March 16-22, 2006
City Beat : ArticleSmelling Faults
Is the sludge pile off I-95 near the airport deadly?
: Michael T. Regan
For 27 years, Johnson has lived in this neighborhood sandwiched between the airport, the Sunoco refinery and the Water Department's sludge factory, called the Biosolids Recycling Center. Johnson's daughter and grandson have asthma, problems he assumes are exacerbated by the constant "gastric" odors emanating from the nearby combination of poo and petroleum.
Now, the Water Department has a plan to outsource biosolids processinga move that would eliminate the odors, save millions of dollars and turn the sludge into safe compost. But what the city isn't talking about is that most of the sludge it's been processing for years along the busiest interstate in the country is the same stuff that some parents in rural Pennsylvania blame for killing their children.
City officials say it's harmlessworkers who handle sludge don't even wear protective gearbut the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says inadequate studies make it hard to know whether living near the facility or a farm fertilized with sludge can cause infection. Or cancer.
Considering those possibilities, Johnson asked the city Department of Public Health Air Management Services unit to take samples. He gave up after getting no response.
"It's like they don't care, really," he says. "It makes me feel like I'm being duped."
Ever since Congress outlawed ocean dumping in the 1980s, big cities have processed sludge and trucked it to farms or old coal mines. About 30 percent of Philadelphia's sludge is considered Class A biosolid, which means it's safe for resale to garden centers or landscapers as compost. The rest is Class B, which means there is a greater risk that it could contain types of germs called pathogens. The city sends 60,000 tons of the Class B sludge to about 70 farms in Pennsylvania and Maryland; 20,000 tons go to coal mine reclamation, mainly in Schuylkill County; and the remaining 60,000 tons go to landfill.
But controversy swirls around the question of whether contact with sludge can make people sick.
Charles Haas, head of the civil, architectural and environmental engineering department at Drexel University, participated in a 2002 National Research Council study into sludge. "I don't think we have a definitive understanding one way or another," he says. Though that study was inconclusive, one family has all the proof it needs.
Seventeen-year-old Daniel Pennock loved to hunt pheasant and rabbit on the farm near his parents' Berks County home. He trampled through the brush, never thinking about what the farmer spread on the soil. It wasn't until six years after the teen's 1995 death from a staph infection and rotavirus, when his parents read a Reading Eagle article about the potential dangers of sludge, that they hit upon an explanation for why their athletic son would quickly succumb to illness and why practically everyone they knew in the rural county had "allergies."
"So, we contact a doctor who says, 'This boy got poisoned from sludge,'" says Daniel's father, Russell. "It had to come from across the street." For the Pennocks and others critical of sludge, the city's proposal is an admission the stuff is dangerous. "Everything that goes down the toilet is in this sludge," he says. "People's diseases, people's medication. Everything."
William Toffey couldn't disagree more. The 18-year veteran of the Water Department who founded the Mid-Atlantic Biosolids Association trade organization says sludge poses no threat. "I definitely see it as a good thing," he says. "It definitely improves the soil. It improves crop yields and saves farms lots of money."
Government policy gives no indication there is a debate. The state monitors the number of pathogens and pollutantssuch as arsenic, lead, mercury and zincin biosolids, as well as the number of rats and bugs it attracts. The state Department of Environmental Protection says the local facility's record is clean. The EPA has never had a problem with Philadelphia sludge once it leaves the city, and spokesman Roy Seneca says the facility has never been cited, but adds, "We've never really given them a thorough inspection." The EPA's mid-Atlantic bureau lacks the resources to check the 2,000 treatment plants in its six-state jurisdiction, he says.
That means regulation at the municipal level could be most meaningful. Jeff Moran, of the city Department of Public Health, says the last odor complaint was lodged in November 2004 and an inspector was dispatched. He says the smells in general have lessened in recent years, but tend to be most pungent in summer and early spring.
Water Commissioner Bernard Brunwasser says the city would have faced odor fines from its own watchdog had it not looked into the privatization plan. Still, until all levels of government determine whether sludge is dangerous, a perfect record means nothing to Eastwick residents living in what Johnson calls a "chemical soup."
Neither does medical monitoring, because only a few dozen out of about 100 workers take advantage of the annual checkup. The city doesn't see the exam results, but Toffey says he would know if the data showed reason to worry. Soon, that won't matter. Once the new plant is up and running, the AFSCME District Council 33 and 47 employees will be absorbed elsewhere into the Water Department or other city departments. If City Council approves the agreement, a Houston-based company called Synagro would build an indoor plant half the size of the current 72-acre site and heat-dry the sludgea process Brunwasser says produces Class A pellets that are "nearly odor-free" and can be sold as fertilizer or biofuel.
Even though Toffey supports biosolids, he says the plan would change public perception. If something smells bad, people assume it is bad. "It gives the public a greater degree of confidence," he says. Plus, "it will be easier to have consistent, dependable shipping from our plant." The Water Department expects the plan to save $98 million over the contract's roughly 25-year life.
The site falls within Council President Anna Verna's district, but special assistant Kathleen Murray says her boss won't form an opinion until after the hearing, set for April 25.
Meanwhile, Pennock and his wife, Antoinette, wait for the state Supreme Court to decide whether it will hear their wrongful death lawsuit. Two lower courts already dismissed the case based on an expired two-year statue of limitations, but they're prepared to go to the U.S. Supreme Court if need be.
For Johnson, the stakes are even higher. He has no choice but to wait and wonder whether the air his grandson breathes is safe.
Pennock's advice? "Don't go near it," he says. "You'll get sick. Some people, they go right up to it. But they said the same thing about cigarettes. Some people get cancer, some people don't. You want to take that chance?"