Sludge issues, Lebanon
Following is one in a series of four articles dealing with sludge
published in the Lebanon Daily News of December 14, 1997
"Lack of local control over sludge angers county supervisors"
by Terry McPhillips
HARRISBURG -- The use of municipal sewage sludge as farmland
fertilizer is on the rise, and so is the public debate over sludge's
long-term effects on people and the environment. As the argument
intensifies, however, the issue becomes as murky as the sludge itself.
You can believe Stanford Tackett, a chemistry professor at Indiana
University of Pennsylvania, who fears sludge is contaminating state
farmlands with high doses of toxins that are seeping into the soil and
Or you can believe Carol Shanahan, who has a master's degree in
public health and is a manager at Pittsburgh's wastewater treatment plant.
She is convinced that "biosolids" -- as she prefers to call it -- produced
by plants like hers can be a safe substi tute for chemical fertilizers.
"When I think about how must biosolids has been land-applied and
how much it has been studied, I think it's apparent that if anything were
wrong with this practice the problem would have been discovered by this
time," Shanahan said.
Both Shanahan and Tackett have extensive knowledge of sludge, but
agree little about its safety when it's used to grow the food that you
To understand what sludge is and where it comes from, look no
further than your own bathroom. Sludge is the solid material produced by
wastewater treatment plants as they purify residential and industrial
wastewater. And that's the tasteful way to descri be it.
There is no dispute that nitrogen-rich sludge can be used to
fertilize crops, much the same way animal manure is used. There is,
however, dispute over whether the sludge is doing long-term damage to the
environment at the same time it is yielding short-t erm benefits for
Environmentalists fear the use of sludge on farmlands is pumping
dangerous amounts of heavy metals -- including arsenic, cadmium, copper,
lead and mercury -- into the soil and groundwater. Such contaminants have
been linked to cancer, brain damage and ge netic mutations. They also can
be lethal in high doses.
There also is concern that sludge can transfer dangerous pathogens
into crops, potentially leading to hepatitis, salmonella or E. coli
In addition, there can be unpleasant side effects for those who
live near farms that use sludge, including a rank odor that can attract
swarms of insects and force neighbors downwind to shut windows and doors.
Sludge opponents say the state Department of Environmental
Protection is not doing enough to monitor sludge use and ensure the
public's health and safety.
Those concerns increased last year when the state adopted new
regulations that left it up to farmers to monitor their own sludge use.
The state issues permits to those who want to use sludge, but monitoring
of sludge applications is no longer done by the state.
DEP spokesperson Christine Novak says the department concentrates
its regulatory efforts on the plants that produce the sludge, making sure
the product that leaves those sites and heads for the farmlands meets
state and federal guidelines.
Monitoring the land application of sludge is done on the honor
system. Each site is evaluated by the DEP and given a tailored set of
guidelines for sludge application.
While the DEP regional offices investigate complaints about the
misuse or overuse of sludge on farms, the state trusts the farmers not to
abuse the product. Those who use sludge must submit annual reports to the
DEP, including a soil analysis.
Novak says the system generally works well because it isn't in a
farmer's best interests to use sludge improperly.
"It would be like applying too much fertilizer on your lawn," she
said. Use too much, and very little grows.
The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau has no qualms about the use of sludge
on farmlands "if applied properly," according to Bill Adams, the bureau's
director of natural resources.
Adams represented the Farm Bureau on the state Agricultural
Advisory Board, the panel that helped draft the sludge regulations adopted
"I know sludge or biosolids is a very emotional subject," Adams
said, "but if it's applied properly, it can be used on many farms as a
Adams said he has never seen any solid evidence proving sludge is
environmentally harmful if used according to the state regulations. Still,
he says the effects of sludge should be monitored over the long term.
"Obviously, the rules should be looked at periodically," he said.
Anti-sludge lawmakers have tried several times to limit or block
the use of sludge, but their bills have never advanced through the General
Rep. Camille "Bud" George, a Clearfield County Democrat, is an
outspoken opponent of Gov. Tom Ridge's environmental policies who has been
pushing for tougher rules on sludge. He says the sludge regulations
enacted last year "went too far" in easing rules for both sludge producers
"Today, everybody talks about jobs, and rightly so," George said.
"But what about people getting sick. Shouldn’t we be concerned about
The DEP insists the existing sludge regulations are safe for both
people and the environment.
George's response to the DEP: "It's a shame that they lie."
George predicts any sludge-related bills offered by lawmakers will
continue to languish in legislative committees until voters clamor for
"This is going to take people demanding that something be done,"
he said. "Right now, there are too many enterprises more interested in
making money than protecting people."
In York and Lancaster counties -- the two counties that use more
sludge than any others -- local residents have been pushing for changes in
sludge regulations for years. They say efforts to tighten the rules have
been hampered by one of their own.
Republican Rep. John Barley has represented a sizable portion of
Lancaster County for nearly 13 years, and his family has farmed there for
The family business, Star Rock Farms, owns thousands of acres of
farmland in both York and Lancaster counties. And the Barley family farms
use tons of sludge generated by the Lancaster Area Sewer Authority.
Barley's role as a state lawmaker has led to accusations that he
has used his political connections to thwart efforts to further regulate
Julie Ohlson, a spokesperson for Barley, said the lawmaker has no
involvement in the day-to-day operations of Star Rock Farms, nor does he
have any financial interest in the family business. Star Rock is a
registered partnership owned by Barley's two son s and a nephew, according
Ohlson said Barley was not available for interview. his office
provided a one-sentence written statement about the sludge issue.
Barley's statement reads: "I am not aware of any law changes or
changes in regulations and I continue to support the use of natural
organic biosolids as an alternative to chemical synthetic fertilizers as a
method of supplying nutrients for crops."
As the fight over sludge advances, it has grown into a public
relations battle as much as an agricultural or scientific one.
first version: April 13, 1998; reorganized: January 15, 1999; BLO
file name= http://members.tripod.com/~PA_Sludge/html/Lebslude.html;
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