Southwest Florida's Information Leader
The hazards of sludge
Sunday August 17 - Sunday August 24, 2003
Editorial series, Wasteland, will examine EPA's flimsy science, lax regulation
What environmental regulators don't know about pathogens and viruses in sewage sludge could hurt you. And what terrorists might know about those disease-causing agents could someday be used to kill you.
This week, Herald-Tribune editorials will describe how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other regulators have failed to adequately examine the potential impacts -- on human health, the environment and national security -- of a common practice: the disposal of treated sewage sludge on agricultural land.
Sludge is, in essence, the gunk left over from the treatment of sewage.
About 60 percent of the sludge produced nationwide is dumped on farmland. In Florida, some of that sludge is even spread near creeks and rivers that supply drinking water and flow into coastal estuaries used by swimmers, boaters and fishermen.
Tons and tons of sludge are disposed of in DeSoto County. Some people who live near the dumping grounds contend the practice has made them ill; some scientists fear the pollutants contained in the sludge dumped in DeSoto have distant but deleterious effects in Charlotte Harbor.
In the series that begins today, we will call upon state and federal regulators to:
Conduct extensive scientific research to determine the risks posed by land-applied sewage sludge.
Ban the use of Class B or Class A sludge on land within several thousand feet of any waterway or occupied building.
Sponsor epidemiological studies in communities where people say sludge is making them sick.
Urge governments to stop using sludge on farmland and, instead, find alternative disposal methods.
Links to terrorism and pollution?
Our editorials will also examine the overlooked but frightening potential of a link between sludge-dumping and bioterrorism. Editorials will report that some scientists and members of Congress believe much more must be done to prevent terrorists from using biological agents and sludge as weapons of mass destruction.
Microbiologist David L. Lewis, a former EPA scientist, will be a key figure in this series. Lewis, who was terminated by the EPA on May 28, advocated conducting DNA studies to determine whether Charlotte Harbor has been contaminated by human viruses and pathogens contained in sewage sludge dumped upstream in DeSoto County. Lewis also urged the EPA to pursue microbiological research in order to assess how terrorists might use viruses and pathogens to harm Americans or threaten the United States.
Unfortunately, Lewis was forced to leave the EPA, on his 55th birthday, because he openly criticized the EPA's sewage sludge policies for years.
Lewis' story illustrates the troubling lack of reliance on science in the EPA's decision-making and, according to two U.S. senators, his dismissal undermines the agency's commitment to national security.
What is this stuff? Land spreading of sludge is common, but it may not be safe
Most Americans -- about 200 million of us -- are served by sewage-treatment plants, according to the Congressional Research Service. These plants provide a beneficial service by treating sewage but, in the process, they create huge amounts of leftover wastes that still contain pollutants.
One byproduct of sewage treatment is typically called sludge. About 5.6 million dry tons of sewage sludge is disposed of by plant operators each year in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Some sludge is incinerated or put in landfills. But -- with EPA's blessing -- about 60 percent of it is used to fertilize or enhance agricultural land.
Those numbers -- like so much of the data available about sewage sludge -- are suspect. In researching this series, we found firm, useful statistics difficult to obtain, even at the local level.
We do know this: Florida has at least 2,650 sewage-treatment plants. Those plants produce sludge, and at least 760,000 dry tons of it is spread each year on agricultural land, according to the State's Department of Environmental Protection. That's only an estimate because the state's data- collection system is rudimentary.
Few consumers know it's possible that sludge helped produce the juice they drink at breakfast or the steak they eat at dinner.
Since the 1970s, many landowners have used sludge -- treated human waste, in other words -- as fertilizers on farms, ranches, yards and golf courses. They use it because it is cheap -- and, often, profitable -- and because the Environmental Protection Agency says it's safe.
In Southwest Florida, some localities pay private companies to haul sludge away from sewage-treatment plants. The companies, in turn, pay landowners to take it.
But is sewage sludge safe?
The EPA says yes, if handled properly, but there is ample evidence to show the agency has failed to conduct the research necessary to show that sewage sludge does not pose threats to land, water, wildlife and the health of people.
Until the latter decades of the 20th century, most communities did little or nothing to disinfect or screen wastes from bathrooms, kitchens, stores and industries before piping them -- in liquid sewage -- to the nearest river or ocean. That changed with the Clean Water Act of 1972, a federal law that required those wastes to be substantially cleansed before they were released into the environment.
The treatment involves the use of bacteria to separate wastes from water. The treated water is usually discharged into a river or sprayed on land. Left behind is a soupy mix referred to as "sludge," "residuals" or "biosolids" -- a public relations term cooked up in the 1990s by the waste-management industry.
In this series of editorials we will refer to that odorous goop as "sewage sludge." The EPA defines sewage sludge as "the solid, semi-solid or liquid byproduct generated during the treatment of waste water at sewage-treatment plants."
Grit, viruses, bacteria, heavy metals and toxic chemicals are part of that byproduct, which is regulated under the EPA's Sludge Rule. That set of regulations divides sludge into two classes, A and B.
Most of the sewage sludge dumped on Southwest Florida farmland is rated Class B, meaning it receives the lowest grade of treatment. Increasingly, local governments in Florida are moving toward treating sludge to a more stringent and costly standard, known as Class AA. Sarasota County, for example, is making that transition.
