Let Them Eat Sludge Cake

A new plan for disposing of metro-area sewage has critics crying foul

Stark, however, says the Cornell report is "a political policy report rather than a scientific paper. I have letters from EPA and [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] refuting a lot of recommendations of that report." Both agencies, along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, have consistently supported land spreading, often citing ongoing studies at the University of Minnesota's Rosemount Agricultural Experiment Station, which concluded sludge was safe to apply on crops such as corn and hay grass.

In hearings earlier this year, the Met Council's land-spreading plan attracted little opposition; some members of the public even suggested the council should go further, abandoning incineration altogether. Sheldon Johnson, the president of the neighborhood council that represents residents near the Pig's Eye plant, calls burning sludge a "primitive" disposal method. "I grew up on a farm, and I learned a long time ago that it made more sense to put carbon from organic matter back on the soil than to burn it." Waste managers around the country seem to agree: Land spreading has become a popular disposal method not only for sewage sludge, but also for industrial wastes, as the Seattle Times revealed last year in an investigative report. And waste-based fertilizers are actively being promoted to retail outlets: Twin Cities garden centers, for example, carry Milorganite, a fertilizer made with sludge from the Milwaukee sewage system.

To critics who consider those trends worrisome, Stark--a former member of the board of directors of Minnesota's Organic Growers and Buyers Association--responds that sludge typically contains lower levels of toxins than many of the fertilizers used in organic farming. Rock phosphate, for instance, is significantly higher in cadmium than sewage sludge.

At the Pig's Eye plant, sewage goes through screens, settling tanks, skimming devices--and then into the Mississippi
Callie Lipkin
At the Pig's Eye plant, sewage goes through screens, settling tanks, skimming devices--and then into the Mississippi

Still, says IATP's Hunt Christensen, "we don't know enough" about the potential consequences of growing crops in household and industrial waste. Instead of jumping on the land-spreading bandwagon, she argues, the Met Council should explore other options, such as building two separate sewer systems: That way, she says, water from sinks and toilets would not be mixed with industrial sewage. But she acknowledges that even if the council were to follow her recommendation--which it has shown no inclination to do--it would have to dispose of the waste somehow. That, so far, is about the only issue on which all those involved in the sludge debate agree: What goes down the drain does not go away.

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