In 1993 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attempted to perform "sludge magic," changing its description of the wastewater dregs that settle from households, hospitals, factories and morgues by announcing that, thanks to the agency, this no longer was pollution but beneficial "biosolids." Now these sediments have settled into a mess in EPA's back yard. Everyone from oversight boards to citizen activists is crying foul. Meanwhile, the industry endorsed and created by EPA policy is heavily invested and left to defend itself against the public outcry.
To a casual observer, the controversy over EPA's sewage-sludge-as-fertilizer policy might prompt remarks about the unintended consequences of bureaucratic good intentions. Others might enjoy seeing the self-righteous EPA under scrutiny for polluting the public.
Pointing fingers at the EPA are a skeptical public, government auditors and scientific boards -- all demanding a full accounting of how an agency of environmental protectors arrived at a sludge policy that encourages the spreading of toxic substances on the land. Faced with stubborn air- and water-pollution problems, as well as a 1972 Clean Water Act mandate to stop ocean dumping, an EPA short on resources but thick with regulatory authority did the environmental equivalent of a Hail Mary pass. The EPA began promoting increasing levels of nonpoint pollution -- sewage sludge with nowhere to go -- as a benefit to the environment.
In a 1978 report to Congress titled Sewage Sludge -- How Do We Cope With It?, General Accounting Office (GAO) officials detailed how environmental legislation and rules evolved to create the situation. "Coping with rapidly increasing volumes of sewage sludge, a potentially toxic substance, is a nationwide problem," the GAO warned. That was nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Some methods of sludge disposal already were being phased out because of environmentalist pressure, and others increasingly were restricted by governmental regulations. To compound the problem, the GAO continued, "the lack of scientific data on environmental and health effects of sludge disposal, unproven technology and high costs have hampered development and implementation of new techniques which could use sludge beneficially."
According to the GAO report, disposal of sewage sludge would have been simple if the stuff contained only nutrients. "For example, it could be disposed of in the ocean or used as a fertilizer on land without much of a problem since it would be relatively nontoxic. However, industrial waste discharges into municipal sewer systems can add large amounts of heavy metals and other harmful compounds to the wastewater, increasing the toxicity of sewage sludge and thereby restricting sludge use."
Similarly, in 1983, participants at an EPA workshop on pathogen risks also expressed concern that more science was needed to assess adequately the health impacts associated with land-applied sludge. "Much research has been conducted examining movement of pathogens in soil, especially in context of groundwater contamination. Most of that effort, however, has not focused on biosolids land-application sites. There does not appear to be good, scientifically based guidance to address questions such as minimum depth to groundwater at a biosolids land-application site," the officials indicated.
Furthermore, in a 1990 congressional report on EPA water-pollution efforts in this area, the GAO noted that the information needed to measure EPA's evaluation often was missing. GAO officials reported that this "was aggravated by reductions in environmental monitoring activities and problems with the quality of data that are collected."
But none of those concerns so much as dampened EPA's enthusiasm or stopped it from promoting the "beneficial use of biosolids" in its 1993 regulations based largely on computer models, data from the industry and programs EPA created. …