Reason to reassess
Maurice Barker works for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and helps regulate sludge disposal. He and other state regulators across the nation have long accepted the EPA's assurances that sewage sludge is a safe and effective fertilizer. Barker says the EPA conducted "a lot of research through the 1970s and 1980s," which led to the adoption of the Sludge Rule in 1993.
Unlike some scientists whose views we will cite, Barker has not lost confidence in the EPA; nevertheless, he says his department, and perhaps Florida legislators, might want to consider stronger controls on sewage sludge. Why?
Because credible experts have consistently concluded that the EPA hasn't conducted adequate research to support its claim that sludge spreading is safe and "beneficial." This concern and other fears, including the potential for sludge to be used in connection with bioterrorism, raise serious questions about the presumed safety of sludge -- and the integrity of the EPA.
Tomorrow: The EPA and science.
Suspect science Potential risks of sludge and EPA policies are cause for concern
A National Academy of Sciences report released last year identified a "critical need" to reduce "persistent uncertainty" about the potential for organisms and chemicals in sewage sludge to make humans ill.
Uncertainty exists, experts contend, because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency didn't conduct enough research before it promoted the dumping of sludge -- a byproduct of sewage treatment -- on farmland in the 1970s. Nearly three decades later, little has changed -- except that experts have become increasingly concerned about the potential risks posed by sludge and the EPA's policies. For example: EPA microbiologist David L. Lewis wrote in 1996 that the EPA failed to conduct the scientific research required to support its claims that sludge is safe and beneficial.
Dr. Robert Swank testified under oath three years ago that he and other EPA scientists at a Georgia laboratory complained within the agency that more research of sludge was needed. Swank said he and the others believed the Sludge Rule, promulgated in 1993, had numerous shortcomings, "particularly in the health area." Swank was the director of research at the EPA laboratory in Athens, Ga., from 1987 until 1999.
The aforementioned 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences called for more research of sludge, particularly in the realm of pathogens, to help mitigate the persistent uncertainty about the handling of the sewage byproduct.
The EPA's Office of Inspector General issued a March 2002 report that reiterated a statement made in a report released in 2000: "EPA cannot assure the public that current land application practices are protective of human health and the environment." The most recent report also states "that more research on pathogen testing is needed" to provide more certain conclusions about the effects of sludge dumping.
Chemist Robert C. Hale, of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William & Mary, recently told a Herald-Tribune editorial writer, "States typically have permitted the land application of sludge based on the EPA saying it's safe. But the EPA says that on the basis of a risk assessment that is not valid" because not enough scientific research was conducted.
Ellen Z. Harrison, director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute, in Ithaca, N.Y., recently told a Herald-Tribune editorial writer that the Sludge Rule "is not protective of public health."
Even the EPA recognized the need for more research, pledging to conduct more studies after the so-called Sludge Rule was adopted. Unfortunately, that pledge was violated.
Despite these reservations, the EPA has promoted the use of sludge as a fertilizer and continues on its Web site to tout the practice as "beneficial."
Without a solid scientific basis for the Sludge Rule, the EPA has gambled with the health of the American people and the environment.
There are signs the EPA finally may have been pushed into at least limited action by the criticism. The agency is specifically reacting to recommendations in a report by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. In April, the EPA, which had asked for that study, filed notice in the Federal Register that it will take a closer look at sewage sludge. That's a welcome development.
Preserving the status quo?
But some experts are skeptical, including Harrison, one of 16 people who served on the National Research Council panel that produced the report. She is "disappointed" by the EPA's description of its proposed study of sludge. She told an editorial writer that while the report raised numerous concerns and provided many detailed recommendations, the EPA has outlined a plan of action that "seems to basically endorse the status quo."
The status quo is unacceptable.
Harrison points to indications that exposure to sludge has caused health problems. She said citizen activists have provided the Cornell Waste Management Institute with anecdotes about more than 350 people who contend sludge made them sick. The U.S. government hasn't conducted a comprehensive study of such complaints, she said.
In a limited review, the cases of 48 individuals who lived near sludge-dumping sites and complained of chemical irritation were studied by microbiologist David L. Lewis and David K. Gattie, an assistant professor of agricultural engineering at the University of Georgia. Twelve of those individuals, including two who died, had evidence of staph infections, according to an article by Lewis and Gattie. The article, published July 1, 2002, in Environmental Science and Technology, said the findings of the study "suggest" that chemicals in sludge elevate the risk of infection from pathogens in the waste.
Scientists "know very little" about what happens when chemicals and pathogens are mixed together, the article said. The effects of such a combination could be greater than the impacts of the substances on their own but aren't taken into account in the Sludge Rule.
Harrison said another shortcoming of the Sludge Rule is the absence of any monitoring or study of airborne pathogens or chemicals that might blow off the site. Nor does the Sludge Rule cover whatever impacts might occur when rain washes sludge off farmers' fields.
It is difficult for scientists to assess risks and make conclusions without adequate research. But it's not hard for the public to conclude that the EPA is in poor health for a regulatory agency that is supposed to base its decisions on scientific evidence.
Tomorrow: Dumping in DeSoto County
The sludge capital Rural land, lack of money made DeSoto County
a dumping ground
DeSoto County is home to about 32,000 people, a population incapable of generating between 3 million and 5 million gallons of sewage sludge.
Yet that's how much of the gunky waste is dumped in DeSoto per month, according to Assistant County Administrator Jean Fisher. About 70 loads a day are spread on 16,000 acres of ranchland, cropland and orange groves.
