It's a Miracle! - Sludge Turns to "Simply Soil"

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what i choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

From RSA 485-A:2:

"Sludge" means the solid or semisolid material produced by water and wastewater treatment processes, excluding domestic septage; provided, however, sludge which is disposed of at solid waste facilities permitted by the department shall be considered solid waste and regulated under RSA 149-M.

"Biosolids" means any sludge derived from a sewage wastewater treatment facility that meets the standards for beneficial reuse specified by the department.

Keep these words in mind as you read this page.

At the polls in 2000, the citizens of Farmington voted, 458 to 81, for an ordinance that banned the stockpiling and landspreading of municipal sewage sludge and paper mill sludge not generated within the town itself.

Through an oversight, the Planning Board neglected to include that sludge ordinance in the zoning ordinance, so in 2002 we voted for it again. This time voter turnout was lighter, but still, the vote was overwhelmingly decisive: 285 in favor of the ordinance, 54 opposed.

Here is the text of our ordinance:

Section 3.15  Sludge

To protect the public health and welfare, and to protect surface and groundwater resources, the stockpiling and land spreading of municipal sewer sludge and paper mill sludge is not allowed in the Town of Farmington.

Ths section shall not apply to sewage/septage/sludge generated within the Town of Farmington.

This section shall not apply to Class A sludge-derived products sold by the bag to home gardeners.

The voters of Farmington decided that while we ought to take care of our own wastes, we ought not to be the dumping ground for other towns and cities.

In 1997, the giant sludge peddler, Browning Ferris, Inc (BFI) delivered a load of Class A sludge to a Barron Bros gravel pit on the Watson Corner Road. This sludge came out of Springfield, Mass; the sludge from there is notoriously nasty stuff--Massachusetts and New Hampshire no longer allow it to be landspread. The stuff sat there, in a "stockpile," on Barron Bros gravel pit, until May of this year, when Barron Bros spread it on on that pit.

Because our sludge ordinance went into effect in 2002, five years after BFI delivered that sludge, the stockpiling of the sludge BFI delivered to Barron Bros was, for all practical purposes, "grandfathered" in. However, the landspreading of it was not grandfathered in. If in 2000 and again in 2002, the voters of Farmington recognized that spreading the stuff around was a bad thing to do, in 2003 it does not become all right - safe for the environment and us--to spread it around.

(Prior to our ordinance, Barron Bros did take delivery of, and did spread, other loads of sludge; it is just this one load that, under our ordinance, could not be used to their advantage--i.e., to "reclaim" a gravel pit.)

Time for a brief reminder about just what sludge is. Sludge is the solid residue of whatever gets dumped down the drains--sewage and whatever else can or might be dumped down the drains. It is full of pathogens and--well, who knows what else--all manner of chemicals toxic to humans and other creatures, and our environment. In sludge, there can also be industrial wastes--for instance, paper mill wastes which are full of toxic substances. A recent article in the New York Times reports on the health problems and accompanying lawsuits associated with land-application of sludge.

If sludge is put through certain processes, the pathogens are supposed to be cooked out, rendering the sludge free of things like salmonella, E. coli, and the like. However, the process is not always done right, nor is it always successful, so you can have "treated" sludge that still contains bad germs.

There are two classes of treated sludge: Class A and Class B. In Class B, the pathogens have been reduced to specified levels, but not entirely eliminated. Class A sludge is supposed to be "clean" of pathogens. However, it is still likely to be a horrendous soup of chemicals. In 1997, the sludge that came out of Springfield, MA contained, in various concentrations, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, zinc--all deemed to be in "acceptable" levels. Only Class A or Class B sludge can be spread on the land.

Before we go on, it helps to know certain crucial things.

First, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New Hampshire's own Department of Environmental Services (DES) are not protecting us when it comes to sludge. Under great pressure from the sludge industry's lobby, both the EPA and DES are eager to shove sludge off on the citizens of this country. There are reams and reams of evidence to illustrate this fact, and a growing body of evidence of harm done to the land, animals, and humans as a result of sludge "applications." What happens is this: the EPA and DES set "standards" for sludge--levels of metal concentrations, etc. that they declare "safe" to be spread on our lands.

However, we are not buying those "reassurances" because we have seen time after time that what we are told is "safe" proves not to be so. And as a result, when it comes to sludge, town after town across this state--65 at last count--is enacting an ordinance just like ours that says NO to "imported" sewage sludge and industrial wastes. We are increasingly, and rightly, suspicious of federal and state "reassurances."

