In McElmurray v. USDA, 2008 WL 516751 (S.D.Ga.), a U.S. court has strongly criticized American biosolids policy, and awarded compensation to a farmer whose fields were poisoned by sewage sludge. McElmurray sought federal disaster compensation, on the ground that Augusta, Georgia’s municipal sewage sludge had so contaminated his dairy farm that nothing could be grown on it; even the dairy cows died.
After five years of legal wrangling, Judge Alaimo agreed. Between 1979 and 1990, due to bad record keeping and a “grossly neglected” sewage plant, the McElmurray Farm had been heavily dosed with erratic sewage sludge. Sludge regulations in both the US and Canada assume well-run pre-treatment programs, which was “not the case” in Augusta.
As a result, more than 2,000 acres of the farm was unusable, containing random “hot zones”. Many samples showed high levels of cadmium, antimony, arsenic, selenium, thallium, PCBs, chlordane etc.. Several parts of the farm were more contaminated than Superfund sites.
Even more distressing than the carelessness of the Augusta sewage plant was the U.S. EPA’s apparent cover-up. Government sampling seemed designed to minimize the chance of finding contamination, taking samples only from surface soils and analyzing only composite samples, thus diluting high contaminant levels in particular locations.
“Other evidence of record calls into question the fairness and objectivity of the EPA’s opinions with respect to the sludge land application program…Senior EPA officials took extraordinary steps to quash scientific dissent and any questioning of EPA’s biosolids program.” One scientist, Dr. David Lewis, was forced to resign after 31 years at EPA “because his biosolids research was at odds with official EPA policy”. According to Lewis, “the EPA had politicized scientific research at the agency and utilized unreliable and fraudulent data to support the continuation of the [US] sludge land application program.”
In a chilling conclusion, Judge Alaimo commented that “experts have yet to reach a consensus as regarding the safety of land application of sewage sludge generally.”
Canada typically follows the lead of the US EPA, but it is not yet known whether any of these US problems are relevant in Canada.