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The Sludge Trucks Cometh

August 12, 2008

My name is Jo Overbey and I live in Campbell County, Virginia. So far, I have been fortunate not to have been exposed to biosolids, but I have been “run over” by the sludge truck. In 2004, against citizen wishes, Nutriblend was granted a permit to spread biosolids on 150 acres in Campbell County. This permit had been put on hold because one of the neighbors was undergoing cancer treatment and was quite ill. In November 2006, I learned that Nutriblend was applying to “modify” their permit in my county to add additional acreage.Even though I should have been prepared, the request to add 3,100 acres to the original permit was a shock. I soon learned of some people organizing to oppose the additional acreage, and attended one of their early meetings.

Tom Linzey, an environmental attorney from PA, spoke to the group and offered to work with us to fight the approval for land application of biosolids in our county. We had learned in 2004 just how few options we had to stop it, but Mr. Linzey had an ordinance that he had used successfully in PA and this sounded hopeful. We signed on, formed a group, and set out building support within the community. Support was easy to find, once people began to learn just what “biosolids” really are. Although I knew enough to oppose the practice of land application, I felt that increased knowledge of the subject would make me a more effective opponent, so I started doing research on the internet.

After untold hours researching this subject, I came to see that this is a truly dangerous practice and that the full extent of the damage would likely not show up for decades. My commitment to the fight grew stronger, believing that we owe it to future generations to protect the environment they will have to live in. Of further concern were the stories I was hearing coming out of the surrounding counties where they had been land applying for a few years.

Citizens rights and their environment were being trampled: sludge trucks would slop their load along the roads, they would stop on bridges with sludge dripping out, treat people living along their routes with disrespect, spy on those who tried to oppose them, charge neighbors trying to take pictures with trespassing and have them hauled off in handcuffs, fields which had been sludged were flooding in heavy rains, there were inadequate buffers (or none) for waterways, little response from the Health Dept. to complaints, no consequences for ignoring the regulations. All of which was bad enough but then there were the tales of illness, and such appalling illness! My opposition hardened and my desire to block it from our county strengthened, as did that of the other opposing citizens.

We attended our Board of Supervisors meetings in historic numbers, requesting that they pass the ordinance our lawyer, Mr. Linzey, had drawn up with input from their representatives. We gathered signatures on petitions by the thousands in support of our ordinance and presented them to the Board of Supervisors. We had letter-writing campaigns in the local newspapers and got what coverage we could manage on the local TV news to counteract the propaganda put out by the Virginia Council on Biosolids, a public relations group working for the industry.

I continued my research, now focusing on compiling and indexing it in order to present it all as an exhibit in support of our ordinance at the Public Hearing to be held in April 2007. Throughout this time, we found that the biosolids supporters consisted of a handful of large landowners who wanted to use it on their land. These landowners had been given a lot of ‘reasearch’ compiled from various sources, paid for and supplied by the industry itself. All of the literature given to them described biosolids as safe and beneficial. One of the researchers told a local reporter (off record, I suppose) that they had done a lot of research into the benefits of biosolids but had not looked at the problems. Meanwhile, there were tactics of intimidation being used against us, and our group leader was threatened on a number of occasions. We began to realize just how much money was at stake here, and how much power was aligned against us. But we were undeterred, for this is a democracy, and we had the majority of citizens on our side.

On the night of April 17, 2007, we gathered for the hearing. We presented an impressive case opposed to the land application of biosolids and in favor of our ordinance, even though we were only allowed three minutes each to speak, and a total of one hour. Our presentation was carefully choreographed and we were highly complimented at the end for having done a professional job by those listening. We had two boxes of indexed research reports and articles that we presented as an exhibit to back up all that we were saying. Finally, those in favor of spreading biosolids spoke--all three of them. Then the Board of Supervisors had their say. They found our lawyer much too liberal for their taste: He had been interviewed in Mother Jones Magazine, he wanted to give ecosystems rights, etc. He was practically a communist! There we sat in stunned silence. Nothing that we had said or done had made any difference. When one of our group stood to ask if we would have an opportunity to respond, a deputy sheriff ran down the aisle and threatened to remove her from the building if she did not sit down and be quiet. Then the Supervisors voted, and it was clear that they had made up their minds prior to the hearing.