And then there is this: "standards" and "acceptable" levels of the poisons in sludge are always shifting. In 1997, the concentrations of nasty stuff in Springfield's sludge were pronounced "acceptable." Today, Class A sludge from Springfield is considered so bad it is no longer "certified" for landspreading in New Hampshire. Springfield's treatment plant has to deal with over 60 significant industrial users, including Monsanto (which alone dumps over two million pounds of toxic waste into the sewers each year), and many toxic chemicals end up in the sludge. The DES, around 2000, started using its S-1 soil standards in evaluating Class A sludge. Springfield's sludge is no longer certified because it does not meet these soil standards, with some compounds present in quantities far in excess of what is permitted (e.g, 4-methylphenol, with at most 5 ppm allowed, is measured at 200 ppm in Springfield's Class A sludge, and bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate, with at most 25 ppm is measured at 202 ppm). It seems reasonable to conclude that if it's that nasty today, it was likely just as nasty in 1997 when a mess of it was delivered to Barron Bros on the Watson Cross Road.

Second, there has been a perversion of the language--a regular "humpty dumpty-ism" of fiddling with words--in this case, gussying up the word "sludge"--sometimes calling it "compost"--to make the stuff sound like it's something you would be eager to pile up in your own back yard from kitchen scraps and garden weeds. So: sludge becomes "biosolids" and "fertilizer" and even "compost". And, lo and behold, DES now says if sludge sits for three years, it becomes "simply soil." By some miracle, apparently, all the heavy metals and other dangerous stuff just disappear after three years.

The State of New Hampshire, as we can see in the selection from RSA 485-A:2 above, enshrines the industry-favored word "biosolids" in law. Where it uses the term elsewhere in the statutes, it is generally as part of the phrase "sludge or biosolids" as in:

485-A:5-d Land Application of Sludge.- Sludge or biosolids which are to be land applied in New Hampshire shall not exceed the maximum concentrations for specific chemical contaminants contained in the rules of the department, or the rules or regulations of the state in which the sludge was generated, whichever are more stringent.

The EPA's formal rules (40 CFR 503) consistently use the word "sludge". The EPA's website, on the other hand, has the rules explained in "plain English"; there they use the nicer-sounding "biosolids", just as the the sludge merchants would like them to.

Where did this word "biosolids" come from? In 1991, the Name Change Task Force of the Water Environment Federation (the sewage industry's main lobbying and public relations organization) held a contest, and settled on "biosolids" as the new word for sludge. For the entire history, see the chapter "The Sludge Hits the Fan" in Toxic Sludge Is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton.

In mid-May of this year, Barron Bros spread on their gravel pit the stockpile of sludge delivered by BFI in 1997.

To follow what happened next, see this letter read to the Selectmen at their June 9 meeting. After reading the letter, continue reading below.

Here is the list of questions Farmington's CEO/Health Officer, Paul Charron, emailed to DES.

  1. If sludge has been stockpiled for several years (4-10 years), is it still considered sludge?
  2. Can it be spread? Does it need a permit?
  3. Are permits required to stockpile sludge?
  4. Were permits required 4-10 years ago to stockpile?
  5. Is it possible that sludge that has been stockpiled for 4-10 years is now "Biosolids?"
  6. Do biosolids need a permit to be stockpiled and spread?

And next is the May 16, 2003 reply to the CEO/Health Officer from Mike Rainey of DES. Note how Mr. Humpty Dumpty Rainey's personal definitions--apparently he thinks that the word "sludge" can only be applied to the untreated product and that "biosolids" and "sludge" are mutually exclusive--are passed off as if they were official DES usage, contradicting both the NH RSA and the federal 40 CFR 503 rules. Note also that he addresses only state standards and not our local ordinance. No one has claimed that Barron Bros has violated the state rules on landspreading. Here is Rainey's response. (Emphasis in original.)

Mr. Charron:

In the order in which you posed your questions, please find my responses below. But first, let me define a few terms (as they are defined in NH statute), so that we a [sic] speaking the same language. Sludge is any solid or semi-solid material produced as a result of wastewater treatment. Sludge can not be land applied. Biosolids are treated sludges which meet state and federal standards for land application. Class B biosolids are materials which may still have detectable levels of pathogens (disease-causing organisms.) Class B biosolids can only be stockpile [sic] and/or land applied at a location which has been issued a site permit by the NH Dept. of Environmental Services (DES). Class A biosolids do not have detectable pathogens and can be sold or distributed without restriction and only minimal requirements. A site-specific permit is not required to stockpile or land apply class A biosolids.