The sludge is a byproduct of waste-water treatment plants in Southwest Florida, as well as from Key West, Miami and elsewhere in the state, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP estimates that DeSoto receives 15 percent to 20 percent of all sludge used on agricultural lands in Florida.
How does a rural, sparsely populated county become the state's sludge capital?
DeSoto has what waste-disposal companies need: a lot of agricultural land, and landowners willing to accept sludge. (About 55 percent of the nation's sludge is dumped on farmland.)
Another factor contributes to DeSoto's dubious status: The county has a narrow tax base; as a result, DeSoto cannot afford an endless bill for legal fees, and in 2002 corporate lawyers buzzed around DeSoto like flies on a fresh pile of sludge.
First, Azurix North America sued when the DeSoto County Commission banned the spreading of Class B sludge, which gets a low grade of treatment. A federal judge ruled the ban illegal.
Then, the County Commission found itself in a legal battle with American Water Works -- a company that bought Azurix and which in 2002 reported earnings of $1 billion. At issue were the commission's restrictions on where sludge could be dumped. Negotiations continue.
If the creek rises
Last Tuesday, the commissioners passed two ordinances that regulate the transportation and land-application of sewage sludge. The ordinances are steps in the right direction, but they are too weak to ensure adequate protection of people and wildlife.
For example, the new ordinances would not have made enough difference June 23 when flooding occurred along Horse Creek, a Peace River tributary. Water reached 11 homes in Hidden Acres in DeSoto County, including a home Molly Bowen occupies with her four children and her mother. Bowen told us she could smell the distinctive, pungent odor of sewage sludge as floodwaters entered her home.
Under the new ordinances, sludge cannot be put within 1,500 feet of the center of Horse Creek. Tania Bond, whose home was also flooded, says Horse Creek was 2,000 to 3,000 feet beyond its bank. Those conditions show why, at a minimum, no sludge should be allowed within floodplains designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Last year, after a series of stories on sludge by Herald-Tribune reporter Scott Carroll, the Editorial Board advocated a ban on the use of Class B sludge on all farmland. We now believe Class A sludge poses enough of a threat to warrant additional safeguards.
DeSoto residents wouldn't be in this mess if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had conservative, science-based standards for sludge that were supported by adequate state and federal enforcement. Instead, the EPA has a cozy relationship with the sludge industry and promotes the use of sludge as fertilizer.
In 2001, DeSoto residents found the EPA unwilling to thoroughly investigate their complaints that sludge dumped in the county was making them sick. Earthjustice, a national advocacy group, is now representing 17 DeSoto residents in a lawsuit against ranchers and disposal companies.
Dr. David Lewis, formerly a microbiologist at the EPA's research laboratory in Athens, Ga., took seriously the residents' complaints about chronic diarrhea, nausea, skin rashes, ear infections and rotovirus. He spoke at a March 8, 2002, public meeting in DeSoto and said residents have valid concerns about their health. Unfortunately, that was the extent of the EPA's response and Lewis was later dismissed from his job.
The EPA's assignment of a low priority to sludge, coupled with a lack of attention to health complaints, are among the reasons that the public agency is viewed as complicit with the private industry.
Twenty days after Lewis spoke in DeSoto, an attorney for Synagro Technologies Inc., a large sludge-disposal company, wrote to the general counsel of the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies. He requested the association's help to get Lewis to stop speaking out against sewage sludge. The executive director of the association also complained to the EPA concerning an article Lewis wrote about sludge.
Did EPA administrators and the waste- water industry circle their wagons after Lewis spoke in DeSoto? No. For years, they've been riding in the same sludge- fueled wagon.
This is the fourth editorial in the "Waste Land" series, which began on Sunday.
Tomorrow: One particular harbor.
Sludge in the water Impact of farm runoff on waterways needs to be studied
Are human viruses and other pathogens found in Charlotte Harbor linked to the tons of sewage sludge dumped on agricultural land 10 to 15 miles upstream in DeSoto County?
Inquiring minds want to know
But, so far, credible scientists haven't been granted funding to conduct the tests necessary to determine if pathogens in the harbor and other waters in Southwest Florida are linked to sewage sludge.
That could change if the National Institutes of Health grants $300,000 to several scientists -- including David L. Lewis and Erin K. Lipp -- who propose to use DNA testing to determine if disease-carrying agents in sludge flow from Horse Creek and the Peace River to Charlotte Harbor.
Here's another relevant question worthy of scientific research: Do heavy metals in sewage sludge wash off DeSoto's agricultural lands and into Horse Creek and the Peace River? In 2002, Florida's Department of Environmental Protection sought federal money to seek an answer. Unfortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected the request.
As we've stated in this editorial series, Lewis believes sludge-disposal policies aren't based on adequate research. When Lewis was looking in Southeastern states for a place to study whether pathogens migrate in water, the DEP's Maurice Barker suggested the Horse Creek watershed, which feeds Charlotte Harbor, as the best place in Florida for testing.
Scientists deserve the opportunity and federal research money to study the effects of sludge-dumping under conditions like those that exist in our region.
Pollutants in Charlotte Harbor
If the Charlotte Harbor study is funded, Lewis, Lipp and their University of Georgia colleagues would be able to build on Lipp's previous work. When Lipp conducted a year-long study that ended in 1998, she found that hard rains carry pollutants down to the lower reaches of the Peace and Myakka rivers and into Charlotte Harbor.
