Georgia: Scientist fights EPA over sludge

ATHENS, Ga. --- David Lewis is a lab rat with no lab, a researcher with no salary, a once-influential scientist whose only perk these days is a lonely cubbyhole.


In his heyday, he was a high-ranking Environmental Protection Agency scientist whose discovery that dental equipment could be a haven for HIV in the 1990s earned him prestige and respect.

Now he's working out of a spare office at the University of Georgia and waging a battle with his former employer over sewage sludge, the reason for his gradual fall from grace.

More than a decade ago, Mr. Lewis began to challenge the EPA policy allowing farmers to spread the semi-solid byproduct of wastewater treatment plants as a free, nutrient-rich fertilizer.

He has investigated illnesses and deaths he says are linked to the sludge; he said his work has helped prod government officials to issue guidelines for workers who handle it. He's also filed a flurry of lawsuits, the latest in March 2006 claiming UGA was complicit in a scheme by EPA leaders to justify the agency's program that distributes sludge to farm fields.

"Science is getting trumped by politics, and I want that fixed," said Mr. Lewis.

He recently said he's up against "an effort organized by multiple federal agencies and powerful industry groups with support of tens of millions of dollars in congressional earmarks."

The UGA and EPA researchers have stood by their work and deny wrongdoing.

"There's no cover-up. There's no conspiracy," said Robert Brobst, an EPA environmental engineer and a defendant in the lawsuit.

For Mr. Lewis, it's been a costly crusade. He's lost his job with the EPA and was spurned by UGA, where he once hoped to become a tenured professor.

But he has reason to be encouraged. A federal judge has refused to throw out Mr. Lewis' lawsuit against UGA, and his work is helping focus attention on sewage sludge beyond the small circle of scientists who now study it.

"There really has not been adequate research about what this material is, let alone the repercussions," said Rob Hale, an environmental chemistry professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences. "Folks were told that this stuff had been studied to death, and Lewis is concerned that they're overstating what they knew about the material."

Wastewater treatment plants across the nation produce about 7 million tons of the sludge each year, and slightly more than half of it is used as fertilizer. The EPA has long argued the sludge is safe as long as it's applied properly.

"If it's misused, if it's overapplied, if it doesn't meet quality criteria, of course it's going to be a problem," said Mr. Brobst, who has specialized in this area for 30 years. Still, "Based on what we know today, yes, it's safe," he said. "Science takes little steps, but if you add up all the little pieces in 1,500 articles in the last five years, you have a safe argument." Mr. Lewis turned his attention to sewage sludge in 1996. He started collecting samples from sewage treatment plants and analyzing it for harmful pathogens and toxic materials. He soon found that certain pathogens in the sludge could survive disinfection by taking shelter in fatty greases and oils.

He's had a few successes in court and some stinging defeats, such as a 2004 administrative judge ruling that said he hadn't provided "scientific evidence to back up his belief" that the sludge could pose a significant danger to people.


ATHENS, Ga. --- Athens-Clarke officials are considering composting thousands of tons of sewage sludge and selling the mixture to residents to use as a soil additive. They say it's perfectly safe, but a local environmental activist, citing two federal lawsuits, warns that it could be harmful.

Jill McElheney, the founder of the local environmental group Micah's Mission, brought in Atlanta lawyer Ed Hallman to speak Tuesday to residents who live near the Athens-Clarke Landfill. Mr. Hallman won a sludge lawsuit in Augusta. Untreated sludge applied to grazing fields was laden with pollutants such as arsenic and killed hundreds of dairy cows, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency falsified data saying the sludge was safe, a federal judge ruled in February.

-- Morris News Service