Details Regarding Protect Mill Canyon Watershed’s Objections to the Land Application of Sewage Sludge by a Neighboring Farm

We have compiled a document (below) that goes into detail laying out our objections to the Mill Canyon permit application (that we have since defeated) and the disposal of sewage sludge on agricultural lands in general. Protect Mill Canyon Watershed maintains the position that sewage sludge should never be released into the environment and that the practice of applying sewage sludge to agricultural and forest lands in Washington should be ended. Protect Mill Canyon Watershed advocates for a statewide moratorium on future permits for the land application of sewage sludge.Support the
Washington Sewage Sludge Moratorium!

On Sept. 6, 2017, we announced our call for an immediate moratorium on approving any more sewage sludge permits to dispose of sewage sludge on agricultural land until the regulations catch up to the science.
Press conference was recorded.

Go HERE to send your message to Governor Inslee
and Ecology Director Bellon: Impose a moratorium now!

We have compiled a new document that goes into greater detail laying out our objections to the disposal of sewage sludge on agricultural lands. Go HERE to study our detailed objections.


Residents who live in an area near Davenport, Washington called Mill Canyon feel threatened by proposals to spread municipal sewage sludge on nearly 900 acres of nearby agricultural land uphill from where they live, garden and farm. The area in question includes their natural watershed. Local citizens are alarmed and are organizing to prevent a permit application to dump the sludge from being approved. The sewage sludge would cause contamination of their drinking and irrigation water supplies. Soil containing sludge would mobilize via water and wind erosion and migrate into the canyon. Pollutant contaminants from the sludge would end up in the air from blowing dust, a condition that is common in the canyon, and settle in their lungs, on their soil and on their crops.

Canyon residents, with support from the Sierra Club, the Columbia Institute for Water Policy and the Northwest Fund for the Environment, have formed a committee called “Protect Mill Canyon Watershed” to publicize the crisis they are facing. They demand that the permit application to apply sewage sludge be denied.

They want the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) to deny the pending permit application it currently has under consideration that would allow sewage sludge to be spread on neighboring land because:

  • Hundreds of industrial, pharmaceutical and organic pollutant contaminants are known to be present in sewage sludge but are completely ignored by state regulators who routinely approve sewage sludge land application permits based solely on whether concentrations of only nine metals (Arsenic, Cadmium, Copper, Lead, Mercury, Molybdenum, Nickel, Selenium and Zinc) are within its arbitrarily-set parameters for those metals;
  • There are virtually no controls in place to limit the introduction of any pollutant into municipal sewage systems. No sewage sludge regulatory regime could possibly make provisions to adequately protect the public and the environment from harm since it is impossible to know the exact composition of any given batch of sludge or the kinds or concentrations of pollutant contaminants it contains;
  • Antibiotic resistant bacteria and mobile antibiotic resistance genes are present in sewage sludge. Sewage sludge is a conducive environment for bacteria to reproduce in, raising the threat of antibiotic resistant human pathogen strains developing in and migrating from sludge-treated soils into the environment putting human and non-human life at risk;
  • Existing arbitrary, contradictory and inadequate regulations governing the land application of sewage sludge encourage the build-up of toxic heavy metals in soils in violation of state and federal law, especially when waste-derived fertilizers are used in conjunction with sewage sludge. The situation is compounded because testing soils for metals accumulation is not required and this could easily lead to unsafe and illegal concentrations, but no one would know;
  • The Cornell Waste Management Institute Center for the Environment investigated alleged health incidents associated with land application of sewage sludges. “Symptoms of more than 328 people involved in 39 incidents in 15 states are described. Investigation and tracking of the incidents by agencies is poor. Only one of 10 EPA regions provided substantial information on the incidents in their region. Investigations, when conducted, focused on compliance with regulations. No substantial health-related investigations were conducted by federal, state, or local officials. A system for tracking and investigation is needed. Analysis of the limited data suggests that surface-applied Class B sludges present the greatest risk and should be eliminated,” the Cornell researchers reported;
  • In the Mill Canyon permit application (as well as dozens of similar applications around the state), DOE erroneously certified that it has “determined that this proposal does not have a probable significant impact on the environment, [therefore an] environmental impact statement (EIS) is not required.” DOE based its determination on a flawed, incorrect and incomplete State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) Checklist provided by the vendor seeking the permit. DOE failed to adequately scrutinize the submitted SEPA checklist. In making its determination, DOE also exhibited willful disregard of the science that has emerged in the decades since sewage sludge land application was initiated in the 1970’s. Environmental Impact Statements should be prepared for every General Permit for Biosolids Management;
  • The requirement that the vendor develop a “groundwater protection plan” to monitor for any groundwater contamination resulting from sewage sludge application was improperly waived in the Mill Canyon permit application because an adequate, detailed hydrologic survey was not performed;
  • Much of the land near Mill Canyon where sewage sludge is proposed to be deposited is perched above the canyon and its waterways. It is all prone to erosion. A large proportion of it is classified by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service as “Highly Erodible Land,” a classification that renders those areas prohibited for sludge application. Soil scientists warn that the area is the worst place to experiment with “biosolids” as a soil amendment;
  • Numerous irregularities, omissions and incomplete responses are present in the permit application for land application of sewage sludge near Mill Canyon which call into question DOE’s capacity and desire to adequately administer the entire state sludge program in fulfillment of its mission to “protect, preserve and enhance Washington’s environment for current and future generations.”