"The whole harbor was usually very clean," Lipp said during a recent telephone interview. But when heavy rains fell in the winter, she found several infectious viruses in both rivers and the harbor. Those viruses can "cause a whole range of diseases in humans," Lipp said, including diarrhea and inflammation of the heart.
The viruses came from the intestinal tracts of humans before they entered the water, Lipp said. More research is needed to determine if the viruses in the estuary are linked to septic tanks installed near surface waters, to sewage sludge used on farms upstream, to some other source, or to a combination of sources.
Research is also needed to find out whether chemicals migrate downstream from sludge-covered land in DeSoto.
The EPA accounts for about 500 chemicals in the risk assessment used to set standards for sewage sludge, but sludge has the potential to contain 50,000 to 100,000 chemicals, according to Dr. Robert C. Hale, a chemist at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
Hale said in a recent telephone interview that the EPA portrays its sludge-disposal policy as "based on sound science, when it's not."
Hale analyzes sewage sludge in Virginia and elsewhere. He routinely finds large amounts of chemical fire retardants and the banned, cancer-causing pesticide chlordane; those substances aren't targeted by the EPA's sludge rules. Hale's discoveries show why it's misleading to assume sludge is safe, based on the EPA's standards.
What's in the mix?
Even if scientists know what's in sludge, they don't know what happens when chemicals are mixed in the waste, Hale said. Lewis said scientists lack similar information concerning the mixture of pathogens and chemicals in sludge.
Given these concerns, the EPA should conduct a comprehensive, science-based review of its sludge-disposal policies and institute short-term protections, such as declaring a moratorium on the land-based spreading of sludge near bodies of water and residences.
In April, the EPA stated it will conduct research and decide if additional standards should be established for chemicals and pathogens. The proposed DNA testing should be part of that study -- as should a sense of urgency on behalf of people, land and water exposed to the unknown risks of sewage sludge.
Urgency is three decades past due.
In 1975, an EPA chemist, William Sanjour, wrote in an internal memo that the most efficient way "of injecting toxic substances directly into the human body" is to eat sewage sludge. The second most efficient way, he said, is through EPA's sludge policy.
Sanjour, then chief of the technology branch in the EPA's Office of Solid Waste Programs, tried to prevent the agricultural use of sewage sludge, which he described as "an amalgamation of all the wastes in our society." His warnings were ignored.
Sewage sludge deposited on farmland pollutes waters -- creeks, rivers, harbors and even the Gulf of Mexico -- that EPA sludge policies are supposed to protect.
In May, the Pew Oceans Commission issued a report that said, "We must redefine our relationship with the ocean to reflect an understanding of the land-sea connection." And that effort should be "founded on the best available science."
The best available science on sewage sludge is sketchy, at best. More research is necessary in order to understand the relationship between the quality of waters and sludge dumped on land.
This is the fifth editorial in the "Waste Land" series, which began on Sunday.
Tomorrow: The David Lewis connection.
Wasting an asset After years of warning about sludge, an EPA scientist is let go
In the late 1980s, national attention focused on Dr. David Acer, a Florida dentist with AIDS, after six of his patients contracted the AIDS virus. David L. Lewis, a microbiologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, researched the infections. He concluded that the patients contracted the virus from the dental equipment Acer used.
Lewis' research showed that the virus could live up to three days in the lubricants used on dental equipment; until then, dentists had been told that the virus died within 20 seconds after leaving a human body. Lewis announced his findings in 1992 in the prestigious scientific journal The Lancet. The Food and Drug Administration immediately directed dentists to completely sterilize equipment before using it on other patients.
Link to Southwest Florida
Lewis has continued to pursue his interest in viruses that threaten public health. He found a potential source of such pathogens: sewage sludge, the dark soup that remains when liquid sewage is treated. Every year, millions of tons of sludge are spread as a fertilizer on farms and golf courses.
Lewis wondered: If viruses can survive in lubricants in medical equipment, what kind of harmful things might survive in sewage sludge and for how long?
In fact, Lewis has proposed a specific study in Southwest Florida. He wants to take the DNA "fingerprints" of pathogens contained in grease or chicken fat that is part of the sewage sludge spread on DeSoto County fields. Then, after rain washed the sludge into nearby Horse Creek, Lewis would follow the pathogens to see how far downstream they traveled and whether they could harm people or the Charlotte Harbor estuary.
That proposal, however, is now in limbo: The EPA forced Lewis to retire in June.
New and old concerns
Some scientists and civic activists have questioned for years whether the EPA has sufficient knowledge -- and regulatory oversight -- of the toxic chemicals and heavy metals in sludge. Lewis has brought attention to another concern: the presence of pathogens and disease-causing biological agents in the waste.
The most common pathogens are bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa. All exist in sludge and pose a threat to health and the environment, says Lewis, whose assertion rankles EPA officials. EPA policy says pathogens aren't a threat because they are killed during treatment or die soon after sludge is spread on land.
Lewis, who began his sludge research in the mid-1990s, was surprised to find that little scientific study preceded the EPA'S 1993 adoption of sludge regulations.
In 1996, the prestigious scientific journal Nature published a commentary by Lewis. In that essay, he said that scientific research at the EPA had reached "a state of crisis," due in part to staff cuts during the 1980s and 1990s and because of the EPA's increasing reliance on outside contractors. Lewis also said the agency suffered from a bloated management structure.
Lewis' Nature article, "EPA Science: Casualty of Election Politics," displeased Henry L. Longest II.
