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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


During my research, I attempted to understand how such a lack of accountability and disregard of potential liabilities could have developed within the industry. I concluded that while there are a number of contributing factors, perhaps the direct marketing role played by permitting agencies is a significant factor. I suspect that the ongoing misrepresentations by those agencies has lulled some into a false sense of security. The success in keeping hidden the full list of pollutants in a particular land application cannot be disregarded as another important factor. The mistaken belief that permits can be used as shields when health and property damage complaints are made, is another possibility.

This situati on will not last. More people are experiencing health problems, and their complaints are being ignored. The public is beginning to become aware of the problem, and the failure of the permit system to protect them. As science develops it will become much easier for victims to demonstrate land sludge applications to be the cause of their health problems and property damages.

Because of the failure of companies and municipalities to assure that health and property are not injured, gross negligence may well apply. Where there has been a refusal to address health complaints and to take corrective action, the possibility of criminal responsibility is real. Class actions as well as punitive damages may well become the norm.

The types of damages are varied. Property damage may range from contaminated soil to contaminated drinking water (necessitating the development of rural water districts), to unmarketability of property, to just plain nuisances. Injury to person may range from minor to serious illnesses to loss of life.

To add insult to injury, many of the companies and municipalities that land-apply may become their own victim. This is especially true when land applications are made in areas where companies and municipalities also depend on quality sources of water. The cost to install needed treatment facilities to provide quality water could be yet another cost when sludge is land-applied. Some companies could even be forced to close because of those costs.

It would be prudent for each and every generator to assess its obligations and to implement changes that will protect not only the public, but themselves as well. Short term, I believe the only safe course would be to dispose of sludge through landfilling or incineration. Only when a meaningful determination is made that it can be land-applied without violating applicable laws should resumption of land applications be considered.

For companies and municipalities that wish to land-apply sludge in the future, much work is needed to determine if it can be done in a manner consistent with all legal and moral obligations. To this end, I would recommend that permitting agencies be contacted to help develop appropriate policies and practices. In recognition of the inadequate funding of permitting agencies, the industry should be prepared to fund much of that effort. After all, it is the industry that is at risk, and it may be the only way to protect itself and merit public support.

For those of you who would scoff at the idea you have real risks, you need only look around the country to see what is happening. I will give you just one example" recent lawsuits in Augusta, Georgia alleging that land-applied sludge slowly poisoned cattle and land, has led to a special investigation by the National Ombudsman. The Augusta investigation could well be a window through which EPA is forced to re-examine its own national policies governing the use of sludge as fertilizer. Consider the possibility that one of you might be the next target of a truly independent investigation?

V. Odors: The Nuisance Factor

Odors are the primary focus of this seminar. Much of my earlier discussion relates to background information needed to better understand how odors and the resulting nuisance could serve as a basis for the courts to terminate most of the land applications of sludge. It should be remembered that no land sludge application may be made lawfully it causes a nuisance, either public or


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