Sewage sludge has been euphemistically given the name “biosolids” by industry lobbyists, legislators and regulators who promote as “beneficial” the dubious practice of disposing of sludge as purported “fertilizer” on farms, forests, parks, playgrounds and home gardens. Phrases like “Biosolids are the ultimate in recycling,” “Biosolids are a beneficial resource,” “Properly managed municipal sewage sludge is a valuable commodity and can be beneficially used in agriculture” and “land application of biosolids is a widely used, practical option” abound in almost any official government document on the subject. It is a classic case of attempting to repeat a lie (or at the very least, an unsubstantiated claim) in order to insinuate truth. Protect Mill Canyon Watershed is working to shed light on the dangerous fallacy that sewage sludge should continue be allowed to be spread on land in the 21st century. Sewage sludge has always been and continues to be a toxic solid waste entirely and uniquely inappropriate for release into the environment. Sewage sludge is, in fact, so toxic that provisions for its responsible disposal should rival those of nuclear waste disposal. This is not hyperbole.

Since the 1970’s, both government and industry have doggedly promoted and defended the practice of disposing of sewage sludge by applying it to land as “beneficial” despite mounting evidence of clear and present dangers associated with the practice. They have persistently bullied knowledgeable opponents and railroaded the continued utilization of sewage sludge as “fertilizer.” Over the years, countless individuals and communities have risen in opposition to land application of sewage sludge and the official response has always been a brick wall. Opponents have been bankrupted by court challenges and have had local ordinances limiting or prohibiting sewage sludge vacated by laws preventing them from exercising local control. It is one of the most glaring examples of the incestuous and undemocratic relationship between powerful corporations and government at the expense of public health and safety.

Pollutant Contaminants

It is not difficult to cite numerous recent scientific studies showing sewage sludge to be contaminated with hundreds of toxic industrial, pharmaceutical and organic chemicals that are unregulated and ignored by the regulatory agencies who are charged with protecting human and environmental health in the state of Washington. DOE issues permits for the land application of sewage sludge and has for decades looked the other way as contaminants in sewage sludge have been deposited on, and in many cases, are likely accumulating in, the soils on which they are spread. This misguided practice introduces these pollutants into ecosystems, watersheds and residential communities that the agency is charged with safeguarding. Protect Mill Canyon Watershed contends this is due to stubborn, blind adherence by DOE to a very narrow reading of the federal and state rules which govern sewage sludge. Mill Canyon residents believe DOE’s refusal to acknowledge emerging scientific data on the multitude of pollutants that have been shown to contaminate sewage sludge or incorporate this knowledge into its regulations, or include it in its deliberations when assessing sewage sludge permit applications, is evidence of DOE’s bending to heavy political pressure from the powerful waste treatment industry. In the 1970’s, the waste treatment industry created a lucrative business opportunity for itself when its lobbyists wrote provisions into the federal Clean Water Act to create the sewage sludge industry. Ocean dumping was being phased out, sewage treatment was being mandated and millions of tons of sewage sludge were poised to be produced annually for the foreseeable future and beyond. The waste treatment industry envisioned the mountain of sludge as a money-maker and wrote into the law:

“…projects shall demonstrate the engineering and economic feasibility and practicality of …  using sewage sludge materials and other municipal wastes to … restore affected lands to usefulness for forestry, agriculture, recreation, or other beneficial purposes.