In 1978, Longest played a key role in formulating the EPA's sludge policy and, in 1996, he was a senior-level personnel manager. In the late 1990s, Lewis and his laboratory director, Dr. Rosemarie C. Russo, became the targets of what the Labor Department later ruled were retaliatory actions by Longest's office.
Among the EPA employees implicated by the Labor Department was John Walker, who worked with Longest to develop the agency's sludge policy and the 1993 revision of that policy. In the late 1990s, Walker gave Synagro Technologies Inc., a major sludge-disposal company, information on sludge research that Lewis was conducting. When Synagro then issued a "white paper" that attacked Lewis and his research, Walker distributed the paper.
No wonder critics of the EPA say that, when it comes to sludge, the agency works for the industry, not the public.
Results of criticism
Lewis, nonetheless, has kept pounding away at the EPA -- and its sewage sludge policies -- in articles and in comments to members of Congress and the media. His criticism has produced some results:
The House Science Committee conducted hearings in 2000 on the EPA's shabby treatment of anti-sludge citizens and scientists who question the agency's sludge policies. The hearings were prompted by Lewis' complaints to the committee chairman about EPA sludge policies and the way he and Russo were treated by the agency. Committee members were critical of the EPA and its sludge policies.
The EPA's Office of Inspector General reviewed the agency's handling of sludge at the urging of Lewis and the National Whistleblower Center. The Inspector General's March 2002 report reiterated a statement in a similar report issued in 2000: "EPA cannot assure the public that current land application practices are protective of human health and the environment."
The EPA filed a Federal Register notice April 8, declaring that it has embarked on a study to determine if public health and the environment are threatened by toxic chemicals, metals and pathogens in sewage sludge spread on farmland. That announcement was, in effect, an admission by the agency that it has promoted the widespread use of sewage sludge without conducting sufficient scientific research.
There would be no plans for a new EPA study were it not for Lewis, says his attorney, Steve Kohn, who is fighting the agency's termination of Lewis' employment.
Kohn contends that some senior level administrators at the EPA wanted Lewis out of the government because they didn't want him around if their research on pathogens concluded that he was right all along.
EPA administrators should quash their pettiness and bring Lewis back. He has knowledge, skills and experience that can help the agency, the American people and the environment.
This is the sixth editorial in the "Waste Land" series, which began on Sunday.
Tomorrow: Sludge and bioterrorism
Tool for bioterrorism? Scientist warns: Lax regulation of sludge
could be fatal flaw
The U.S. government tracks smallpox, anthrax, ebola and many other pathogens that bioterrorists might employ against the American people. The government also monitors the production of powerful bacteria-related toxins, including botulinum toxin, a chemical used in minute quantities in botox shots.
The government doesn't, however, monitor another potential tool of terrorists -- sewage sludge. That's a mistake, according to microbiologist David L. Lewis.
Why? Because, Lewis warns, terrorists will look for lax security. They will look for biological agents that aren't being monitored and for new ways to unleash them on the American public.
Lewis' belief that sludge could be used to commit bioterrorism might strike many Americans as outlandish. But the events of 9/11 once seemed improbable, and Lewis makes a convincing case that sludge -- a byproduct of sewage treatment -- could be plausibly employed by bioterrorists against unsuspecting Americans.
"The troubling thing about land application of sewage sludge is that all these opportunities are there in a package deal," Lewis told a Herald-Tribune editorial writer in a recent interview. "Someone could formulate a weapon and have it transported and delivered with no one paying attention at all. It presents an opportunity to use chemicals and pathogens where no one is monitoring them, and they don't need a rental truck or crop duster to deliver them. Everything's handled for them by the city and the company hauling and spreading the contaminated sludge."
Much of Lewis' recent work has focused on the unintentional impacts of sludge disposal on human health and the environment. But Lewis provided us with a hypothetical yet plausible, step-by-step scenario of how a bioterrorist could use sludge to intentionally harm Americans:
1. A bioterrorist gets a job at a waste-water treatment plant.
2. He mixes a lot of nickel into a load of sewage sludge on its way to a field (nickel breaks down the human immune system).
3. The terrorist adds either staph bacteria highly resistant to antibiotics or relies on staph bacteria already present in sludge.
4.The sludge cocktail is spread on a field and covered with lime.
5. The mixture dries up, the wind blows, and the "weapon" is carried downwind.
6. People, their immune systems weakened by the nickel, develop skin infections.
Lewis detailed a variation on that theme: A terrorist adds a bacterial toxin to sludge which, when combined with the salmonella or E. coli bacteria already in the waste, causes people downwind from a dump site to suffer gastrointestinal problems.
The wind would be useful in states with dry climates. In Florida, Lewis says, a bioterrorist could contaminate water by adding thallium -- a metal extraordinarly toxic at low levels -- to a load of farm-bound sludge. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't require waste-water plants to monitor thallium.
Terrorists need not kill a lot of people to inflict fear. Because sewage sludge is produced in large volume in urban areas and disposed of at the nearest farms, golf courses and public parks willing to take it, news reports about an attack could cause anyone who lives near sludge-fertilized fields and grounds to panic.
The U.S. government should heed Lewis' advice and develop prevention, response and cleanup plans based on assessments of where sewage sludge would most likely be used to deliver a biological weapon.
In June 2002, Lewis sent a memo stating his warnings to Dr. Rosemarie Russo, his supervisor at an EPA research laboratory in Athens, Ga. She had asked the laboratory's scientists to recommend how the agency might help in the war on terrorism.
