Sewage is the mix of water and whatever wastes from domestic and industrial life are flushed into the sewer. To retrieve the precious water, the sewage is then “treated,” that is, “cleaned,” in what are called “treatment plants.” The ideal of the treatment plant is to take out of the sewer water all the “wastes” that sewering put into it. The water is “cleaned” in the degree to which the pollutants which had turned the water into sewage are removed by treatment-primary, secondary, or tertiary-and concentrated in the sludge.
We must note that, though the aim of sewage treatment is to produce clean water, it is never to produce “clean” sludge. Indeed, the “dirtier” the sludge-the more complete its concentration of the noxious wastes-the more the treatment has done its job. If there are industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, hormones, nano particles, prions, hospital wastes including antibiotic-resistant bacteria-and there will be all of these-you want them to end up in the sludge. Every waste produced in our society that can be got rid of down toilets and drains and that can also be got out of the sewage by a given treatment process will be in the sludge. Sludge is thus inevitably a noxious brew of vastly various and incompatible materials unpredictable in themselves and in the toxicity of their amalgamation, incalculably but certainly wildly dangerous to life.
The policy of disposing of sludge by spreading it on agricultural land-a policy given the benign term “land application”-has its inception in the Ocean Dumping ban of 1987. Before 1992, when the law went into effect, the practice had been, after extracting the sludge from the wastewater, to load it on barges and dump it 12, and later 106 miles off shore into the ocean.
But many people who cared about life in the ocean knew that, wherever it was dumped, the sludge was causing vast dead moon-scapes on the ocean floor. New EPA regulations for “land application” were promulgated in 1993. With the aid of heating and pelletizing and some slippery name morphs along the way, EPA claimed sludge could be transmogrified into “compost”: compost, the sacred substance of all real farmers. And this “compost,” this Trojan Horse replete with the most complex array of toxic materials industrial civilization has ever known, would “fertilize” America's farmlands.
To carry out this plan EPA made a “win-win” deal with some solid-waste hauling corporations. In return for taking the sludge off the hands of municipalities, the corporate haulers would get the tax dollars that had previously gone to pay for dumping the sludge in the local landfill. This deal was indeed a “win” for municipal authorities who had suffered the mess, and worse the liability of sludge; it was a “win” for the corporations which, besides getting the tax dollars, wouldn't suffer from the liability either because that, amazingly, was transferred to the farmer on whose land the sludge is spread.
But the land “application” of sewage sludge represents a clear lose-lose-for people and for the environment-on a scale staggering to contemplate. It will pollute the whole chain of life for which soil is the base.