Today the industry has grown into a giant and it is determined to continue to dispose of its toxic sludge by dispersing it into our landscape and making a profit on it when they can regardless of the science that points to an unacceptably high degree of risk. The politics behind all this prevent the EPA from revising its sludge regulations despite strong criticisms of its lax rules, Code of Federal Regulations, Title 40, Part 503, under Section 405d of the Clean Water Act. In 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was taken to task in a report by the National Academy of Sciences called “Biosolids Applied to Land: Advancing Standards and Practices” that was critical of the EPA’s approach to regulating sewage sludge.  One of the study’s conclusions was stated as follows:

“There is no documented scientific evidence that the Part 503 rule has failed to protect public health. However, additional scientific work is needed to reduce persistent uncertainty about the potential for adverse human health effects from exposure to biosolids. There have been anecdotal allegations of disease, and many scientific advances have occurred since the Part 503 rule was promulgated [in 1993]. To assure the public and to protect public health, there is a critical need to update the scientific basis of the rule to (1) ensure that the chemical and pathogen standards are supported by current scientific data and risk-assessment methods, (2) demonstrate effective enforcement of the Part 503 rule, and (3) validate the effectiveness of biosolids-management practices.” [Lack of scientific evidence does not mean public health has not been affected or is not at risk, but it is a convenient way agencies like DOE and EPA dodge their responsibility to act responsibly. Political pressures have worked to prevent serious scientific inquiry into this issue area.]

To date, the EPA has not substantially revised its sewage sludge land application regulations despite the above exhortation to do so.

State governments like Washington’s draft their own regulations for sewage sludge use and must follow the EPA lead. Instead of leading, the EPA is paralyzed by industry interference. EPA’s resistance to changing its totally inadequate, decades-old sludge regulations seems insurmountable despite new scientific data on pollutants and other problems with sludge. The states, however, are not mandated to allow sewage sludge to be used as “fertilizer” despite the pressures to do so.

DOE has not yet approved the permit application by Fire Mountain Farms, Inc. (FMF), a company in the business of sewage sludge disposal, to spread sewage sludge on farmland near Mill Canyon. The official comment period for the permit application closed almost a year ago, but Mill Canyon residents continue to insist that DOE deny the permit. They have provided DOE with detailed official comments explaining why they do not want sewage sludge applied to those lands. Unfortunately, DOE has a history of approving such permit applications despite strong scientific evidence that the practice is not safe for human health or the health of the environment, and even though, in the case of the Mill Canyon proposal, topographic and weather-related conditions, including increasing frequency of catastrophic flooding, contribute to a high risk that sewage sludge and its constituent pollutant contaminants will migrate off the grain fields into the air, soil and waters of the canyon where they live, garden and farm.

Under the current sewage sludge rules (where, pathetically, only 9 pollutants out of a potential 80,000+ anthropogenic chemicals are tested for or regulated,) a shipment of “biosolids” must be re-classified as “solid waste” and as such “may not be applied to the land” if concentrations of any one of the nine pollutants listed is a few parts per million above the arbitrarily-set limit for that pollutant (Washington Administrative Code 173-308-160 – Biosolids pollutant limits).  Clearly, it must be acknowledged that the presence of pharmaceutical, industrial and organic pollutants in sewage sludge at the concentrations that have been detected in the few studies that have been conducted, render it a solid waste already. Failure to acknowledge this can only be interpreted as willful negligence.

The following pollutant types have been identified by American[1] and Canadian[2] government scientists in sewage sludge. The list is incomplete because, as the scientists who conducted sewage sludge sampling studies acknowledge, the sheer multitude of potential pollutant chemicals cannot be fully assessed due to budgetary and technical constraints.

