Originally published by Houston Press Mar 31, 2005
Sludge, spread across the land, makes some people vomit and others very rich
BY JOSH HARKINSON
This revolution in waste disposal was born of an era of pink antibacterial hand soap, treacly
air freshener and increasing scrutiny at the other end of the pipes. The Environmental
Protection Agency has argued that spreading sludge on farmland is safer than old methods
of disposing of it in rivers and oceans. Synagro agrees, and pledges in its mission statement
to "enhance the environment and the quality of the communities that we serve."
But his [Massey's] family's health problems worsened. Less than two years after the sludge
spreading began near his property, his daughter delivered baby Kade, who was born with
cerebellum hypoplasia, an obscure brain defect caused by a buildup of fluids inside his
Although the doctors who diagnosed Kade couldn't be reached for comment and there is no
direct evidence pinning his medical condition on sludge, Massey cites anecdotal links. A few
months earlier, he discovered a stillborn calf in a pasture where sludge had been applied.
Lawsuits in other states have claimed ties between sludge and health and reproductive
problems in cattle. Some doctors have argued that sludge also could cause birth problems
After his birth, Kade stayed in Texas Children's Hospital for six weeks, spending much of that
time on a respirator or under an oxygen hood. Doctors drained infections in his ears with
plastic tubes. Pressure on his brain mounted, and the physicians eventually performed
another operation when he was three years old. They cut his head from ear to ear, pulled
the skin down and restructured his skull. Kade had barely talked before the operation.
Afterward, his vocabulary was cut in half.
Meanwhile, Lewis's work kept the EPA's nose on the trail of sludge-related illnesses. He
analyzed 54 health cases that had been reported near sludge sites, and reported an
unusually high incidence of staph infections -- common bacterial infections that can lead to
serious illnesses if not treated. Most of the doctors he interviewed already believed their
patients' problems were linked to sludge. And yet the victims "were typically not getting
anything but the runaround" from the EPA and state agencies, Lewis says.
Some of the health problems were severe. The same year Tony Behun rode his motorbike
through a sludge-covered field in Pennsylvania, Daniel Pennock, a teenager in the same
state, walked across a sludge site and died shortly thereafter of a bacterial infection. And a
year later, Shayne Connor went to sleep in a house 300 feet from a sludge field in New
Hampshire and died from interactions of irritant chemicals and pathogens in the sludge,
experts argue. Synagro disputes the alleged connections.
Getting rid of Lewis, however, didn't make running damage control over sludge any easier
for the EPA. A month later, a jury in Richmond County, Georgia, found that sludge from the
city of Augusta was responsible for polluting farmland and killing 300 cows at the Boyce
family farm. A similar case involving the adjacent RA McElmurray Sons dairy is on appeal.
Andy McElmurray says contaminants in sludge, such as cadmium, weakened the cows'
immune systems, causing deaths and stillbirths.
"There is the danger that is not told to the landowner or the farmer; he gets caught in a
trap," McElmurray says. "You will see contaminants on your land that are not reported to
you, that one day may come back and catch you."