Will EPA Clean Up Its Sludge Policy? the EPA Publicly Promotes Treated Human Sewage as a Safe Fertilizer for Cropland, but Internally Officials Have Raised Concerns about Gaps in the Agency's Research. (Nation: Agriculture)

Article excerpt

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) runs a biosolids program that aggressively promotes the use of treated human sewage as a safe fertilizer for cropland. Since INSIGHT's comprehensive review of the health impacts of that practice, the debate about the safety of using human sewage on cropland has escalated. Now, internal EPA documents obtained by INSIGHT's indicate that the agency's public confidence about the safety of its sludge policy may not square with results its own experts are reporting internally.

These documents confirm INSIGHT'S original reports ("Toxic Waste Used As Fertilizer?" May 15, 2000; "Sludge Excuses Still Stink," May 29, 2000; and "EPA's Secret Role in Toxic Sludge," July 24, 2000). The controversy has spread beyond the David-and-Goliath battle between a dubious public and rural landowners who fear they have been lied to versus the needs of EPA and the mammoth companies that treat municipal waste and need to dump their sludge somewhere acceptable to the powerful environmentalists. Throughout the country the sludge industry is being hit with antisludge lawsuits and sludge bans. Deaths and disease are being alleged, and the first wrongful-death lawsuit implicating the land application of sewage sludge has ended with a settlement by the sludgers.

Joanne and Thomas Marshall, the parents of Shayne Conner, a 26-year-old New Hampshire man who died of a respiratory infection after sludge was dumped in his neighborhood, settled for an undisclosed amount with sludge hauler Synagro Inc. in January. The original complaint was filed against the parent company of Maryland-based Bio-Gro Inc., which Synagro acquired in 2000 as these problems began to surface. As a condition of the settlement, the family has agreed to say nothing further about it.

But Synagro paid, so its executives can say what they like. In a Jan. 8 statement, the sludge hauler claimed it had reached "a favorable settlement" in a case that "never had a sound scientific or medical basis." Synagro's release included a carefully crafted statement attributed to Joanne Marshall that was incorporated into the settlement agreement: "The science developed in this case did not prove that the sewage sludge Synagro's predecessor applied on the Hughes Field in Greenland, New Hampshire, in October 1995 caused or contributed to Shayne Conner's death, nor did the science prove that the sewage sludge caused any of the injuries or illnesses the other residents of Tuttle Lane allegedly suffered."

Fine. Then what about the check? "Some people have asked us, `Why did you settle this case?'" Synagro Executive Vice President and General Counsel Alvin Thomas tells INSIGHT. "I felt very comfortable that we would win this case if it went to trial. But [would I] be better off having a jury say we win and having the mother at that point potentially be antagonized and still be willing to carry the fight forward?"

Although the Marshalls agreed not to speak about the settlement when they took Synagro's money, a review of court records shows that during the case they filed a motion to protect the testimony of David Lewis, an EPA scientist who was testifying as a private scientific expert called by the Marshalls. In the protective order, the Marshalls accused Synagro of "conducting a long-term smear campaign against Dr. Lewis because he is critical of dumping sewage sludge near residential communities." Court papers show that Thomas sent letters to Lewis' employers, the EPA and the University of Georgia, denouncing his agreement to serve as an expert witness in the Marshall case while on an Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) assignment.

Even acknowledging the repeated emphasis by Lewis that he was not speaking for the EPA about sludge policy, Synagro's lawyers strongly resisted his appearance as a privately retained witness for the plaintiffs. Synagro is "hampered in its defense because Dr. Lewis, a 30-year EPA veteran, is attacking both the credibility and merits of EPA's 503 [sludge-disposal] rules in his opinions. …