Alkylphenolic compounds including Bisphenol A (BPA) [toxic tin can linings and epoxy resins], Alkylphenols, Alkylbenzenesulfonates and Alkylphenol Ethoxylates [synthetic surfactants used in some detergents and cleaning products], Classical Analytes [Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, etc.], Heavy Metals, Pesticides, Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (insect repellents, sunscreens, parabens, organic siloxanes, fabric softeners, fluorescent whitening agents, etc.), Plasticizers [Phthalates, etc.], Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers and Perfluorinated Organic Compounds [used in Teflon, water resistant textiles and fire-fighting foam and flame retardants], Prions [ causative agent in bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)—known popularly as “mad cow disease” and human prion diseases such as Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD)], Steroids and Hormones.

The EPA and Canadian government agencies tested for a broad range of sewage sludge pollutants during two studies that were conducted between 2005 and 2009. The EPA’s federal rules for land application of sewage sludge, which states must adopt as a baseline for sewage sludge regulation at the state level where permits are issued, only require testing sewage sludge for nine pollutants when it’s destined for land application: Arsenic, Cadmium, Copper, Lead, Mercury, Molybdenum, Nickel, Selenium and Zinc. No testing for the other numerous known pollutants is done before sewage sludge is spread on land. Consequently, any amount of any one or more of the long list of pollutants is very likely present in any given load of sludge at unknown concentrations which may vary widely from one load to the next. Regulators cannot test sewage sludge for unknown pollutants. It cannot be known which of the 80,000+ chemicals used in industry might have been introduced into a waste water source feeding a municipal wastewater treatment facility.

The aforementioned studies indicate that when wastewater goes through a treatment plant and is processed into reclaimed water and sludge (the two main ‘products’ of wastewater treatment), the concentrations of many of the pollutants in the final treated water were lower than the original, untreated wastewater. An EPA study of treated wastewater (that deliberately did not sample the sludges that were also being produced at the treatment plants that were sampled in the study) stated “the extent that the concentration differences represent biological and/or chemical degradation [during the treatment process] versus partitioning to sludges is not known.” ‘Partitioning to sludges’ means ‘what ended up in the sludge’. It can be assumed that a lot of pollutants end up concentrating in the sludge, but there’s no way of knowing which ones or how much. How can it possibly be justifiable to spread such sludge on land that grows our food[3], feeds our livestock and drains into our watersheds? There are other methods to manage sludge disposal that are more environmentally friendly and safer.

Antibiotic Resistant Pathogenic Bacteria

Both Class A and Class B “biosolids” harbor pathogenic and benign bacteria, class B more so than class A. Class B sludge is what is commonly spread on agricultural and forest soils. Multiple pathogenic bacteria are normally present since human and livestock excreta form a major constituent of sewage sludge. Under DOE regulations, only one or two bacteria types are tested for, fecal coliform and/or salmonella, as indicators of the general bacterial load of a given batch of sludge and whether fecal coliform and/or salmonella or other human pathogens might or might not be present in numbers that pose a human health risk. Actual testing of samples of “biosolids” to measure how many of the two indicator types of bacteria are present is optional. Instead, companies that supply or spread sewage sludge often utilize one or more additional processing steps such as aerobic digestion, composting or adding lime (to alter the sludge pH) that are provided for in the regulations as options in place of sampling and testing. It is assumed by DOE that populations of the indicator bacteria types will be reduced to statutorily acceptable levels by these additional processing steps, but those bacteria types are still often detectable in the final product and other pathogens such as Streptococcus and Clostridium may be present as well in sewage sludge applied to land. Such pathogens have been shown to continue to reproduce after sewage sludge has been applied to land.

Also present in sewage sludge as pollutant contaminants originating from domestic, hospital and livestock wastewaters are varying measurable amounts of antibiotics of different kinds.

Not addressed in sludge regulation is the obvious threat to public health of encouraging the development of multi-antibiotic resistant pathogenic bacteria populations as a consequence of mixing human pathogens, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and various antibiotics in a nutrient-rich substrate (the sludge) and depositing this mixture into the environment through the land application.

Scientific studies are beginning to raise cautionary flags about this threat (two such studies are quoted from below), but the land disposal of sewage sludge in Washington State continues full speed ahead with no indications that measures to minimize or eliminate the risk of multiple-antibiotic resistant human pathogens developing in soils and posing a risk to humans living near treated fields and forests are even on regulators’ radars.

