Undisclosed Report: EPA Knew It Was Toxic. Discovery Documents Confirm the Environmental Protection Agency Knew All along That Spreading of Sewage on Farmland Led to Toxins in Groundwater. (Nation: Backyard Danger)

Article excerpt

A fight for independence once again is centered on Pennsylvania. Small-town opponents of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) biosolids program are seeking legislative independence from what started as a governmental solution for a hazardous-waste problem. That solution, according to EPA's own findings, is a deadly one.

In 1981 the federal government began its shift from regarding sewage sludge from urban wastewater-treatment plants as a pollutant to promoting it for rural land as fertilizer, which later would be called "biosolids." This suited politically correct notions of ecological balance: cleaning America's waters by recycling human waste into food for humanity. Angry farmers and rural residents with little use for ideological instruction on the quiet pleasures of ecology may be forgiven if they regard land application of urban sewage sludge as hit-and-run dumping of hazardous wastes in the countryside.

Meanwhile, companies that earn millions from contracts to haul the residue from wastewater-treatment plants to disposal sites assure government-wary farm families that, when managed properly, Class B sludge can be handled very safely and that it is good for the soil. Industry representatives insist it is treated according to government standards so that pathogens largely are removed, but rural residents--inured to the smells of farm animals and their manure--sometimes describe the stink of sewage sludge dumped on the land as "horrific."

Documents obtained by INSIGHT now confirm that EPA and other federal agencies have been aware all along that stench is not the only issue with biosolids [see "Sludge Mess in EPA's Back Yard," March 25, and "Will EPA Clean Up Its Sludge Policy?" Feb. 25]. As allegations mount of illness and deaths related to aerosol/zed emissions from sludge applied to land, officials at both the federal and state levels will be called on to tell what they knew, when they knew it and why they didn't do anything about it.

Discovery documents obtained from the EPA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) by the National Whistle-blower Center, and analyzed by INSIGHT, show that the EPA has known about widespread groundwater contamination from sewage sludge perhaps since the early 1980s. In fact the documents show that EPA's Biosolids Management and Enforcement team asked EPA's Region Eight biosolids coordinator to document "biosolids horror stories." The request elicited a list of sites where groundwater has been contaminated by land-applied sludge.

The documents indicate that, because of its high nitrate composition, elevated nitrate levels in groundwater near sludged fields can be used to indicate contamination from sewage sludge. The EPA was informed that other contaminants from sewage sludge, such as toxic organic chemicals, heavy metals, and bacteria and viruses also are leaching into the groundwater. Indeed, EPA officials were told in a Region Eight memo in May 1999 that wells at seven of the 11 sludge sites tested for groundwater contamination had more than twice the maximum contamination level (MCL) allowed for nitrates in drinking water, which is 10 milligrams per liter or 10 parts per million.

Wells in Springfield, Ill., and Orlington, Minn., had as much as 15-20 times the MCL for nitrate. Samples of water in the soil column at two other sites--Lisbon, Maine, and Torres-Martinez Indian Reservation in California--had 30 to 120 times the MCL. The Lisbon site, officials reported, is 10 miles from Lewiston, Maine, and the Torres-Martinez site is three miles from Mecca, Calif.

The data collected indicated a widespread groundwater-contamination problem. A summary of the documents explained that some of the data showed elevated nitrate levels where groundwater samples were taken up-gradient and down-gradient of the sludged fields, as well as before and after sludge was applied.

One table listing information on sites with groundwater contamination from sludge shows that EPA and state officials were well-aware of the proximity of the contaminated groundwater to populated areas. …

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