For farmers Bill Boyce and Bob McElmurray free nitrogen fertilizer from sewage sludge seemed like a good thing.

Sewage sludge is a mixture of domestic, industrial hazardous and non-hazardous waste. The McElmurrays used the sludge, now called biosolids, on most of their row crop land starting in 1979 and Boyce joined the program, applying municipal sludge to his cropland in 1986.

They farmed near Augusta, Ga., a stones throw from the Savannah River and South Carolina. More importantly, they farmed only a few miles from the City of Augusta's waste treatment plant.

Both farms were thriving. Boyce owned a prize herd of registered Holstein dairy cows and along with his son and grandson operated one of the Southeast's most successful dairies. By all accounts he was a leader among Georgia's dairy industry.

The McElmurrays, father and sons Richard, Earl and Andy, were building a row crop and dairy operation they hoped would sustain all four families and be successful enough that the next generation would carry on the family farming tradition.

The McElmurrays farmed several thousand acres of corn, soybeans, peanuts, forage crops, wheat and cotton. By all accounts and any measure of success they operated a thriving farming business.

Now, Bill Boyce works long, hard hours trying to build a restaurant and catering business. His prized Holstein cows, his land and the dairy business he loved are long-gone.

Bob McElmurray drives a truck to help make ends meet. Andy McElmurray remains on the farm to carry on the fight to reclaim what he says the use of sewage sludge has taken from his family and neighbors.

For the vast majority of his land, a Federal court order prevents him from planting any crops in the food chain or from selling his property — it is in effect a hazardous waste site.

For more than 15 years and 12 years respectfully the McElmurray and Boyce families have lived a horror story they say stems from the use of municipal waste on their farms. “We want to tell our story, because we don't want another farmer to go through what we've gone through,” says Andy McElmurray. Winning a major court case has been bitter sweet at best, he notes.

On Feb. 25, 2008, the McElmurrays, received an order and judgment issued by Judge Anthony Alaimo of the 11th Circuit Court. The order confirmed that there had been decades of deceit by the EPA and finds against the USDA and the EPA.

The Alaimo ruling acknowledges that the sludge applications on the McElmurray farm were responsible for killing hundreds of dairy cattle. In the ruling, Judge Alaimo said, “senior EPA officials took extraordinary steps to quash scientific dissent and any questioning of EPA's biosolids program.”

The court ruling effectively condemned the production of food chain crops on 1,730.5 acres of land.

The huge spike in fertilizer costs last year and lingering volatility in fertilizer prices has influenced many farmers in the Southeast to look for alternative sources N, P and K fertilizers. Some have found a cheap source in biosolids.

Not everyone, either farmers or university researchers, share McElmurray's concern over the threat of using municipal waste.

Alan B. Rubin, a principal author of key EPA biosolids regulations and a staunch biosolids proponent, says that while more long-term research needs to be done, he is convinced that biosolids — including those containing the compounds recently listed by the EPA — pose no serious health risk.

Rubin does say, though, that living in proximity to biosolids may be uncomfortable, particularly for “health-sensitive” individuals. “I'm not saying this causes illnesses like cancer, emphysema or cirrhosis or any other horrible disease. But it is causing an impact on the quality of life,” Rubin says.

Burlington, N.C., resident Nancy Holt says she moved to the country to get away from the congestion and pollution in the city. Her neighbor, a cattle farmer, applied high rates of biosolids on his pastureland. Heavy metals in the farmer's fertilizer source, she says, contributed to her ongoing health problems and partial blindness.

“I know my land and home will be severely devalued by its close proximity to this sludge depository farm and my conscience would not allow me to ever sell this property without warning people about the possible contamination of the creeks and the health issues experienced from the sewage sludge,” she says.

“I just want to be able see again,” she laments.

The struggle between farmers and urbanization has been going on a long time. New low rate, low smell, non-toxic pesticides have abated many problems. However, the ongoing fight over use of municipal waste goes well beyond the boundaries of pesticide use.

Companies like Nutri-Blend and Synagro are paid by cities, towns and counties to transport and apply biosolids to permitted farmland in accordance with local, federal and state regulations. A spokesman for Nutri-Blend, headquartered in Richmond, Va., says stringent state and federal regulations, plus highly monitored application procedures, ensure the maximum benefit to the land while protecting the environment and the health and safety of the surrounding communities.

Synagro in a corporate statement says, “The Synagro nationwide team is fully committed to environmental protection, high standards of operations and meeting and/or exceeding all regulatory requirements. Regulations that ensure the safe and responsible recycling of biosolids have been in effect since 1976.”

Andy McElmurray says farmers need be keenly aware of just what they are getting into when they allow biosolids to be applied to their land.

Farmers need to know several things before they allow municipal waste to be applied to their land, he says, including:

  • Who holds the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System Permit. Before allowing municipal waste to be applied, the farmer, and more likely the farmer and an attorney need to read and understand the permit.

  • Farmers need to have a copy of all industrial permits dumping into the sewer system where the sludge originates. They need to know all heavy metals and other industrial pollutants allowed to be dumped into that system. Current regulations mandate that cities test for nine of 27 heavy metals frequently found in industrial waste treatment plants.

  • Farmers need to go to their state environmental agency and obtain a copy of the cleanup standards for heavy metals and industrial pollutants. They should then compare state regulations and standards to those used by municipal treatment plants.

  • Farmers need to know that when industrial hazardous waste goes into a municipal waste water treatment plant, the same hazardous waste is removed from the water and is concentrated in the sewage sludge.

  • Farmers need to know that 40 CFR 503 does not require waste water treatment plants to test the sludge for all industrial hazardous waste entering the plant.

  • Once the farmer has the list of industrial pollutants dumped into the system from which the sludge comes, he needs to know the human, animal and plant impacts these materials have at high levels.

  • Farmers need to know what their state law allows in terms of suing the municipality that produces the sludge, the company that applies it and the companies that dump materials into the sewage system. Based on these laws, they need to have a legally tight contract stating these materials, commonly called biosolids won't pollute their land. Under the Clean Water Act sewage sludge is a pollutant.

Be aware of act

  • Farmers need to be aware of the Resource Conservation Recovery Act because it controls solid waste. Sewage sludge is a solid waste by definition under RCRA. Sewage sludge can be a hazardous waste under RCRA.

Bob McElmurray says farmers should not be surprised to get good yields and generally excellent results in terms of yield and quality of crops during the first few years biosolids are applied to their land.

“The first few years we applied municipal sludge to our land we had some of the highest yields of grain crops we ever had on our farm. It was only after using it for a number of years that we began to see problems,” he adds.

Most Southeast soils are heavily weathered and devoid of many micronutrients. Biosolids build these micronutrients back the first few years of application. Once these levels are restored, excesses begin to build and farmers begin to see problems, Andy McElmurray explains.

Molybdenum is a prime example, he says. Their land, like most Southeast soils, had low or no levels of molybdenum. Over a period of years application of biosolids built these levels back, then created excesses. Molybdenum causes copper to be bound in the ruminant animals and is deadly to dairy cattle.

“Using biosolids destroyed Bill Boyce's farm and our farm. After more than 20 years we are still in litigation, and we urge farmers to understand the risks associated with application of biosolids to farmland,” Andy McElmurray stresses.