In a deposition given in a Labor Department hearing early this year, Russo testified that Lewis' memo -- along with his consistently "excellent and superb" work as an EPA microbiologist -- caused her to believe that Lewis could be a primary player in the agency's new antiterror mission.
Lewis' focus on the tools that bioterrorists could use predates America's 9/11- sparked awareness of terrorism. Lewis authored a 1999 article in the journal Nature in which he said sewage sludge can make pesiticides more toxic. Months later, to Lewis' surprise, he received an e-mail from a scientist in Syria who wanted to know more about the subject. Lewis, who did not respond to the e-mail, contacted Russo and a Georgia congressman.
EPA administrators should have assigned Lewis to a prominent homeland-security role. Instead, they forced him to retire on May 28 of this year.
A week earlier, Republican Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and James Inhofe of Oklahoma wrote a letter to EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman. They said Lewis had "contributed greatly to improving the quality of science" in the EPA. She was asked to "carefully consider" the decision to make him retire. The senators said they were "concerned about the impact Dr. Lewis' termination might have on the obligation of the EPA to fully support the nation's homeland security efforts."
We agree with Grassley, who responded with this statement when we contacted his office and asked about the forced retirement: "Dr. Lewis is another example of an all too common practice by federal agencies. Instead of listening to constructive criticism by patriotic employees like Dr. Lewis and other whistleblowers, they quickly close ranks and shut out anyone who is not willing to go along and get along."
For the good of the nation, the Department of Labor should order the EPA to put Lewis back to work.
This is the seventh editorial in the "Waste Land" series, which began on Sunday.
Tomorrow: Whistleblowers at risk.
Muting the whistleblowers Scientist's case shows why government workers fear to speak out
David L. Lewis is a whistleblower. The federal government said so.
Yet Lewis, a microbiologist qualified to be published in prestigious scientific journals, was forced out of his job at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after years of solid service -- and criticizing the agency's policies.
His story ought to alarm Americans who believe that government employees are protected from retaliation for speaking out -- blowing the whistle -- when government policies harm the public.
The term "whistleblower," bestowed upon certain employees by the Department of Labor, is supposedly a protective badge of honor. But the badge does not make the maverick bulletproof -- as evidenced by what happened to Lewis when he criticized the EPA for allowing sewage sludge to be dumped on farmland.
Lewis, 55, lives in Athens, Ga. He has no job, no paycheck. Lewis is also ensnarled in a lawsuit and countersuit involving Synagro Technologies Inc., a leading waste-disposal corporation.
Steve Kohn of the nonprofit National Whistleblowers Center ranks Lewis, his client, among the top five environmental whistleblowers -- based on the potential for his case to effect change. When the case is over, the government might be forced to find a safer way to handle sewage sludge, Kohn says.
The illusion of protection
Americans are fortunate to have public servants like Lewis and the public-interest attorneys who represent them. But whistleblowers are barely audible in society, and Congress provides too little protective oversight.
Consequently, many federal employees keep their mouths shut and whistleblowers are kept waiting in line. The Washington Post reported that the Office of Special Counsel can't keep up with cases; as of June 30, 628 cases awaited review, and half had been stalled more than six months.
Congress must pass laws stronger than the Whistleblower Act and the No Fear Act of 2002 -- and ensure that they are enforced.
Unfortunately, as Lewis' case demonstrates, some federal employees still have reason to fear retaliation for voicing legitimate criticism.
Lewis became officially recognized as a whistleblower in the mid-1990s when the Labor Department ruled he was the target of retaliation for questioning the EPA's sewage-sludge disposal regulations. In a settlement reached with a senior EPA administrator, Henry L. Longest II, Lewis agreed to retire recently, on his 55th birthday. Lewis and Kohn contend that the agreement became invalid when the EPA didn't comply with the settlement terms; the Labor Department is still hearing Lewis' case.
Another whistleblower silenced
Lewis isn't the only EPA employee to receive whistleblower status because of his opposition to sludge-disposal policies.
In the mid-1970s, William Sanjour, chief of the technology branch in the EPA's Office of Solid Waste Programs, tried to prevent the EPA from promoting the use of sludge as fertilizer. Sanjour went a step further, suggesting that sludge should be regulated as a hazardous waste.
Sanjour, now retired and living in Virginia, told us he first voiced concerns in 1973, when he said cadmium in sewage sludge posed risks. His draft paper was "suppressed," he says, an action "typical of the anti-science going on" at the EPA. Sanjour persisted. In 1978, he says, the EPA reassigned him to a meaningless job. When he protested, the Labor Department gave him whistleblower status, but he never again worked on sewage-sludge regulation.
The reassignment didn't stop Sanjour from speaking out, however. In 1979, he told a Senate subcomittee that it was clear that neither the EPA management nor then-President Jimmy Carter's White House wanted strong regulations. Sanjour said EPA scientists "were informed by our management that because of pressure from the White House to fight inflation, the scope of the draft hazardous waste regulations would have to be reduced."
Sanjour testified, "We were to avoid regulating hazardous waste from the oil and gas industry, electric power companies, and other large industries or municipalities which have water discharge permits under the Clean Water Act."