We had worked so hard and so long and had such hope, that it was a devastating outcome. Instead of the one we had offered, the Board passed the standard VACO Ordinance, the writing of which was heavily influenced by lobbyists for the biosolids industry. We not only had lost, we had been swept out the door. There were hard feelings left between the two groups and, those of us who had opposed it, toward our county government. We had had the majority of citizens on our side, but we had not been heard.

Our Ordinance was out of the ordinary and represented a risk to the Supervisors, and even with our full support, they were unwilling to take it. A smaller group of us tried again in December of 2007 requesting the Supervisors (some new ones had been elected in November) to ask a Federal Judge to rule on whether the county has the right, under Sec. 1345 of the Clean Water Act (CWA), to determine whether to allow land application or some other disposal method for biosolids in our county. They did look into it, but Virginia is a “Dillon Rule” state (which means that the locality has little voice) and the lawyer said that the EPA interprets that passage in the CWA to mean that the generator gets to decide, not the locality.

Once again, we told the Board that we would stand behind them, raise funds, if needed, and do whatever was necessary to keep this toxic waste off of our lands, out of our water, out of our county. Once again, they saw our request as too big a risk for them to take. On August 14, 2008, the original parcel permitted in 2004 was land applied with biosolids. The sick neighbor had died, so the moratorium was lifted. We had checked on the people living around this site and found a number whose health would make them vulnerable. The worst was a young girl who had had a heart transplant at birth and who takes six different immunosuppressant drugs. She lives in a trailer about 20 feet from the property line of the field that was spread. Unfortunately, her parents are ignorant and suspicious and would not answer the door or return our calls. We tried hard to protect this little girl, even notifying the VA Health Dept. of her presence, the DEQ (who has oversight of the program), and Chris Peot at the Blue Plains Waste Water Treatment Plant where the biosolids were to originate. No one seemed to see this as a problem, and all refused to take any action. Without the girl’s parents, our hands were tied. I pray that she is lucky enough to have the sludge that is spread near her not to be one of the ”deadly loads,” but pray is all that I can do. Now, the biosolids has gone down in this neighborhood.

The farmer has saved a lot of money on fertilizer for his hay field, Washington, DC (Blue Plains), has saved a lot of money by not having to landfill this toxic waste, NutriBlend has made a lot of money hauling the sludge to the site and spreading it. But there is another side to this picture. The people living around it must suffer the smell, the irritated mucous membranes, the breathing difficulties, or worse, having gained nothing positive from it. They are the ones who are paying, and there is no way for them to stop it from coming into their neighborhood. Those who may get sick from being exposed have little or no recourse.

Often the people living around spread sites want to sell their property and move, only to find that their property has been seriously devalued by the action of their neighbor. But the burden of proof is on those who are harmed. Those who gain from this practice get off by just saying that no one has proven sludge exposure to cause illness or loss of property value. It is a complex issue, and the complexity of it plays right into their hands. Each person must do the reading and the research required before he can connect the dots. There is no smoking gun, yet when you listen to the stories of those who have experienced exposure, patterns do start to emerge. They are simply not sufficient for proof.

I apologize for the length of this submission, but I think the anger, frustration, and ultimate hopelessness of the people having this toxic waste shoved down their throats is a big part of the picture that you need to see and understand. Why has this pollutant been allowed to be used in this manner with so little restraint or oversight? Why is it nearly impossible to say, “No, we do not want it in our neighborhood?” Why cannot the Congress, which declared sewage sludge a toxic waste, require that land application be stopped until proven safe? Why can you not give us the power to decide within our localities whether or not to accept land application?

My greatest hope for the outcome of this hearing would be a moratorium on the land application of biosolids until the research has been done to prove that it does no harm. The least that I can hope for is that you will change the wording of the CWA to read, indisputably, that the locality has the right to decide how sewage sludge/biosolids is disposed of in their communities. But my fear is that you will listen to all of these people who have been harmed by this practice, that you will hear of the complete lack of justice and the irresponsibility in the handling of this program, and that you will elect to take no action, feeling that having listened is enough. Please do not fail us in this way.