people in their 70s) and Mrs. Smith suffers a range of maladies consistent with liver damage.
The province reluctantly performed tests on the Marmora sludge that confirmed high strontium levels. Mrs. Smith sought the help of Dr. Paul Cutler, a physician who specializes in environmental exposures. After reviewing her blood tests he asked her seriously if she lived next to a nuclear waste dump. Her urine contained huge amounts of aluminum and her future health, and that of her husband, remains in doubt.
Laurie and Allan Eagles are also familiar with Ontario’s “beneficial use” strategy for biosolids. They live with their two children in rural Oakville near a biosolids facility owned by Halton Region. The facility contains liquid-sewage containers and was expanded in the mid-1990s to include an unlined open lagoon several football fields in size that holds dewatered sludge from Toronto.
Mr. Eagles, a 27-year veteran of Toronto’s police force, was shocked when noxious vapours from the sometimes-overflowing pit destroyed his family’s quiet enjoyment of their property. The whole family now suffers from asthma-like respiratory problems, nausea, sore throats, nose bleeds and other symptoms they believe stem from the sludge lagoon emissions. Mr. Eagles lost 40 pounds last year and has developed visible lesions on his feet and skin. He has also developed Chrone’s disease, a form of irritable bowel syndrome unknown in his family though it’s normally inherited. He claims his neighbors have similar mysterious afflictions.
The couple recently launched a $2-million lawsuit against Halton Region and the contractor for the site. We can only hope that the lawsuit snaps the regulatory authorities out of their stupor. Apparently the deaths of seven people and the illness of thousands from contaminated water in Walkerton, Ontario was not enough.
Guy Crittenden is editor-in-chief of this magazine. Send your letters to: