Congress to address dumping of sewage sludge

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Consumer and food groups are taking their fight to Congress to put a stop to the dumping of toxic sewage sludge on U.S. farmland.

Farmers, scientists and victims of sludge poisoning will go before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Thursday to investigate the Environmental Protections Agency’s role in the sludge dumped on farms and other lands.

“We have enough problems with toxic food as it is without having our food grown in toxic soil and derived from animals who have been sickened, often almost to death, because of these toxins,” said Andrew Kimbrell, the executive director of the Center for Food Safety.

Sewage sludge -- the heavy metals, toxic chemicals, pathogens and other hazardous materials filtered out of the water supply at waste treatment plants -- is devastating farmland, livestock and public health, critics charge.

E. coli, prions which cause mad cow disease, and dangerous carcinogens used in flame retardant materials are among the toxins studies have found to be living in sewage sludge.

“It’s a very pernicious cycle here of taking the poisons out of the water but putting it back into our land, and therefore back into our food and water supply,” Kimbrell said.

Sludge poisoning has caused serious illness and even death.

Researchers who dealt with sewage sludge will be among those testifying to its hazards and will speak about the headaches, fainting spells and nose bleeds they suffered.

Contact with sewage sludge can also cause asthma, respiratory problems and tumors. There have been several instances of death linked to exposure to the sludge.

Yet over the past 15 years, dumping sludge on farmland has become major practice and is legal under EPA rules. About 40 percent to 60 percent of all sewage sludge is dumped on farmlands, amounting to 2.7 million tons annually.

The EPA denied a petition filed five years ago by 73 food and consumer groups to put a moratorium on this practice until a full investigation could gauge the health, food and environmental impacts.

The agency cited a lack of scientific evidence to any harmful effects as reason not to stop the practice.

Since then, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was successfully sued by Andy McElmurray over contamination to his farm from sewage sludge. The court found the EPA’s data unreliable and said that the agency purposely manipulated data to squash scientific dissent.

“Bad science and bad policy has to stop, and I think Congress has had it,” Kimbrell said. “There’s a mood for change now, and here’s where we can begin to see real change.”

Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Marguerita Choy