Originally created 04/22/00

Report: Sludge programs weak



Programs to ensure that sewage sludge from cities like Augusta is properly disposed of are inadequate to protect health and the environment, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report.

Sludge -- a byproduct of sewage treatment -- is routinely applied to farmlands as fertilizer. Although guidelines are established by EPA, similar rules are usually enforced by state regulators.

The rules require testing of sludge and other procedures to prevent viruses and other substances from being transferred back into soil and water, where they could harm fish, crops or livestock.

EPA's internal review arm -- the Office of the Inspector General -- spent almost a year evaluating the laws and regulatory procedures associated with land application of sewage sludge.

The resulting report, obtained by The Augusta Chronicle under a federal Freedom of Information Act request, concluded EPA can't enforce compliance with its own rules.

"EPA does not have an effective program for ensuring compliance with land application requirements," the report said. "Accordingly, while EPA promotes land application, EPA cannot assure the public that current land application practices are protective of human health and the environment."

Nationally, about 3,700 sewage treatment plants generate about 7.5 million metric tons of sludge annually, of which 54 percent is land-applied.

The report found that EPA:

Reviewed only about 38 percent of the required reports submitted by sewage plants nationwide during fiscal 1998.

Performs "virtually no inspections" at land application sites.

Performs few inspections at sewage plants.

Does not maintain data on cumulative amounts of sludge-related pollutants at land application sites.

Augusta's Messerly Wastewater Plant, which disposes of 9,000 tons of sludge per year on 30 farms throughout Richmond, Burke and Jefferson counties, has been the center of controversy over its sludge program for almost two years.

Two local farms -- R.A. McElmurray & Sons of Hephzibah and Boyceland Dairy of Keysville -- claim in federal lawsuits that 93 million gallons of sludge applied to their land many years ago contained toxic metals.

The consequence, according to claims within the unresolved lawsuits, is that cattle and land were poisoned. Augusta denies the allegations and has spent more than $1 million so far defending claims its sludge program is safe.

The auditors, however, reviewed only the ability of EPA to provide adequate oversight to the regulation of sludge programs; they did not review the science and risk assessment associated with those practices.

Officials with EPA's Region IV office in Atlanta, which oversees federal sludge compliance matters in Georgia, say facilities like Augusta's wastewater plant do receive federal attention.

"I will not assert that we look at every annual report every year, but Region IV does have an extraordinary amount of resources devoted to these issues," said Scott Gordon, chief of EPA Region IV's Water Programs Enforcement Branch.

"We have conducted inspections of Augusta's (federal) Rule 503 program in the past 18 months, and there has been site evaluation and sampling conducted recently," he said.

Those recent inspections yielded minor areas of noncompliance, but in general, Augusta's facility is operating within the rules, he said.

Beverly Banister, acting Water Management Division director for Region IV, acknowledged EPA is understaffed, but said areas where complaints originate -- like Augusta -- are evaluated promptly.

"What we've tried to do is be responsive to needs but still recognize we do have limited resources," she said. "We do follow up as necessary to areas that need attention."

The Inspector General's report notes that EPA has delegated enforcement for sludge programs to Texas, Utah and Oklahoma. But oversight responsibility rests with EPA in 47 nondelegated states, including Georgia.

"There is virtually no federal oversight of state biosolids programs in nondelegated states," the report said, leaving EPA with insufficient information to determine whether the rules are being followed.

The absence of any oversight stems from a low priority assigned to the issue, the auditors wrote. Both the EPA's Office of Water and the agency's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance opted not to commit any enforcement resources to sludge programs.

"This may result in increased risks to the environment and human health," the report said, "and cause a loss of public confidence in the biosolids program."

The auditors recommended EPA reevaluate its program by the end of 2001 to determine if additional steps could ensure that biosolids management is protective of health and the environment.

Report findings:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can't ensure compliance with rules for land-applying sewage sludge.

EPA reviewed only about 38 percent of the required reports filed by 3,700 sewage plants during fiscal 1998.

EPA performs "virtually no inspections" at land application sites and rarely inspects sewage plants.

EPA does not maintain data on cumulative amounts of pollutants at land application sites.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119, or rpavey@augustachronicle.com.