The Clean Water Act and the Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988 eliminated all but land-based options for the “benefical use” or disposal sewage sludge. This fundamentally myopic approach to environmental protection teamed up with amendments to the Clean Water Act that pushed thousands of communities on to secondary treatment -- a level of biological treatment that doubles the amount of sludge produced at wastewater treatment plants -- to bring us the environmental and public health disaster we are now experiencing.
The treated effluent from wastewater treatment plants is now known to bring a vast array of wastewater contaminants, including personal care products and pharmaceuticals, into our nation’s water. Sewage sludge, the unavoidable byproduct of sewage treatment, is poisoning our food.
Increasing the level of treatment of sewage cannot resolve the immense pollution from sewers. What can?
Prevention -- the cost effective solution -- is the place to start: prevent hazardous waste from entering the sewer in the first place, prevent the exploitation of the myth that wastewater treatment and its associated technologies can fix any problem, and prevent the poisoning of our food supply with sewage sludge.
Many recent newspaper articles (note especially several Associated Press stories) have documented the growing nation-wide problems associated with the land spreading of sewage sludge, both for people who live near areas where sludge is “applied” and for those who eat food grown on sludge treated land. One of the recent AP stories (“Sewage-Based Fertilizer Safety Doubted,” March 7, 2008) documented that milk sold throughout the U.S contained high levels of thallium (the primary toxin in rat poison), which had been present in the sewage sludge spread on crops fed to dairy cows.
The first step should be to start telling the truth about sewage sludge.
Next, initiate a moratorium on the land application of sludge -- because there is no scientific evidence that this practice is safe.
And don’t create more sludge. Support decentralized systems, source separation, and sewer avoidance. Do not build more sewer systems or extend sewer lines.
Finally, implement policies that discourage the use of water to carry wastes.
What to do with the tons of sludge leaving wastewater plants each day?
Don’t put it on food chain crops, ball fields, parks, gardens, or yards. Instead, treat it as the hazardous waste it is. Keep it away from the public - isolate it from life. Put sewage sludge - whether “treated” or not - into lined sanitary landfills with proper leachate collection systems. If it fails the TCLIP test, it should go to a RCRA Subtitle C landfill for hazardous waste. Otherise it should go to a Subtitle D landfill.
Landfills are the only safe interim option we have until we can find other solutions, solutions that do not put sludge into the air (incineration), on our food (land application), or in our water (disposal at the outfall pipe).