There are good alternatives to eating sewage sludge
by Chris Benjamin
Last week, after years of pressure from environmental and health groups, Health Canada took a step toward banning bisphenol A, which has been poisoning us for decades in bottles and cans. That’s the latest example of 20/20 hindsight.
Here’s the newest example of negative-20 foresight: sludge (excuse me, “biosolids”) from Halifax Harbour being dumped on farmers’ fields across Nova Scotia. That’s the vision of the Harbour Solutions Project and N-Viro Systems Canada Inc. Neither seems to have much to say for themselves onthe topic.
“We have nothing to do with the marketing,” says James Campbell of the Harbour Solutions Project. “That’s up to the company and we have a cost-sharing agreement, but I have no idea what the revenue figures will be.”
Rae Wallin, CEO of N-Viro, refers me back to “the city” with “any questions about that project.”
Here is the crux of the idea: Mix toilet water, sink water and storm water runoff into a chemical cocktail of organics, suds, pharmaceuticals and caffeine, blast it with ultraviolet, then add industrial effluent (shipped from the sticks) to reduce acidity, ship the results (sludge or biosolids depending on who you ask) back to the sticks and dump it onto the soil in where we grow food and raise dairy cows.
“It’s a big mistake,” says Maureen Reilly, a veteran biosolid researcher, at a screening of the film Sludge Diet.
“If we separated industrial waste and just dealt with our own fecal waste---it would essentially be a big composting toilet---that would be a huge improvement. As it is, the process destroys groundwater and encourages industry to pollute.”
It also kills cows and people. Sludge Diet, by filmmaker Mario Desmairas, details the tragic impact of the four-million tonnes of the stuff spread on American farms every year and tells the harrowing stories of cancer-related deaths in families living near sludge-covered farms.
Just last month, a federal judge ordered the US Agriculture Department to compensate Georgia farmer Andy McElmurray, whose land was poisoned by sludge, killing hundreds of cows. The same poisons that killed the cows showed up in milk marketed by a neighbouring farmer. According to the Associated Press, “the level of thallium---an element once used as rat poison---found in the milk was 120 times the concentration allowed in drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Thallium is one of thousands of chemicals that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is not testing Halifax Harbour sludge for. The chemical was, however, found in samples taken from a lagoon on Inglewood Farms in Truro. Inglewood gained notoriety in 2004 after using Halifax-produced sludge on-site, poisoning neighbours in the process.
“I had burning skin, I couldn’t sleep, I had breathing problems,” says Barb Rockwell, one of those neighbours. Others came down with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an agonizing combination of chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
After the Inglewood fiasco, the Nova Scotia Farm Practices Board condemned the application of biosolids as an abnormal farm practice. The local MP, Bill Casey, was practically jubilant in his call for national standards on the use of biosolids.
“This should snap everybody to attention,” he said at the time, pointing out that biosolids are already banned in Newfoundland and Labrador. They are also banned or strictly limited in several European countries.
Here in Nova Scotia, we still await the latest test results from the CFIA and the EPA. The problem with those tests, according to Rob Hale of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, is that they analyze only one percent of the chemicals in sludge.
“You can’t find what you don’t test for,” says Fred Blois, a leading Nova Scotian activist against the use of sludge on farms. “And since you have a cocktail of chemicals we can’t predict how they change their nature in combination.”
Blois has been working with Tamara Lorincz at the Nova Scotia Environment Network to talk with dairy farmers, expected to be the main buyers of biosolids. The Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture has already recommended that farmers refuse to buy the N-Viro product. Lorincz says farmers are still debating the issue.
Brian Cameron, general manager of the Dairy Farmers of Nova Scotia, explains why: “Biosolids would provide a cost saving. Commercial fertilizer prices shot up last year and that’s a huge cost factor.” At the same time, Cameron acknowledges the risk of “negative public perception” after what happened with Inglewood Farms.
What’s at stake is far more than public perception. As Andy McElmurray in Georgia found out, the livelihood of farmers is at stake. As Barbara Rockwell found out, human health is at stake.
One can’t help but fear that HRM, like Health Canada with bisphenol A, will be the last to know.
Maureen Reilly is full of better ideas about liquid waste. She has been researching the topic for 12 years. She expresses frustration that after a decade of fighting the application of sludge on farms, this bad idea keeps resurfacing like a stubborn patch of poo-encrusted thistle.
"It's one big old boys' club," she says of the sewage industry---both its private sector and government manifestations. "There are so few sewage people with so much money, because most people don't like to think about sewage."
As a result, she says, the crap barons rub elbows a few times a year and celebrate every chunk of mud in the public's eye and every new technology crushed. Yet new technologies do abound, with benefits for municipalitites sage enough to invest in them.
A few years ago, St. Paul, Minnesota, decided to buy an incinerator, romantically called a "fluidized bed gasifier." While incineration may raise some green neck hairs, the emissions that result are lower than if the waste was land-applied, with no output of mercury or thallium. This technology reduced the city's emissions by 90 percent, saved them $4 million annually and reduced neighbour complaints from 70 to two per year.
Yet Reilly recommends a different approach for Halifax. "A properly lined landfill with methane recovery is likely best for a city of Halifax's size," she says.
By mixing solid waste with sludge at a ratio of seven to one, leachates can be eliminated. Methane can also be trapped and used as a power source, saving energy and preventing greenhouse gas emissions (because it replaces the burning of fossil fuels).
Alternatively, sludge could be converted into synthetic fuel. Reilly estimates that sludge has about half the energy of coal. This could be sold onto the power grid,further reducing our suicidal climate change tendencies.
None of these ideas have been given much thought in HRM, so maybe it's too much to ask that we go even further and consider how we could prevent the sludge dilemma upfront. As Reilly points out, the terrible technology of mixing fecal and industrial wastes has been with us for centuries, so maybe it's too soon to hope for onsite septic systems that separate waste-streams.
In HRM, it's hard to imagine the use of large-scale greywater re-use, solar-aquatic sewage facilities or planning systems that integrate green spaces and wetlands into sewage planning. Maybe it shouldn't surprise me that a friend of mine has been trying for over two years to get approval for a smaller septic tank (to accompany his eco-efficient composting toilet) from inflexible bureaucrats with no policy and no clue about newfangled greenthink.
And any hope for phasing out the use of household and industrial toxins is blurred by the setting sun on a distant horizon. And so, for now, we're left with a myriad of options that are better than eating our own waste, none of which are being considered bythe HRM.
If the city gets its way, thallium-enhanced milk will soon be available at your local grocer. All that's needed is Canadian Food Inspection Agency approval.
Kate Billingsley, acting national manager of CFIA's fertilizer section, couldn't discuss Halifax's application to sell sludge, or even whether we have submitted any of the tests required to gain approval of sale. "I can only tell you that the Halifax product has not receiveda 'no-objection-to-sale' letter from CFIA,"she says.
"CFIA acts like contamination levels are secret," Reilly says. "So did you get your thallium today?" Nobody knows.
Reilly feels that if we are to get past the age of sludge-dumping on farms, the chemical composition of sludge needs to be made public. "We need baseline thallium tests on the milk," Reilly says. "The public deserves to know the full cost."
Maybe then we could get started on those composting toilets.