“Antibiotics accumulate in the soils after repeated application of biosolids. Fluoroquinolones showed stronger accumulation and persistence in the test soils than the other three classes of antibiotics [measured in the study] … Because of their persistence, the fluoroquinolones must be taken into account in the planning of biosolid applications in agricultural practice.”
        –Dissipation of antibiotics in three different agricultural soils after repeated application of biosolids. 2016 Available from:

“Municipal biosolids (MBs) that are land-applied in North America are known to possess an active microbial population that can include human pathogens. Activated sludge is a hotspot for the accumulation of antibiotics and has been shown to be a selective environment for microorganisms that contain antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs); however, the prevalence of ARGs in MBs is not well characterized … [Sampled municipal biosolids’] metagenomes [all the genetic material present in an environmental sample, consisting of the genomes of many individual organisms] contained antibiotic resistance genes associated with resistance to a variety of antibiotics.”
        –Metagenomic Comparison of Antibiotic Resistance Genes Associated with Liquid and Dewatered Biosolids. 2016 Available from:

The emergence of antibiotic resistance in human pathogens is one of the most serious threats faced by humanity in the 21st century. To approve the permit for municipal sewage sludge to be land applied near Mill Canyon with the knowledge that sewage sludge is a likely breeding ground for antibiotic resistant bacteria is irresponsible.

Heavy Metals

In 1998, after a citizens’ action campaign that came about because of a major scandal exposing the practice of selling heavy metal-contaminated toxic industrial waste to farmers as fertilizer in Washington[4] (in some cases, paying the farmers to allow the “fertilizer” to be applied to their land) and subsequent poisoning of soil, livestock deaths and human illnesses and deaths from cancer and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis suspected to have been caused by the toxic “fertilizer”, the Washington State legislature passed the “Fertilizer Regulation Act” making Washington the first state to take heavy metals into account when regulating fertilizers. The intent of the citizens who advocated for the legislation was to strengthen the state’s fertilizer adulteration laws to protect human health and the environment by ensuring that all fertilizers meet standards for allowable metals, allowing fertilizer purchasers and users to know about the contents of fertilizer products and clarifying the department of ecology’s oversight authority over waste-derived fertilizers. The citizens intended the legislation to provide better information to the public on fertilizers, soils, and potential health effects by authorizing additional studies on plant uptake of metals and levels of dioxins in soils and products. After much back and forth among citizen advocates, waste disposal corporations and law-makers, what the legislature came up with is a far from perfect law that leaves the door wide open for toxic accumulations of heavy metals in soils even when the rules are followed. The struggle to get this legislation passed was only the beginning of a continuing effort on the part of concerned citizens to bring some sanity and scientific responsibility to what goes onto our soils and into our foods, water systems and atmosphere. As the current debate over the land application of sewage sludge illustrates, the struggle is far from over.

Under the Fertilizer Regulation law, farmers may apply any number of different waste-derived fertilizers on the same land in a single year. For each separate product, they could apply the maximum amount of the nine “metals of concern” allowed to be added to the soil for that year for each product. That is, based on the label analysis of each product considered separately, regardless of the contribution of metals present in the other products. Those maximum amounts of metals can be repeated year after year. This is a recipe for very high levels of toxic metals to accumulate in the soil, legally, even though the concentrations achieved could be illegal. To make matters worse, biosolids, which are regulated under a separate law and a separate set of rules, could also be applied to the same ground without taking into account the amounts of metals added to the soil by the other waste-derived fertilizers. Instead of a yearly maximum of metal accumulation limits, as is the case with waste-derived fertilizers, biosolids have a maximum allowable amount of accumulation, called the “cumulative pollutant loading rate.” If, by extrapolation of the levels of the nine toxic metals contained in the biosolids (obtained by testing the biosolids) multiplied by the amount of biosolids applied to a piece of land, the cumulative pollutant load of any one of those metals reaches the maximum amount allowed by law, no more biosolids would be allowed to be deposited on that land. However, the maximum cumulative pollutant loads allowed are high enough, and the maximum amounts of toxic metals allowed to be present in biosolids are low enough, that biosolids in most cases could be applied to the same piece of ground for many years to come. What this all adds up to is the continual deposition of toxic metals to soils by both the application of biosolids and waste-derived fertilizers, not to mention the many other pollutant contaminants that could be present in both the waste-derived fertilizers and the biosolids.

