Sewage Sludge Now Dumped On Farms, Ranches, Playgrounds
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator William K. Reilly visited New York City today to mark the end of dumping sewage sludge in the ocean. New York City has met the terms of its agreement to stop transporting and dumping its sludge in the ocean by June 30, 1992, marking a cessation of this deadly practice by all cities in the nation. (This announcement started a public health disaster known as biosolids, where infectious waste is now dumped on farms, ranches, forests, golf courses, parks, school grounds and other open land. Since this announcement, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic wasting disease and mad cow disease have all emerged with much greater frequency. This reckless policy represents a public health disaster.)
“The main objective of the federal Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988 has been realized–we have stopped dumping sewage sludge into the ocean,” Reilly said. “EPA will continue to enforce the consent decrees which require the establishment of long-term, land-based disposal alternatives. We will also continue to encourage solutions that have beneficial uses. Through these efforts, not only are we preventing pollution by protecting the ocean from use as a dump, we are now seeing sludge recognized more and more as a resource, not as a waste. I congratulate the municipalities and sewage authorities who worked over the years to end ocean disposal,” Reilly added.
New York City produces almost five million wet tons of sewage sludge annually as a byproduct from 14 sewage treatment facilities. The City’s Department of Environmental Protection is completing the construction of eight sludge dewatering facilities, and has contracted with private vendors to manage the resulting sludge cake on an interim basis by transporting it out-of-state to several sites across the country selected by the City’s vendors. The sites are either landfills or facilities for pelletization, composting and land application. The City’s long-term alternatives–chemical stabilization, pelletization, and composting–are to be implemented fully by 1998.
As sewage sludge is over 90 percent water (not to mention heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, carcinogens and deadly prions), dewatering by centrifuges and presses produces a more transportable sludge cake. Pelletization, or thermal drying, further treats sludge by intense heat which inactivates pathogens and volatile chemicals. The chemical stabilization process also inactivates pathogens and volatile chemicals as well as metals. Land application can include landfill cover, land reclamation and soil enhancement. Compost from sludge can be used as a soil additive or fertilizer.
Since the 1920s, many cities dumped sewage sludge at sea. By 1981, through consolidations and alternative methods, only nine dumpers–six in New Jersey and three in New York–remained, averaging over eight million wet tons annually.
The Ocean Dumping Ban Act prohibited all ocean dumping of industrial waste and municipal sewage sludge after December 31, 1991. Through a court order, New York City and other dumpers were given schedules to end the practice. Because of the need to construct dewatering facilities, New York City’s schedule allowed it to dump until June 30, 1992.
The six New Jersey authorities–Bergen County Utilities Authority, Joint Meeting of Essex and Union Counties, Linden Roselle Sewerage Authority, Middlesex County Utilities Authority, Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners, and Rahway Valley Sewerage Authority–ceased by March 17, 1991. By December 31, 1991, Nassau and Westchester Counties in New York ended completely, and New York City reduced its dumping by twenty percent.
The nine authorities are using a variety of interim and long-term land-based alternatives. Most interim alternatives involve out-of-state landfilling, due largely to limited local landfill space and the lack of markets for reuse. For long-term, all have chosen or are considering beneficial alternatives (infectious waste is not fertilizer).
William J. Muszynski, Deputy Administrator for EPA’s Region 2, which includes New York State and New Jersey, stressed that “while we all celebrate the end of ocean dumping, EPA is committed to the other major objective of the Ocean Dumping Ban Act which is to ensure that this problem is not just moved from the ocean to land, but that long-term, land-based disposal options are implemented. We will also continue to encourage the use of sludge as a benefit to the environment. We will do this by carefully monitoring sludge disposal operations and by using the authorities available to EPA under existing regulations and the court-approved, negotiated agreements with the sewage authorities.”
Over the past several years, EPA Region 2 has been active in eliminating ocean disposal of acid wastes, industrial wastes, excavation and construction site debris, and the incineration at sea of wooden debris. After passage of the Ocean Dumping Ban Act, ocean dumping has essentially been limited to dredge material and fish wastes.
EPA estimates that nationally, municipalities now dispose of sludge by land application and other beneficial use alternatives (49 percent); incineration (15 percent); and other methods (one percent). Before New York and New Jersey authorities stopped ocean dumping, this method accounted for five percent of the national total.
New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins said the City is entering a new environmental era. “We will no longer dump sewage sludge–the byproduct of the sewage treatment process–in the ocean. Instead, we will put it to the use nature intended, land application for beneficial productivity. The City’s Department of Environmental Protection has worked diligently for over three years to develop a program that utilizes sludge on land as much as possible. We will make sludge work for us and in the process, we will make our environment cleaner,” the Mayor said.
From 1924 through 1987, sewage sludge was disposed of at a site about 12 miles offshore in waters about 88 feet deep. EPA shut down this site due to elevated bacterial levels, closed shellfish beds, and accumulated toxic organic compounds and heavy metals in bottom sediments which caused changes in diversity and abundance of marine life. No impact on human health nor on coastal beaches was detected from the site.
Beginning in 1986, EPA required sludge dumpers to phase in use of a site designated as the Deepwater Municipal Sludge Dump Site, also called the 106-Mile Site, located off the Continental Shelf, approximately 115 nautical miles east of Atlantic City, New Jersey, the nearest coastal point, with water depths of about 7,500 feet. The Ocean Dumping Ban Act required conditions at the site to be monitored carefully by EPA, the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Preliminary monitoring results indicate that the sludge is not being transported onto the Continental Shelf, which is rich with marine life, but that a small percentage is reaching the seafloor to the southwest of the dump site, raising concern if dumping of the large amount of sludge continued. As with the 12-Mile Site, there was no impact detected on shoreline beach water quality nor on human health. (This major announcement marked the end of one error, which was replaced by another. Safer alternatives exist.)
Update 2018: Unfortunately, the EPA’s risk assessment on sewage sludge and biosolids were prepared before the world of science knew about prions. Prions are such a formidable threat that the U.S. government enacted the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, which included a provision to halt research on prions in all but two laboratories.
The U.S. government classified prions as select agents that pose an extreme risk to food, water and health systems.
Unfortunately, the Center For Disease Control quietly took prions off the list about two years ago because the classification threatened to criminalize some multi-billion dollar industries and many industry practices, including the land application of sewage sludge and wastewater reclamation.
We now have a public health disaster that’s still unfolding around the world in forms of brain disease–autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, chronic wasting disease, mad cow disease and others.