Saturday, August 02, 2003
What is the impact of sludge?
One couple says it may have cost their son his life

About 70 residents turned out for Thursday's meeting, many to join with hundreds of others in the opposition to land application of sludge in Larimer Township. (Photo Credit: Steve Bittner/Times-News)
Maria D. Martirano
Times-News Staffwriter
LARIMER TOWNSHIP, Pa. - Russ and Antoinette Pennock held their oldest son's hand as he gasped for breath, told him they would always love him and that it was all right to let go.
Daniel Pennock, 17, died in April 1995, in Reading Hospital, just about two weeks after his parents learned he had staphylococcal pneumonia.
It took the couple six years to find a possible answer to their son's sudden illness and death.


They learned his death may be linked to his exposure to sewer sludge, which was applied to a farmer's fields near their home in Heidelberg Township.
Since then, the family has spoken statewide about sludge, and works with communities to stop the land application of it.
The couple spoke as part of a “community vision” meeting held Thursday at New Hope Church on state Route 160 about eight miles north of Wellersburg. The Citizens Environmental Watch Group held the meeting that about 70 people attended. Many people signed a petition and joined hundreds of their neighbors in stating their opposition to the land application of sludge in their township.
Sludge, also referred to as biosolids, is the organic material left over from the sewage treatment process. Farmers use it as fertilizer.


“Say No to Sludge” and “Keep Sludge Out” signs with a frown face in the “O” line the roadway. At the meeting, fluorescent yellow shirts with those sayings were sold.
William “Red” Wittaker and Ted Howe have proposed putting Johnstown Water Treatment Plant sludge on about 900 acres of land that they own. Synagro Inc. of Baltimore is the proposed firm that would apply the sludge.
Residents have protested the proposal since it was first introduced in April, and the Somerset County commissioners have said they unanimously oppose the idea.
Antoinette Pennock said 390 cases similar to her son's are being tracked, and several questions remain about the safety of sewer sludge.
The Pennocks filed a wrongful death suit Feb. 21, allegedly the land application violated regulations that dictate sludge usage.
Linda Jo Berkey of Shade Township began fighting the sludge battle two decades ago. She said it's not known what issues communities will face in the future but it “threatens” the way of life, the land, water and safety of residents. She encouraged the residents to stick together and join others who are fighting sludge.
“It's not just for unwanted refuse to be disposed of here because we are rural,” she said.
State Sen. Richard Kasunic also is a champion of the cause.
“I oppose it (sludge),” he said. “Would I want my son and future grandchildren swimming in Wills Creek? Certainly not.”
Kasunic has introduced Senate Bill 832, which would amend the Solid Waste Management Act and allow local municipalities to have control of whether they want to permit sludge application.
Bernice Baker of Fairhope said Larimer Township is “a drop in the bucket” and that even if sludge isn't applied there, it could be applied somewhere else that still would impact the watershed.
“I think it should be on the ballot,” she said. “I think people should have the right to stop our state from being a garbage dump.”
Tom Linzey, a lawyer with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in Chambersburg, said rural communities are “under siege” by corporations that want to deposit the sludge. He said such firms target rural areas that have a low population and limited financial resources.
More than 36 townships have passed sludge ordinances, with another 100 townships working on similar drafts.
He said the Water Environment Foundation sets aside $20 million each year for research into sludge. With $150 million spent over the last several years on studies, none of those funded was to determine the impact sludge has on human health, he claims.
On July 24, however, a jury in Georgia awarded a family $550,000 after finding sewer sludge killed several dairy cows.
Don Berkebile of Montgomery Township said his water, which comes from a spring, turned to sewer because of sludge.
He's had numerous tests performed on the water and finally the state's Department of Environmental Protection admitted it wasn't “fit for use.” He blames the spike in coliform that went from 28.8 parts per 100 milliliters to more than 200 and E. coli that went from less than 1 to 32.4 from May 22 to June 20 on sludge.
The sludge has been on a neighbor's farm for two months and it still smells although it isn't constant or as strong, he said. But he worries more when he can't smell it because he wonders what he's breathing.
Berkebile blames the government for not protecting the people and said it's owned by corporations.
Somerset County Solicitor Dan Rullo said the county may be able to do something similar to Rush Township, which is trying to impose a $40-per-ton monitoring fee. Synagro has sued and the case remains in federal court. The idea, he said, is to make the company think about going elsewhere.
Maria D. Martirano can be reached at
mmartirano@times-news.com <http://sea2fd.sea2.hotmail.msn.com/cgi-bin/compose?mailto=1&msg=MSG1059924852.31&start=8615498&len=24686&src=&type=x&to=mmartirano%40times%2dnews%2ecom&cc=&bcc=&subject=&body=&curmbox=F000000001&a=2b01891babc3a7fdd7c3ab8c564220cf>.