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May 2001 update - compiled by Helane Shields - prepared for WWW by ESRA

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Land Application of Sludge (biosolids)

The Uncensored Story

Henry J. Staudinger

I. Victimization by Forced Exposure to Land Application of Sludge


under any circumstances, especially when the extent of the pollutants is never determined. Moreover, there is little certainty that buffer restrictions are adequate or will be complied with. Furthermore, permits do not address many other local pollution potential issues such as high shrink-swell soils, rapid runoff rate soils, and soils that frequently flood.

3. Failure to Implement Current Regulatory Requirements

Even if there were adequate testing and adequate permit terms, there would still be no assurance that any given land application of sludge would be safe. Based on personal experience and review of permit files and sites, it is clear that those requirements are not always included in issued permits. For example, on the site next to our home, sludge was allowed to be land- applied over springs, on areas that did not meet minimum depth to water limitations, on areas that exceeded slope limitations, and over the top of our septic drainfield. Other permit sites investigated in Shenandoah County were also found to be in violation of numerous regulatory requirements, including failure to buffer out springs, wells, sinkholes, rock formations, streams and excessive slopes.

4. Failure to Adequately Monitor and Enforce

Even ff there were adequate testing, adequate permits terms and they were adequately implemented, there would still be no assurance that land application of sludge would be safe. There is little or no monitoring or enforcement of permit terms. Permitting agencies refuse to modify permit terms even when terms are shown to be contrary to regulatory requirements; they ignore the many violations shown in permit file documents; and they refuse to conduct meaningful investigations and testing when health complaints are made. In our case, after more than four years there has still been no effort to determine what might have been in the sludge that caused our problems. Nor has there been a decision as to whether my wife and I were interested parties, having the right to require that the issues we raised be addressed.

III Permitting Agencies Promote Rather than Protect, Making it Necessary to Look Elsewhere to Protect the Public Health and Water Quality

I have been chastised more than once by the Virginia State Water Control Board for asking that permit terms be modified to protect public health and water quality. The Board has made very clear that it has neither the authority nor the responsibility to protect public health when it issues permits; and that unless directed by specific regulatory language, cannot even protect water quality. According to the Board, this would require legislative action by the Virginia General Assembly.

I have already discussed the inability to get permitting agencies to investigate health complaints or to provide scientific support for safety claims. Yet agency personnel are readily available when needed to help market the sludge to farmers and the general public. Agency personnel will show up whenever asked to tell anyone who will listen, that sludge is safe. Those representations are made knowing full well that they don't know what is in a particular sludge; they don't have adequate regulatory authority; they don't adequately implement regulatory requirements; they fail to adequately monitor and/or enforce permit terms and conditions; and they are not able to provide scientific support for their assertions.

I have come to think of permitting agencies as sludge marketers who follow the P.T. Barnum marketing concept. This marketing concept not only misleads the public about risks associated with sludge, it also distorts actual benefits. For example, it is not made clear that the ratio of nitrogen and phosphorous in sludge is not in the ratios needed for proper crop growth. As a result, phosphorous is often applied in amounts far in excess of crop requirements, and nutrient crop needs are not always balanced. The end result is vastly overstated claims of economic benefits to farmers, and further water pollution through nutrient leaching and runoff of sludge nutrients. Some of the distortion is accomplished by falsely claiming that sludge is land applied at agronomic rates.


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