Letter: BS in the biosolids business

The water utilities do a great job of separating the dangerous chemicals out of the water…why put them back into the environment?

To the editor:

The sewer sludge industry has often tried to defend its practice of transferring sludge from the Lower Mainland to unsuspecting rural areas. Their officials usually trot out the industry marketing clichés one after another – so why don’t we take a closer look at the claims they make.

They like to say that sludge is a “non chemical” alternative for agriculture, but they know full well that biosolids contain thousands of chemicals (for a list of chemicals and toxins simply Google “Sludge contaminants”). Remember that this sludge is the concentrated end-product of the water cleaning process. They take out all the pollutants so the water can go back to mother earth. The sinister goulash of chemicals and toxins left behind is then marketed as “beneficial” because some of it (the feces) is organic.

They often state that sludge is treated to kill bacteria before it leaves the facilities. That is generally true but short on detail. What they fail to mention is that the “treatment” may kill most of the bacteria, but it in no way kills all the pathogens, antibacterial-resistant superbugs etc., and does not even address deadly Prions – and these are very worrying !

They also tell us that the resultant product is “high in nutrients and organic matter” which is good for plant growth. Well no one questions that there is going to be some nitrogen and phosphorous in this fecal residue that the plants can use. What they omit to mention here is that along with these few good things comes a heavy burden of toxins which have not been removed. These, in the long run, are neither good for the soils or the plants (please see these three recent peer-reviewed articles on how biosolids jeopardizes soils, worms and plants by the presence of various toxins – “Monitoring Bacteroides spp. markers, nutrients, metals and Escherichia coli in soil and leachate after land application of three types of municipal biosolids”, 2014; “Bioavailability of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in biosolids-amended soils to earthworms (Eisenia fetida)” 2014. “Dissipation of contaminants of emerging concern in biosolids applied to nonirrigated farmland in eastern Colorado”, 2014).

The sludge industry likes to note that safety is assured as biosolids have been used for over 25 years in BC. This is not a valid argument. Asbestos and cigarettes had both been used (for over 25 years) and certified to be safe by this government. We now know better! Nowhere have I read that this practice of land application of biosolids is without risk, and if you look up the definition of “safe” I believe you will see that it means “without risk.” The government is always playing a catch-up game with its legislation. Biosolids (neither beneficial nor safe) are a toxic burden that will be recognized as such in time, just as cigarettes and asbestos were, after decades, seen to be the dangers they are.

The industry also repeats the astounding statement that “Biosolids use is stringently regulated.” Wow! Rarely have I seen a less regulated substance in my life. Every aspect of the process, from site selection to application procedures, to the toxic composition of the sludge itself – all of it, is woefully under-supervised. It relies, in fact, to a great extend on self-regulation. OMRR guidelines are simply inadequate to deal with emerging environmental issues or ensure public safety. They claim that BC and Canadian regulations are “more stringent” than those of the EPA on which they were modelled. I have studied both in depth and can find very few differences, and certainly none that ensure a safer environment or a safer food chain. They are both outdated and impotent pieces of legislation.

Metro Vancouver officials assure us that city bylaws stipulating what is allowed to be dumped into the sewer system will protect us from danger. They may have great faith in the average city dweller, or the average city business, but many would not. This hope they have that bylaws will protect the purity of the sewer sludge is a long way from being able to say that these contaminants are not actually present in the sludge! This assertion they cannot make. Pharmaceuticals, fire retardants, and a plethora of other very toxic contaminants ARE in the sludge being trucked out to rural areas- and that simply cannot be denied.

If the product is as they say, “stringently regulated”, then why out of the thousands of toxins and chemicals in biosolids are only about a dozen tested for? How, if it is so “stringently regulated”, did the Suzuki Foundation recently find very toxic components in the bisosolids delivered to the Nicola Valley from the Lower Mainland? Evidently the “monitoring” is inadequate to ensure safety!

There are other issues which of course they avoid mentioning in their sales pitch, but I feel should be addressed: If biosolids are deemed to be “safe” then why do major food producers like Campbells, DelMonte and Whole Foods reject any produce raised with Biosolids?? Because they rightly fear the levels of toxicity! that’s why!

Similarly, if they are deemed safe, why are so many countries turning away from land application of biosolids, or banning the practice outright? Switzerland has banned the practice because of fears from farmers that it was harming their soil. The Netherlands has banned agricultural use of sludge, and national farmers’ associations in France, Germany, Sweden, Luxembourg and Finland are against it, partly because of concerns about organic contaminants such as PCBs and brominated flame retardants (linked to liver and neuro-developmental toxicity and hormone disruption), which some research has shown persist in sludge (Google the Guardian article by Rose George on sludge use in Europe).

It is also important to keep in mind, as Caroline Snyder, of Harvard University, has pointed out: “Almost a hundred farm, health, and environmental organizations led by the national Sierra Club, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Rodale Institute, the National Farmers Union, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Cornell Waste Management Institute, the Center for Food Safety, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy etc.— all oppose using biosolids on the land where we grow food and graze animals. All these organizations have scientists on their board of directors. Are all of these scientists wrong?”

And so I ask, why would we believe this industry, directly involved in the business of getting rid of Vancouver’s toxic sewer sludge, over the specialist knowledge of countless scientists (at arm’s length from the sludge industry) who have repeatedly warned us of the dangers inherent in applying biosolids to land?

The water utilities do a great job of separating the dangerous chemicals out of the water so it can be returned to Mother Earth. Why would we ever think it a good idea to turn around and put those collected and concentrated toxins back into the environment we just took them out of? It is reckless and short-sighted. This is certainly not a ‘green’ solution, from a city that likes to believe it is following a sustainable path. There are alternatives to this insanity—see www.biosolidsbc.com


Don Vincent, member,

Friends of the Nicola Valley Society, Merritt


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