Originally created 06/12/04

Experts spar over sludge study



ATHENS, Ga. - A bitter dispute over sewage sludge safety has boiled over from Burke County farmland to academia, pitting two respected University of Georgia researchers against each other.

One researcher, David Lewis, says the other, Julia Gaskin, unknowingly used false data in a 2003 research publication.

In letters to Ms. Gaskin; UGA administrators; and the editor of the Journal of Environmental Quality, which published the article, a lawyer representing Mr. Lewis and two Augusta-area dairy farms threatened "appropriate legal action" if the paper isn't withdrawn by the end of this month.

Ms. Gaskin says she has no intention of withdrawing it.

Mr. Lewis, though, believes his reputation has been harmed because the paper calls into question the accuracy of his research, his lawyer said.

A spokesman for the journal said the request is "under review," while UGA's research office concluded the allegations "do not meet the definition of research misconduct."

Ms. Gaskin is an expert in the use of sewage sludge, or biosolids, in UGA's Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.

Mr. Lewis is a former staff scientist with Athens' Environmental Protection Agency research lab and says EPA safety rules for sewage sludge are based on politics, not science.

The academic dispute stems from a legal battle two family dairy farms have waged against the city of Augusta.

Owners of the farms said hundreds of their cows were sickened and killed by heavy metals in Augusta sewage sludge they used as fertilizer for forage grass.

Mr. Lewis testified in court on behalf of the farm owners; Ms. Gaskin's paper was used by the city's counsel.

A judge dismissed one suit, partly because a statute of limitations had passed, but a jury found in favor of the other family last year.

According to Ed Hallman, a lawyer who represents the dairies and Mr. Lewis, Ms. Gaskin's paper contains erroneous information supplied by Augusta that hurt the dairies' court cases.

Ms. Gaskin and her co-researchers found that the amounts of heavy metals in soils treated with Augusta sludge did increase, as did the amount of metals in grass grown in the soil - but not to a level dangerous to dairy animals.

Ms. Gaskin's research did not deal specifically with the property of the two dairies involved in the lawsuit against the city.

Ms. Gaskin's article also included information from Augusta showing that heavy metals in sludge from a sewage treatment plant fell within federal limits.

Officials with the state Environmental Protection Division, however, found serious deficiencies in Augusta's monitoring system and questioned the accuracy of the measurements.

But the information from Augusta doesn't really play into the conclusions of the study, Ms. Gaskins said.