Polluted Farmland

Herald-Tribune
Southwest Florida
August 24, 2003

Polluted Farmland
Sludge Verdict Sets a Precedent

by Larry Evans

Where I grew up, a man named Frank had a small, yellow tanker truck with his company's slogan painted on the side: "Nobody Sticks Their Nose in Frank's Business." Frank pumped out septic tanks.

That truck came to mind several times in recent weeks as I conducted research for "Waste Land," the editorial series that concludes today.

The series, which I wrote in tandem with Editorial Page Editor Thomas Lee Tryon, is about how the Environmental Protection Agency has, since the 1970s, mishandled sludge from waste-water treatment plants, and what happened when scientist David L. Lewis stuck his nose deep into the EPA's business.

We initially intended to write one editorial urging the National Institutes of Health to award a research grant to EPA microbiologist Lewis and several University of Georgia scientists. As reported in a Herald-Tribune news story, the scientists want to study whether sewage sludge spread on DeSoto County {FL} farmland causes harm to people and wildlife.

Before writing, I contacted Lewis in late May and asked about the proposed study. Lewis, who is 55, replied that on the previous day he had been forced to retire from his job as an EPA microbiologist, and therefore the research grant application probably suffered a derailment, too.

That seemed strange. Moments before, when looking on the Internet for a way to contact Lewis, I'd learned that in 2002 he had won both the EPA Science Achievement Award for Biology/Ecology and The Science and Technology Achievement Award from the EPA's Office of Research and Development. Why was he shown the door in early 2003?

Intrigued, I asked Lewis numerous questions.

Senior-level EPA administrators had nothing to do with choosing the recipient of the awards, Lewis told me, and everything to do with why he no longer has a job.

It became obvious that one editorial would not suffice.

I interviewed other scientists and read federal reports and internal EPA memos. I read and viewed depositions given in administrative law proceedings.

Two things became increasingly clear:

1. The EPA has no scientific basis for saying sludge used on farmland is safe.

2. Because David Lewis had the courage to reveal that fact, his career was wrecked.

Lewis hopes his efforts lead to reform, but he's not optimistic, given his experience and the tight relationship between the EPA and the industry it is supposed to regulate.

And yet, there is cause to believe a new era is beginning in the odorous, dark world of sludge-dumping.

The new era started, I believe, June 24 in a courtroom in Burke County, GA. A jury, after a two-week trial, awarded $550,000 to a family that claimed sewage sludge from the city of Augusta's waste-water plant killed their cattle and ruined their land.

Both sides have appealed. Augusta doesn't think it bears responsibility. The family wants $12.5 million to compensate for a farm that's ruined.

Farmers should pay attention to what happened in Georgia. Testimony at the trial revealed that the EPA provided little regulatory oversight or enforcement. How many other farms have been ruined? How many farmers have a hazardous waste site to leave their children?

The verdict in the Georgia trial should also make local government officials think about how much liability they, too, could face if their sewage sludge pollutes farmland or makes people sick.

The issue of legal liability — not reform within the EPA — will prompt changes in the way public utilities dispose of sludge, I believe. All it will take is a few more court decisions to convince local government officials they are playing with fire when they truck their sewage sludge to farms.

The outcome of the trial in Georgia did not surprise some local government officials throughout the United States. For years, they've implored Congress to pass a law that says the EPA, not local governments, should be held liable for damages caused by the sludge-dumping the EPA has condoned and promoted. Other localities could be as vulnerable as Augusta — which is being taken to court by another farm family. It is anybody's guess how many lawsuits will arise in a nation in which the EPA estimates that between 5 million and 6 million tons of sewage sludge goes on farms each year.

Meanwhile, farmers should heed a warning by F. Edwin Hallman Jr., an Atlanta attorney who represents the two farm families in Georgia. Hallman was formerly the chief enforcement attorney for the U.S. Department of Energy in the Southwest region.

"What we put on these farms" in Georgia "would create a Superfund site in a heartbeat if not for this attempted magic by the EPA," Hallman told a Department of Labor administrative law judge in April in Washington. Hallman was there to vouch for the credibility of Lewis, who is trying to get his EPA job back.

Before many more court cases arise, Congress should stick its nose in the EPA's business. The federal government — not local governments or farmers — should be held accountable for the sewage sludge dumped on land.

Larry Evans is a Herald-Tribue editorial writer based in Venice.
Contact him at: larry.evans@heraldtribune.com

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