Country news making it into the city -Part III of IV
By The Toronto Star
The challenges, debates and protestations that are now a part of rural use of municipal biosolids (sewage sludge) are explored in this third installment of a series of four stories by the Toronto Star. It is another indication that farm news is gaining more attention from urban centres.
July 14, 2008
Toronto, ON -Trucking tonnes of smelly black goo out to the country and spreading it on farmland is safe, says the environment ministry – as long as rules are obeyed and guidelines followed.
Still, things can go horribly wrong, as residents of Cedarville, Ont. found out on a hot, muggy August day when a load of sewage sludge was dumped on fields in their tiny hamlet in Southgate Township, about 40 kilometres northwest of Orangeville.
"The stench was like nothing you'd experienced in this life," recalls resident Glenn Norman. "We were literally swarmed with flies as we stood outside discussing it." Their eyes were red and swollen for hours after and several residents were forced out of the area for the day by the odour.
"How dare they say it's safe? It's not," Norman fumes eight years later.
Terratec Environmental Ltd., the hauler, later pleaded guilty to odour violations and was fined $12,000.
Eileen Smith of the Ministry of the Environment insists biosolids guidelines and established procedures do serve to safeguard human health and the environment.
Yes, rules are sometimes broken "but it's not a big problem," says Smith, policy and special projects manager for the environment ministry's waste management policy branch.
Similar to the Cedarville incident, a small rural neighbourhood in Oakville felt it when things went awry at a sludge storage facility, including several spills, a torn tank liner and an open pit of Toronto's muck that was overfilled.
In reports following investigations into odour, health and contamination complaints, Halton Region's medical officer of health called for more vigilant monitoring and warned of the need to properly store and handle biosolids because of potential risks to human health, soil, water and food.
Sludge is the solid waste left over at the end of the sewage treatment process, when clean water is removed from the soup of human, commercial, hospital and industrial waste that comes down the pipe.
Each year, close to half of Ontario's nutrient-rich sludge is taken by farmers and spread over 15,000 hectares of land. Municipalities have for years struggled with what to do with sludge and so it has been incinerated, sent to landfills or simply dumped into the nearest lake.
Diverting some of it to fields began in the 1970s. Then in 1996, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement stiffened sewage treatment guidelines. This created more sludge and Ontario started recommending it for use as fertilizer for farm crops. Faced with fast-filling landfills and a U.S. border slowly closing to Ontario's waste, many municipalities accepted.
But today – 10 years after the regulations governing testing and application were updated – a whole new range of chemical compounds is turning up in our sewer systems. And local officials who investigate health complaints are not required to report their findings to the province.
Terratec, the province's biggest sludge hauler, and two affiliated companies have racked up more than 40 convictions for violating environmental laws between 2001 and 2007, according to documents provided by sludge watchdog Maureen Reilly and acquired from the province.
Fines levied against Terratec, Azurix North America (Canada) Inc., which no longer exists, and their parent company, wastewater giant American Water Services Canada Corp., totalled more than $300,000.
Several charges against Terratec are still before the courts. The firm, which has been in the biosolids business more than 25 years, handles about half of the land-applied sludge in the Golden Horseshoe area, servicing more than 300 farmers and spreading waste from urban centres on 4,000 to 6,000 hectares a year.
President Phil Sidhwa admits there have been a "small number of cases" where guidelines weren't followed, but maintains the majority of his company's convictions had to do with maintenance and operations. Those that were related to biosolids were mostly beyond their control such as odour issues, which he said originate at the treatment plant.
"We run a safe operation and use best management practices to protect the environment and people's health," he says.
But the ministry has taken action against Terratec, says spokesperson John Steele, citing fines, frequent inspections and increased setback distances.
The province does about 200 inspections a year – at less than half of the 400 to 500 sites that are treated with biosolids annually. The MOE also handles about 100 complaints a year, usually to do with odour or application conditions. Typically, five to 10 convictions result each year, says Steele.
In a move that Eileen Smith says will raise safety, odour and application standards, the government is introducing changes that will drop the requirement for a certificate of approval for sludge spreading and allow it to be handled by farmers as part of the Nutrient Management Act. And biosolids will be referred to as "non-agricultural source materials."
With the proposed changes, which Smith says won't take effect for more than a year, sludge will be the joint responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the environment ministry, which will continue to handle compliance and enforcement.
"The changes we're proposing are designed to further protect human health and the environment while enhancing productivity of the soil," she explains.
But sludge opponents see the move as a step backwards that will wrap the biosolids program in bureaucracy and secrecy.
Certificates are "transparent, publicly available documents" that tell people what's being spread, where and in what amounts, notes Reilly. Eliminating them means that information will be difficult to get from the agriculture ministry, she says.