Field of Bad Dreams
Jim Bynum declares a sludge match against the city.
BY JOE MILLER
originally published: November 16, 2000
Lacking the support of its own scientists, the EPA sought approval from the
general public. Public perception of sludge, which was overwhelmingly negative,
had to be overcome. So the agency commissioned Powell Tate, a public
relations firm, to develop "a national communications plan for the promotion of
land application of biosolids." By renaming sludge "biosolids," officials hoped to
raise new connotations.
Powell Tate recommended "emphasizing the clear differences between biosolids
and sludge" -- although there aren't any. Still, the firm devised a plan for
"water-quality professionals" and public health officials who would serve as the
messengers extolling the virtues of biosolids. (Powell Tate targeted these public
servants rather than elected officials because the public aims its "highest level
of distrust and scorn" at elected officials.) The plan involved a 14-page guide to
help public health officials make effective presentations, offering pointers on
how to overcome a fear of public speaking and outlining the key points to be
made about biosolids. For example, "biosolids are nutrient-rich materials derived
from treating wastewater," and they do not include hazardous waste or industrial
residues. "Finally, biosolids are not human waste."
The plan instructed the presenters to explain that the EPA "sets strict quality
criteria and management standards to assure the safety of biosolids." In doing
so, the presenters contradicted their previous statement that biosolids do not
contain hazardous waste. "Under the EPA's comprehensive regulations, which
took years to develop," they were told to say, "numerous potential exposure
pathways were fully evaluated by independent researchers throughout the U.S."
What that meant was that EPA officials knew biosolids contained contaminants,
as did sludge, so they devised a system to ensure that people wouldn't come
into contact with it.
On Novermber 16 of last year, Jerry Breeden took his son, Jeremy, deer hunting
near the north bank of the Missouri River. The land they roamed was owned by
Jerry's friend Jim Bynum. A couple of hours into the expedition, Jeremy bagged
a good-size buck. They took it home and processed it into cuts of meat, storing
most in the Breedens' freezer. Eager for a taste, Jerry Breeden had his wife,
Lillian, fry up a couple of steaks. He ate them by himself because she didn't care
for the gamy taste of venison.
Two weeks later, the Breedens went out for dinner. Jerry ordered a bowl of
Louisiana gumbo. That night his face swelled up like a melon and a red rash
spread all over his body. He developed a 104-degree fever that persisted for
nine days. He went to the emergency room, and doctors ran scores of tests, but
they couldn't determine what was causing the illness.
He recovered. But then in March of this year the mystery disease struck again,
and he went to the hospital for another nine-day stretch. He fell ill again in May,
and he checked back into the hospital. He's had two more flare-ups since then,
but they've been less severe, lasting only a couple days. And throughout the
year, Jerry's been plagued with congestion. "I can't sleep half the time," says
Lillian, "because he's gurgling all the time."
Bynum has no doubt. He is dead certain that his friend's illness was caused by
contamination from Kansas City's application of sludge on the land where
Breeden went hunting. And he believes the Breedens aren't the only victims. His
cousin Robert Minter is another, Bynum says. Minter has farmed Bynum's land
for years and recently developed an abnormal growth on his heart that causes it
to beat too fast. Minter is a little overweight, but he's never smoked, he doesn't
drink, and he doesn't do drugs. His family has never had heart problems, with
the exception of his brother, who developed similar problems after farming in the
Minter can't prove it, but he suspects the city's sludge has caused his illness. "I
don't believe a lot of what the city says as far as it being safe," he says. "I used
to farm their ground, and I asked the farm manager if he could guarantee that
it'll be safe down the road and not be hazardous. He never would give me an
Given recent news reports, however, it's easy to understand why Bynum would
jump to conclusions.
Much of his speculation is based on a handful of strange illnesses that have
occurred near sludge-application sites in other parts of the country. One such
case is that of young Tony Behun of Osceola Mills, Pennsylvania. In 1994, the
11-year-old boy rode his dirt bike across hills that had been covered with
sludge. Two days later, he developed a sore throat and severe headache. By
day six, he was in the hospital with a fever so high that doctors called in a
helicopter to fly him to Pittsburgh, 110 miles away. He died early the next
Doctors blamed his death on a blood infection, the bacteria staphylococcus
aureus. But doctors couldn't determine how he had come down with the infection.
The boy quickly became the poster child of anti-sludge activists. His and a
handful of other similarly sudden and mysterious illnesses people contracted
shortly after they'd come in contact with sludge have been hailed by some
activists as proof that sludge is deadly.
David Lewis, an EPA microbiologist, suspects the worst in Behun's case. He told
the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that caustic chemicals contained in the sludge, such
as lime and ammonia, opened lesions allowing the deadly bacteria to enter
Behun's system through his skin. "I'm hearing from people all across the country
who are getting sick just like Tony did," he said. "The case of Tony Behun is as
clear a connection as you'll see."