Because nowhere is it required, under either waste-derived fertilizer or biosolids rules that actual testing of the soil is performed to assess the soil concentrations of the nine toxic metals, there is no way to know how much the real-life soil concentrations are. Those concentrations could easily become dangerously high as a result of the compounding of metals introduced to the soils since each product’s maximum allowable accumulation is measured independently. Add to this the fact that no other pollutant contaminants are regulated or tested for. There is no way of knowing how much those other contaminants are accumulating. The limits on metals have no bearing on whether the amounts of other pollutant contaminants in biosolids are being introduced into the soil in safe concentrations.

The Fertilizer Regulation Act mandates limits for nine “metals of concern,” Arsenic, Cadmium, Cobalt, Mercury, Molybdenum, Nickel, Lead, Selenium and Zinc. It limits the concentration of each metal of concern that can be present in a “waste-derived fertilizer” and sets limits for how much of each metal, in pounds per acre, may be applied to land per year (calculated by multiplying the products’ maximum application rate– usually taken directly from the fertilizer label– by the amount of each metal in the product).

The Fertilizer Regulation Act in most cases does not apply to “biosolids” which, unless certain conditions are met, are prohibited from being labeled a fertilizer (and are not included in the state’s definition of a “soil amendment,” as per the Solid Waste Management, Reduction and Recycling Act, Chapter 70.95 RCW). Biosolids that do not meet the definition for commercial fertilizer must include a legible and conspicuous disclaimer on their labeling. The disclaimer must specifically state that the product is not a commercial fertilizer, and that any nutrient claims are estimates or averages and are not guaranteed (§16-200-703 Washington Administrative Code ((WAC))). Despite the prohibition against most land-applied biosolids being labeled as fertilizer or being defined as a soil amendment, on their main biosolids web page, DOE has no qualms about referring to biosolids as an “important recycled product [that] can be used as a fertilizer and soil amendment on agricultural land, forests, mine and land reclamation sites.” DOE goes on to claim biosolids are “a valuable resource because they contain important nutrients for plant growth and soil fertility such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and organic matter as well as essential nutrients such as copper, iron, molybdenum, and zinc” (the latter two are among the nine “metals of concern”).

In fact, much of the language DOE uses on its main bio-solids web page is inaccurate and misleading. The first paragraph starts out by saying “The average person in the United States uses approximately 100 gallons of water per day – washing hands, dishes, laundry, prepping food, showering, etc. Unless they use a septic system, all of this water is piped to their local wastewater treatment plant for processing,” leaving the impression on the part of the reader that the only source of biosolids is domestic sewage and wastewater, which is very wrong. DOE continues to develop this misconception by saying “Biosolids are not poop. They may have started out as poop, but through treatment processes they are refined and become a stable and valuable source of nutrients that feed and improve soil to support plant life and crops.” All this is misleading because DOE deliberately leaves out any mention of industrial, medical or factory farm waste streams that also make up major proportions of the source materials that end up as biosolids coming out of wastewater treatment facilities and that are responsible for the bulk of the toxic pollutant contaminants that cause many people great concern when biosolids are applied to land.

The Washington State legislature and the Department of Ecology tie themselves up in knots in their efforts to separate the regulation of sewage sludge for land application (biosolids) from their regulation of waste-derived fertilizers, yet both biosolids and waste-derived fertilizers are subject to federal and state limitations related the concentration of heavy metals in them and how much heavy metals may be released into soil. They do this knot-tying to make it easier for disposal companies to spread biosolids on the land. Remember, government’s main objective is the disposal of a waste product with potential economic benefit to industry, not fertilization. It is similar to how the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) solved some companies’ nuclear waste disposal problems by allowing the waste to be broadly distributed among the populace in the form of millions of smoke detectors that each contain a small amount of radioactive material. The NRC declared the use of the radioactive waste in this manner as “beneficial” despite reputable claims to the contrary.[5] The Washington legislature took the same approach with sewage sludge.