Our rules are not specific about when sludge is no longer sludge or biosolids. As a matter of policy, DES has decided that after three years (36 months) any soil/biosolids mixture which results from the use or land application is simply soil after three years. Material which is unused after the time frame you suggest is still sludge or biosolid depending on its original designation. . . . Class B biosolids can only be stockpiled continuously for 8 months each year. There are no time restrictions on the stockpiling of class A biosolids.

Class B biosolids could only be spread at a permitted site and there are none in Farminton [sic]. Class A could be spread after the time period you reference without a permit.

A permit is required to stockpile sludge or class B biosolids. No permit is required to stockpile class A biosolids.

During the time frame you reference, the requirements for stockpiling of sludge and class B biosolids have been variable. At times a permit was required and at other times no permit was required. However, no permit has ever been required to stockpile class A biosolids.

A sludge can only become biosolids after it has been appropriately tested and certified by the NH DES.

Class B biosolids require a permit for stockpiling and land application. Class A biosolids do not require a permit for either activity.

Now, whatever mumbo-jumbo rules DES currently has, however they are now defining "sludge" and "biosolids" (see letter to selectmen, mentioned above, to see how the term "biosolids" came about), whatever DES's ravings are in reply to the ravings of our town's CEO, only one fact remains: Barron Bros has landspread sludge (of whatever stripe, even if you call it Liquid Gold Breakfast Treat), and our ordinance forbids that, plain and simple. DES has no business messing in this affair of our town. We don't care what their "standards" and "rules" and "policies" are, because there is this:

NH Sludge Rules Env-Ws 800, Section 80102 (e) Nothing in these rules shall be construed to modify or lessen the power conferred upon local authorities by health and land use enabling statues.

And there is also this, from the state statutes (Title on Planning and Zoning, Chapter on Administrative and Enforcement Procedures, Section on Local Conflicts of Law):

676:14 Determination of Which Local Ordinance Takes Precedence. - Whenever a local land use ordinance is enacted or a regulation is adopted which differs from the authority of an existing ordinance or other regulation, the provision which imposes the greater restriction or higher standard shall be controlling.

Anyway, after our letter was read to the Selectmen on June 9, Joan Funk, Chair of the Selectmen, read the final paragraph of a June 5, 2003 letter from the town lawyer, Sharon Somers, who had apparently swallowed all DES's "reasons" why Barron Bros should be let off the hook. Here is the text of that letter from town attorney Sharon Somers of Donahue, Tucker and Ciandella, written to Ernest Creveling, our town administrator:

Re: Potential Violation of Sludge Regulation

Dear Ernie:

. . . Mike Rainey of DES has researched the history of the sludge on the Barron property and has now responded to the complaint received from town residents in May. I attach a copy of his report. The key points contained in the report are as follows:

Given the analysis that DES has done on the matter, and given their conclusions, we do not believe that the material on the Barron property can be deemed sludge for purposes of enforcing the sludge ordinance. Accordingly, Mr. Barron should be permitted to proceed with the spreading of the material.

So metals and microbes were "well within the standards in place at that time" (our emphasis). This way of putting it carefully avoids referring to the now-required testing for volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, which Springfield's sludge contains far too much of, according to the S-1 soil standards. It is not clear what proof we have that Barron Bros sludge has been mixed with "native soil," as DES "indicates," but even if it has been, even if it has been mixed with ice cream and Hershey's syrup--that is irrelevant, because the stuff still contains heavy metals and Heaven knows what else, and is still SLUDGE, despite the various attempts to make it something else. That is the only essential point. We have no miraculous transformation here, no multiplying of loaves and fishes, no purification of an unhealthy pile of sludge.

And once more: DES should never have gotten involved in the first place (except to verify that what was stockpiled on Barron Bros gravel pit was indeed sludge from Springfield MA, delivered by BFI in 1997).

So what it all boils down to is this, and it is simple: all DES's fooling around with language, of calling sludge by various euphemisms ("biosolids", "compost", "simply soil", etc.) does not obscure the one essential point: that in May of 2003, Barron Bros spread sludge on a gravel pit on the Watson Corner Road, in violation of our town's ordinance, and the CEO/Health Officer, and the Selectmen, in relying on the facile "opinion" of the town's attorney, who in turn relied on the mumbo-jumbo from DES, all did their best, and have apparently succeeded, to uphold not our ordinance, but the violation of our ordinance.

Something stinks, and it ain't sludge.

The CCC could not have prepared this Off-Color Paper without the generous help of Helane Shields of Alton. Thanks, Helane!