Clean water, toxic sludge
EPA officials decided to regulate sewage sludge based on the laws governing water, rather than on those focused on hazardous waste. The ostensible reason was that sludge is a byproduct of waste-water treatment. But there were more compelling reasons: The water-law standards were easier to meet, and problems with sludge disposal were hindering the EPA's efforts to implement the Clean Water Act of 1972. That law launched a "huge" federal grants program to build sewage-treatment plants that, in Sanjour's words, would "take the poisons out of water and put them into sludge."
Sanjour told us last week, "The whole thing depended on getting rid of the sludge. And if you can't get rid of the sludge, the whole system collapses."
The nation's sewage-treatment systems didn't collapse: They produced cleaner waste water but, with it, millions of tons of sludge, which the EPA conveniently (but without adequate research) promoted as fertilizer. As a result, portions of the public and the nation's environment have been exposed to pathogens and chemical pollutants.
The EPA now plans to re-examine its sludge policies. But unless critics like Lewis and Sanjour are allowed to question findings and conclusions during the upcoming review, history will be repeated.
In the meantime, Floridians should take their own precautions by insisting that state and local officials dig into the truth about sewage sludge and stop its use on agricultural land.
This is the eighth editorial in the "Waste Land" series, which began last Sunday.
Reasons to care Sludge isn't pretty, but how it's handled affects your life
Sewage sludge doesn't sizzle. It isn't sensational or salacious. Nevertheless, we devoted an editorial series, which ends today, to sludge.
The series, Waste Land, was published for eight days. As editorial writer Larry Evans states in his column on this page, a long series wasn't our original intent. But the more we learned, the more we felt compelled to share with our readers.
Following the entire series consumed a lot of our readers' valuable time; to those who hung with us, we're grateful. To those who didn't, we understand. But we hope you'll give us another chance to explain, in brief, why anyone should care about sewage sludge. Here are a half-dozen reasons:
1. Most people are part of the waste-disposal problem because most homes and businesses connected to central sewer systems contribute to the production of noxious sludge.
2. Regulatory agencies have created the false impression that scientific evidence supports their assertion that a common method of sludge disposal -- application on agricultural lands -- is safe.
3. Sludge is out of the sight of most Southwest Florida residents but tons are dumped in adjacent DeSoto County.
4. Scientists fear pathogens and pollutants from sludge might wind up in drinking water and estuaries.
5. Anyone with an interest in good government should be concerned about the abuse of whistleblowers who questioned official policies on sludge.
6. Sludge could be used in bioterrorism.
A summary of the major points of the series follows below. A compilation of the series can be found at HeraldTribune.com.
In conclusion Steps to improve regulation and restrict the use of sludge
In editorials published last week, the Herald-Tribune Editorial Board criticized the widespread and inadequately regulated use of sewage sludge on agricultural lands in Florida and the United States.
Here's a summary of the conclusions from our editorial series, "Waste Land":
1. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's sewage sludge regulations are based on weak science.
Congress should immediately fund extensive research to examine how sewage sludge affects people, wildlife, land, water and air.
After 30 years of ambivalence, the EPA has declared itself ready to do such research. We have no confidence in the EPA, given its record, to conduct adequate research and make independent, science- based recommendations.
2. Money for research should go to independent scientists.
To ensure unbiased research, Congress should eliminate its mandate that funnels almost all funds for sludge studies through the Water Environment Federation and its research arm, the Water Environment Research Foundation -- an association of professionals in the water and waste-water industries.
3. Congressional committees should make cleanup of the EPA a priority.
Since presidents generally appoint politicians, not scientists, to head the agency, it's not surprising that politics often trumps science within the EPA. However, the agency's failure to conduct adequate scientific studies of sludge and its retaliation against internal critics are unacceptable.
4. Congress should re-examine the way EPA administrators treated microbiologist David L. Lewis.
Lewis was forced out of the EPA in May because he repeatedly criticized the agency's sludge policy. Official whistleblower status didn't provide adequate protection.
5. Whistleblower protections should be strengthened.
The federal government's backlog of whistleblower cases is excessive, and agencies such as the EPA aren't held accountable for mistreating whistleblowers.
Lewis should be rehired.
Lewis is a persistent critic, but he has been cited for exemplary work and his papers have been published in prestigious scientific journals. If given responsibilities commensurate with his abilities, he could be an important part of the government's efforts to prevent bioterrorism.
6. Sewage sludge regulations should be strengthened and their enforcement improved.
The EPA has fewer than a dozen employees -- nationwide -- working in its sewage-sludge program. Florida's Department of Environmental Protection employs three people for sludge regulation. Far larger staffs are needed to oversee the disposal of the millions of tons of sewage sludge hauled from waste-water plants.
Epidemiological studies should be conducted where people say land-applied sewage sludge has made them ill.
DeSoto County, the sludge-dumping capital of Florida, should be a primary test site.
7. The worst sludge-dumping practices should be eliminated expeditiously.
The dumping of Class B sludge, which receives low-grade treatment, should be banned.
The agricultural use of Class A sludge, which receives a higher grade of treatment but still contains pathogens and chemicals, should be phased out.
The disposal of sludge within several thousand feet of any waterway or occupied building should be prohibited.
No sludge should be allowed in any officially designated flood plain.
8. The public should be given adequate warnings about sludge.
Sludge-treated land should be extensively posted with warning signs.
Advisory labels should be put on any food product -- orange juice, beef, etc. -- grown on land where sludge was used.
Disclosure of sludge use should be required in real estate transactions.
9. Tests should be conducted of soil where sewage sludge -- and its mix of chemicals, heavy metals and pathogens -- has been spread.