What are the dangers of the accumulation of the nine “metals of concern” in soil? Metals applied to soil can be taken up in food crops that people eat, can migrate into surface and ground waters and can end up in the air because of wind erosion. Detrimental effects can happen to livestock, wild animals, soil-inhabiting micro- and macro-organisms, aquatic life, plants and trees as well as humans. The following synopsis of human heavy metal toxicity is taken largely from Wikipedia for illustrative purposes:

Arsenic: Long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking-water is mainly related to increased risks of skin cancer, but also some other cancers, as well as other skin lesions such as hyperkeratosis and pigmentation changes. Occupational exposure to arsenic, primarily by inhalation, is causally associated with lung cancer. Arsenic increases the risk of cancer. Exposure is related to skin, lung, liver, and kidney cancer among others.

Cadmium: Recent data indicate that adverse health effects of cadmium exposure may occur at lower exposure levels than previously anticipated, primarily in the form of kidney damage but possibly also bone effects and fractures. Cadmium is under preliminary research for its toxicity in humans, potentially affecting mechanisms and risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis.

Copper: Chronically elevated levels of copper intake produces zinc deficiency. Long-term copper exposure can damage the liver and kidneys. There is a lot of research going on regarding the function of the copper/zinc ratio in many conditions, neurological, endocrinological and psychological. Copper toxicity in mammals includes effects such as liver cirrhosis, necrosis in kidneys and the brain, gastrointestinal distress, lesions, low blood pressure, and fetal mortality. Elevated free copper levels exist in Alzheimer’s disease.

Lead: Lead is a highly poisonous metal (whether inhaled or swallowed), affecting almost every organ and system in the human body. Lead can cause severe damage to the brain and kidneys and, ultimately, death. By mimicking calcium, lead can cross the blood-brain barrier. It degrades the myelin sheaths of neurons, reduces their numbers, interferes with neurotransmission routes, and decreases neuronal growth. In pregnant women, high levels of exposure to lead may cause miscarriage. Chronic, high-level exposure has been shown to reduce fertility in males. In a child’s developing brain, lead interferes with synapse formation in the cerebral cortex, neurochemical development (including that of neurotransmitters), and the organization of ion channels. Early childhood exposure has been linked with an increased risk of sleep disturbances and excessive daytime sleepiness in later childhood. High blood levels are associated with delayed puberty in girls.

Mercury: Toxic effects include damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs. Chronic exposure to mercury even at low concentrations has shown effects such as tremors, impaired cognitive skills, sleep disturbance, erethism, irritability, excitability, excessive shyness, and insomnia. Long-term, low-level exposure has been associated with more subtle symptoms of erethism, including fatigue, irritability, loss of memory, vivid dreams and depression. Mercury poses a risk to the developing fetus.

Molybdenum: High levels of molybdenum can interfere with the body’s uptake of copper, producing copper deficiency. Molybdenum prevents plasma proteins from binding to copper, and it also increases the amount of copper that is excreted in urine. Chronic exposure can cause symptoms including fatigue, headaches and joint pains.

Nickel: Nickel is not a cumulative poison, but larger doses or chronic exposure may be toxic. Nickel compounds, as a group, are carcinogenic and cause lung and nasal cancer. Sensitized individuals may show a skin contact allergy to nickel known as a contact dermatitis. Highly sensitized individuals may also react to foods with high nickel content.

Selenium: Although selenium is an essential trace element, it is toxic if taken in excess and can lead to selenosis. In China, people who ingested corn grown in extremely selenium-rich soil have suffered from selenium toxicity. Symptoms of selenosis include a garlic odor on the breath, gastrointestinal disorders, hair loss, sloughing of nails, fatigue, irritability, and neurological damage. Extreme cases of selenosis can exhibit cirrhosis of the liver, pulmonary edema, or death. Selenates and selenites are very toxic.

Zinc: Although zinc is an essential requirement for good health, excess zinc can be harmful. Excessive absorption of zinc suppresses copper and iron absorption. Low levels of zinc have been suggested to interfere with the utilization of copper and iron and to adversely affect HDL cholesterol concentrations.

