Shaen Magan’s farm lies on 4,000 acres in Kern County northwest of Bakersfield, Calif. Los Angeles is 200 miles away, but its residents are intimately connected to "Honey Bucket Farms" by a form of recycling that’s hard for some people to stomach.

Twenty-six times a day, one of Magan’s watertight tractor-trailers — he owns a trucking business, too — heads to L.A. with a load of rock and sand. Once there, it empties that cargo and swings by a municipal wastewater plant to pick up a new one: 26 tons of sludge, the leftover residue from the sewage-treatment process. The truck then heads back to the farm and drops its load. Later, a tractor will disc the sludge into Magan’s fields, where it nourishes Sudan grass ultimately bound for the gullets of cattle in Japan.

Businesswise, it’s a tidy operation: "We own the land, we grow the crops, we farm it, and we haul (the sludge)," says Magan. "We’re there from A to Z."

But it’s touched off a messy regional fight. For eight years, Kern County has imposed progressively tougher regulations on the sludge — or "biosolids," as boosters call it — that greater Los Angeles sends to its farms. Finally, this June, county voters approved an initiative that bans the use of all sludge in unincorporated areas of Kern County.

Then, in November, a federal judge barred the county from putting the ban into effect. But Kern County vows to continue its fight. The whole mess is raising questions about the adequacy of U.S. standards governing sludge. "(Spreading sludge) is quite an operation: It’s flying everywhere," says Steve Schuett, an attorney for the county. Four years ago, an Environmental Protection Agency-commissioned panel of sludge experts raised substantial questions about the federal standards. "What they were basically saying is, ‘We just don’t know enough … to say that (current sludge-farming) practices are safe,’ " says Schuett, adding that it doesn’t make sense for the county to have to wait until someone gets sick to begin regulating sludge.

Take your sludge and shove it

When sewage is treated, the watery part is purified and returned to rivers and streams. What’s left over is sludge. Americans generate some 7 million tons of it every year. Some is incinerated, and some goes into landfills. About half of it ends up on farms.

For decades, Los Angeles simply dumped its sludge into the ocean. In 1987, however, a judge ruled that the practice violated the Clean Water Act, and Congress banned ocean dumping nationwide.

Then, in 1989, California’s Legislature passed the Integrated Waste Management Act, which required local governments to halve the amount of solid waste — including sludge — that they sent to landfills. So, in the mid-’90s, the city and county of Los Angeles, along with Orange County, began trucking their sludge to farms in Kern County.

Sludge can contain the viruses that cause hepatitis, meningitis and encephalitis; parasitic worms; and trace elements, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury — which can travel on the wind, percolate into groundwater or be taken up by crops. So the Environmental Protection Agency requires that sludge be subjected to an array of treatments, including "digestion" by bacteria, quicklime, heat and even gamma-ray irradiation, before it can be used on the fields. The agency has two standards for agricultural sludge: Class B, which requires treatment to reduce pathogens, and the more stringent Class A, under which pathogens are reduced below detectable levels.

Kern County, however, insisted that L.A. deliver even cleaner sludge. By 2003, Los Angeles-area sewage-treatment plants could send only Class A "Exceptional Quality" waste, which is subject to additional regulations limiting trace-element content. Vegetable gardeners often — usually unknowingly — buy bags of a similar product labeled "organic compost" at retailers such as Home Depot.

Los Angeles spent $16 million upgrading its treatment plants to further clean their biosolids. But that wasn’t enough for Kern County. Last year, state Sen. Dean Florez, D, who represents the area, attempted to get the state Legislature to ban the importation of sludge from Los Angeles. That effort failed, but Florez subsequently organized Measure E, which criminalized the application of any sludge to unincorporated land in the county. This June, 85 percent of the county’s voters approved the ban.

This poop ain’t clean

Southern California’s sanitation agencies sued, arguing that Kern County was attempting to trump federal sludge-regulation standards and state recycling mandates, as well as discriminating against non-local sludge.

They also pointed out that the city of Bakersfield still spreads its own sludge — which it treats only to Class B standard — on a 5,000-acre cotton and alfalfa farm within the city. "If you compare our biosolids, constituent-for-constituent, against Bakersfield," says Christopher Westhoff, an assistant city attorney for Los Angeles, "I guarantee ours is going to be as good as or better than theirs."

But some experts argue that what the EPA considers "good" leaves a lot to be desired. In 2002, a National Academy of Sciences committee delivered a critique of the EPA regulations. Current rules focus on too narrow a spectrum of threats and need to better incorporate current scientific data, the report says. And the EPA has yet to conduct a systematic investigation of the health effects of sludge.

Ellen Harrison, the director of Cornell University’s Waste Management Institute, served on the committee, and testified for Kern County after L.A. challenged the ban. Harrison says the EPA is ignoring new data on the pervasive presence in wastewater of newly recognized classes of health threats, such as flame retardants, antibiotics, pesticides and "endocrine disruptors," which interfere with human and animal hormone systems.

"What’s in sewage sludge? Pretty much everything that goes down the drain," she says. The purpose of a wastewater treatment plant, she points out, is "to clean the water. A lot of these things, therefore, end up in the sludge."

On Nov. 20, U.S. District Judge Gary Allen Feess ordered Kern County to lift its ban, saying it conflicts with the waste management act. He has forwarded the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is expected to send it to the California Supreme Court.

Regardless of what happens in court, the situation’s not going away. A Kern County victory will probably just divert the sludge to farms elsewhere, such as Arizona, at an increased cost to taxpayers. After all, whether one county wants it or not, sludge happens.

 

Matt Jenkins is the West Coast correspondent for High Country News.