An ideal place to start the soil tests would be DeSoto County, the dumping ground for sludge produced in many Florida communities. Those communities and the sludge-disposal companies should pay for the tests, which should be conducted by independent researchers.
10. Scientists should be granted research funds to determine if pollutants from sludge-covered fields in DeSoto travel to Charlotte Harbor.
Also, sediments in Horse Creek, the Peace River and Charlotte Harbor should be tested.
11. Wildlife biologists should be assigned to study the effects of sludge dumping.
The scientists should determine if animals are ingesting chemicals, metals or disease-causing organisms when they roam sludge-covered fields.
12. he federal government should examine the potential for sludge to be employed in bioterrorism.
Research on the possible uses of sludge to threaten public health or national interests should be incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security's plans for preventing bioterrorism.
13. Local governments should discuss whether it's ethical to export the most noxious forms of sludge.
Consider this: Virtually all urban and suburban communities produce sludge. If sewage sludge is as harmful as some scientists say, is it ethical to export sludge to another community -- particularly a poor, rural county -- when disposal is inadequately regulated by state and federal governments?
Article published Aug 24, 2003
POLLUTED FARMLAND Sludge verdict sets a precedent
Where I grew up, a man named Frank had a small, yellow tanker truck with his company's slogan painted on the side: "Nobody Sticks Their Nose In Frank's Business." Frank pumped out septic tanks.
That truck came to mind several times in recent weeks as I conducted research for "Waste Land," the editorial series that concludes today.
The series, which I wrote in tandem with Editorial Page Editor Thomas Lee Tryon, is about how the Environmental Protection Agency has, since the 1970s, mishandled sludge from waste-water treatment plants, and what happened when scientist David L. Lewis stuck his nose deep into the EPA's business.
We initially intended to write one editorial urging the National Institutes of Health to award a research grant to EPA microbiologist Lewis and several University of Georgia scientists. As reported in a Herald-Tribune news story, the scientists want to study whether sewage sludge spread on DeSoto County farmland causes harm to people and wildlife.
Before writing, I contacted Lewis in late May and asked about the proposed study. Lewis, who is 55, replied that on the previous day he had been forced to retire from his job as an EPA microbiologist, and therefore the research grant application probably suffered a derailment, too.
That seemeed strange. Moments before, when looking on the Internet for a way to contact Lewis, I'd learned that in 2002 he had won both the EPA Science Achievement Award for Biology/Ecology and the Science and Technology Achievement Award from the EPA's Office of Research & Development. Why was he shown the door in early 2003? Intrigued, I asked Lewis numerous questions.
Senior-level EPA administrators had nothing to do with choosing the recipient of the awards, Lewis told me, and everything to do with why he no longer has a job.
It became obvious that one editorial would not suffice.
I interviewed other scientists and read federal reports and internal EPA memos. I read and viewed depositions given in administrative law proceedings. Two things became increasingly clear:
1.The EPA has no scientific basis for saying sludge used on farmland is safe.
2.Because David Lewis had the courage to reveal that fact, his career was wrecked.
Lewis hopes his efforts lead to reform, but he's not optimistic, given his experience and the tight relationship between the EPA and the industry it is supposed to regulate.
And yet, there is cause to believe a new era is beginning in the odorous, dark world of sludge-dumping.
The new era started, I believe, June 24 in a courtroom in Burke County, Ga. A jury, after a two-week trial, awarded $550,000 to a family that claimed sewage sludge from the city of Augusta's waste- water plant killed their cattle and ruined their land.
Both sides have appealed. Augusta doesn't think it bears responsibility. The family wants $12.5 million to compensate for a farm that's ruined.
Farmers should pay attention to what happened in Georgia. Testimony at the trial revealed that the EPA provided little regulatory oversight or enforcement. How many other farms have been ruined? How many farmers have a hazardous waste site to leave their children?
The verdict in the Georgia trial should also make local government officials think about how much liability they, too, could face if their sewage sludge pollutes farmland or makes people sick.
The issue of legal liability -- not reform within the EPA -- will prompt changes in the way public utilities dispose of sludge, I believe. All it will take is a few more court decisions to convince local government officials they are playing with fire when they truck their sewage sludge to farms.
The outcome of the trial in Georgia did not surprise some local government officials throughout the United States. For years, they've implored Congress to pass a law that says the EPA, not local governments, should be held liable for damages caused by the sludge-dumping the EPA has condoned and promoted.
Other localities could be as vulnerable as Augusta -- which is being taken to court by another farm family. It is anybody's guess how many lawsuits will arise in a nation in which the EPA estimates that between 5 million and 6 million tons of sewage sludge goes on farms each year.
Meanwhile, farmers should heed a warning by F. Edwin Hallman Jr., an Atlanta attorney who represents the two farm families in Georgia. Hallman was formerly the chief enforcement attorney for the U.S. Department of Energy in the Southeast region.
"What was put on these farms" in Georgia "would create a Superfund site in a heartbeat if not for this attempted magic by the EPA," Hallman told a Department of Labor administrative law judge in April in Washington. Hallman was there to vouch for the credibility of Lewis, who is trying to get his EPA job back.
Before many more court cases arise, Congress should stick its nose in the EPA's business. The federal government -- not local governments or farmers -- should be held accountable for the sewage sludge dumped on land.
Larry Evans is a Herald-Tribune editorial writer based in Venice.