Incidences of Human Health Impacts

In 2002 and 2007, researchers with the Cornell Waste Management Institute Center for the Environment investigated alleged health incidents associated with land application of sewage sludges. The abstract to the 2002 study states

“The majority of U.S. sewage sludges are disposed by application to land for use as a soil amendment. Class B sludges, containing a complex mix of chemical and biological contaminants, comprise the majority. Residents near land application sites report illness. Symptoms of more than 328 people involved in 39 incidents in 15 states are described. Investigation and tracking of the incidents by agencies is poor. Only one of 10 EPA regions provided substantial information on the incidents in their region. Investigations, when conducted, focused on compliance with regulations. No substantial health-related investigations were conducted by federal, state, or local officials. A system for tracking and investigation is needed. Analysis of the limited data suggests that surface-applied Class B sludges present the greatest risk and should be eliminated. However, even under less risky application scenarios, the potential for off-site movement of chemicals, pathogens, and biological agents suggests that their use should be eliminated.”

They revisited the issue in 2007 and reported “the National Research Council (NRC) report (“Biosolids Applied to Land,” July 2002) notes the absence of scientific investigations of reported health incidents.  It calls for their investigation and for a system to keep track of them.  No such system is in place.” They continue

“To date there is only one study that has been published that examines any of these cases (Lewis et al, 2002).  In that study, interviews were conducted at 10 of the sites where neighbors reported symptoms.  Land application data and medical records were reviewed. Approximately half of the 48 residents surveyed at those sites reported symptoms consistent with endotoxin exposure and half reported infections.  At one site, symptoms decreased linearly with distance from the treated field and increased linearly with duration of exposure to winds blowing from the field.  That study also suggests that chemical contaminants in sludges may be responsible for an increased host susceptibility to infection … Based on this limited information the NRC report stated that “there is no documented scientific evidence that the Part 503 rule has failed to protect public health.”  This statement has been construed by some to infer that there is evidence that the land application of sewage sludges does not cause any adverse health effects.  In fact, the report recognized the lack of studies and “concludes that because of the lack of epidemiological study and the need to address the public’s concerns about potential adverse health effects, EPA should conduct studies that examine exposure and potential health risks to works and community populations.”  The committee recognized that the absence of evidence was not evidence of the absence of an effect” (emphasis ours).

To date, there is no indication either the EPA or DOE have made any meaningful progress in studying incidents of human illness in people living near sewage sludge land application sites or assessing the risks to human health associated with the myriad ingredients that is the toxic soup of municipal sewage sludge. This is a complete abrogation of DOE’s responsibility to protect human life.

Environmental Impact Statements

In the Mill Canyon permit application (as well as dozens of similar applications around the state), DOE erroneously certified that it has “determined that this proposal does not have a probable significant impact on the environment, [therefore an] environmental impact statement (EIS) is not required.” DOE based its determination on a flawed, incorrect and incomplete State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) Checklist provided by the vendor seeking the Mill Canyon permit. DOE failed to adequately scrutinize the submitted SEPA checklist. In making its determination, DOE also exhibited willful disregard of the science that has emerged in the decades since sewage sludge land application was initiated in the 1970’s. DOE has displayed a demonstrably irrational belief in its own false propaganda and that of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency disseminated in the EPA’s apparent zeal to promote the “beneficial use” of sewage sludge and grease the skids for the huge and powerful sewage sludge industry. The waste treatment industry is the only one benefitting. Everyone else loses. Because of the many inherent environmental risks known to be associated with the land disposal of sewage sludge and the vast acreages where it is being deposited in the state, it is obvious that Environmental Impact Statements must be prepared for every General Permit for Biosolids Management.

[1] Occurrence of Contaminants of Emerging Concern in Wastewater From Nine Publicly Owned Treatment Works, EPA, 2009 and Targeted National Sewage Sludge Survey, EPA, 2009.

[2] Emerging Substances of Concern in Biosolids: Concentrations and Effects of Treatment Processes, Canadian Council of Ministers of The Environment, 2010.

[3] Studies show that food crops take up pollutant contaminants from soils amended with sewage sludge. For example, Uptake of Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products by Soybean Plants from Soils Applied with Biosolids and Irrigated with Contaminated Water, Department of Environmental Sciences, and Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toledo, 2010. This can’t be good.

[4] See Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry, and a Toxic Secret, Wikipedia; Fear in the Fields, a series of investigative reports by the Seattle Times; Toxic Fertilizer, Living on Earth; Toxic Waste and Fertilizer, Democracy Now.