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Nightmare in Bedford

Testimony Submitted by:

Nancy V. Raine
1674 Iroquois Trail
Bedford, VA 24523

To: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee

September 6, 2008


Nightmare in Bedford

My husband and I retired to a 120-acre horse farm in Bedford County, Virginia 1998. We had no idea that sewage sludge was being land applied throughout the United States and Canada. For eight years we lived in blissful ignorance – raising our horses, improving our farm, and becoming active in local land preservation work.

In late 2005 our neighborhood noticed extensive excavation taking place on a neighbor’s property. When people made inquiries they were told a “pond” was being built. No one imagined that the “pond” was going to hold thousands of tons of sewage sludge until the dripping trucks began to hurl down the narrow state road from the highway.

We soon learned that this neighbor’s land application permit was granted a “variance” by the state regulatory agency that allowed a “temporary biosolids storage facility” to operate on his property. No one in the community was notified.

In what appeared to be a regulatory shell-game, this “temporary” storage pit (originally permitted to store sewage sludge intended for application on one farmer’s 29 acres) morphed into a transfer-type facility where sewage sludge was dumped until it could be spread on many farms in the county. We were told it could operate for decades.

The “facility” was an unlined and uncovered pit, fully exposed to the weather. It was 500 feet upslope from a stream that flows into a river system that supplies the water for a neighboring county. Its capacity was 98, 20-ton truck loads of Class B sewage sludge, which we later learned was from two wastewater treatment plants in the New York metro area. The farmer was paid by truckload. We were told by the state’s compliance staff that the pit was filled to capacity 8 or 9 times in both 2006 and 2007. We had to share our only route for ingress and egress with these trucks transferring sewage sludge from railheads to pit and from pit to farms.

Our home was located one-third of a mile from the pit, as was the home of a young couple whose infant was born with severe birth defects. The noise of off-loading and loading carried over our 120 acres and beyond, an ever-present, jarring and reverberating clang that woke us from sleep at first light and shattered the quiet during daylight hours.
Compounding the nerve-wracking noise was a stench that hung over the right-of-way and our farm for months, an assault beyond description. The mother of the sick child wrote a letter to the newspaper describing the stench as “making her vomit.” What would happen to her child, who was born with his intestines outside his body and needed repeated surgeries, when he came off the oxygen he had been on since birth?

My neighborhood was soon in turmoil as people called each other to report near collisions on the narrow state road with the trucks. People took photographs of uncovered and dripping trucks parked on the shoulders of the state road waiting their turn to access the pit. They contacted the state regulatory agency and elected state government officials, incredulous that an industrial scale sewage sludge storage operation could be permitted.

Our concerns were ignored and/or trivialized by everyone to whom they were expressed.  When people discovered that a second pit had been permitted for another part of the county, the two affected communities met and shared what they knew and what they had experienced with land application in their respective communities. The group was given reports of entire families developing asthma after exposure, of dogs dying within days of crossing a field where sewage sludge had recently been applied, of families that could not let their children out of the house because of the foul odor, of clothes hanging in a closet absorbing the stench and being offense to others when worn, and of rendering operations finding strange tumors in deer meat. We worked together to urge our local government to do something.

But there was nothing it could do but listen as a physician reported seeing an increase in skin rashes she considered significant, a mother wept in frustration and fear for her children’s future, and citizen after citizen shared the results of research that raised questions about the long-term impact of land application on water, soil and human health.

The community became divided as a local PR firm representing industry spun our neighborhood’s resistance to the presence of the pit as a petty, neighborhood “feud.” Anyone speaking out publicly was labeled as being an anti-farming outsider or a hysteric. People were subject to verbal abuse, threats and harassment.

The young couple with the sick child tried to sell their home, but by the second year of operation the presence of the storage operation was well-known in Bedford and other neighboring counties due to media and press coverage of the controversy. They could find no buyers. We also were told by real estate professionals we consulted that our farm was essentially “worthless.” No one else would want to live as we were now being forced to live: industrial-scale truck traffic on our driveway and noise that would be illegal if it were happening in a city neighborhood, revolting odor that made your stomach turn over, lime dust (known to be an irritant of mucus membranes) blowing into our home from the pit on windy days and coating every surface, and unanswered questions about the impact the pit was having on our water quality, our health and on wildlife.

The pit was inactive from approximately May to October in both 2006 and 2007. I came to think of these months as my time out of prison. While it operated I suffered chronic headaches, which I had never had in my life, and burning, watery eyes. I had sudden and severe weight loss, and had gastrointestinal problems and felt nauseated 24-7. I had respiratory problems enduring for months, including walking pneumonia I could not shake.  I had extended weeks of high fever and body aches. I suffered from fatigue and, as the torture went on, the depression that comes from having no good choices -- abandoning one’s home and financial investment or staying in a situation that you cannot change, yet cannot endure.

Reports of illnesses among the families living along the truck route and near the pit began to surface – an E-Coli infection in a neighbor’s lungs, a similar infection in a neighbor’s tonsils, chronic headaches, a lung tumor caused by inhaling a “fungal spore” that required surgery, a severe and painful rash, respiratory infections and pneumonia, nose bleeds and a host of other medical problems.

To whom at the state could we report our suspicions that our illnesses were somehow connected to our prolonged and intimate exposure to dust, odors and sludge on the roads? We could call the waste water engineers who ran the state’s sewage sludge land application program. They told us our symptoms were caused “by stress” and that having “cold-like symptoms” for the months the site was used was “nothing to worry about.” They noted we could not “prove” our health problems were the result of our exposure. Despite extensive literature that questions the safety of such exposure, we were told again and again that the EPA says there is nothing to worry about. 

The controversy grew when the parents of the sick child took their concerns to the regional health director. She determined that a hearing was to be called because of concerns about the possible harm of the child inhaling the air around his home – his lungs were compromised and he would soon be taken off oxygen.

Only days before the hearing was to take place, a press conference was held by our state senator where he announced that the storage pit was going to be “abandoned” and the second site would not be opened. In subsequent legislation, such storage facilities require a special use permit from the locality. However, because the storage site was voluntarily “abandoned,” rather than being closed by the state regulatory agency, no testing of any kind has been done, nor is it likely any will ever be done. Its on-going environmental impact is unknown.

According to county records, over 8% of Bedford’s farmland has had sewage sludge land applied – more than 15,000 acres. Last year fields near a public high school were treated with sewage sludge. The death of a student attending that school from MIRSA made national news because Bedford closed all of its schools to clean them top to bottom. We know of no effort to understanding a possible link between the two. Instead, we heard a most familiar refrain: coincidence of time and place is not proof of causality.

Within a mile radius of several land application sites that have been repeatedly treated in recent years, one neighbor has died of ovarian cancer and two healthy and active people have developed rare and incurable neurological disorders. A farmer nearby who applied it for years now has bone cancer. Is there a connection? And do we know what will happen when farms are subdivided in this fast-growing county and people build homes on top of the storage pit or let their children play in front yards that have been used for years as the dumping ground for what is defined in the Federal Clean Water Act as a pollutant?

Testing and regulating have been so corrupted that they serve the opposite purpose of what they were intended to do. They provide a false sense of security in the land application of this pollutant. No one knows what is in a particular truck of sludge. No one will ever know what this unpredictable and complex mix of pollutants contains from day to day, from plant to plant, even from the same wastewater treatment plant. No amount of additional testing or additional regulation will make sludge spreading safe, as the 2002 National Academy of Sciences report made clear.

We do not need more questionable EPA sludge research by hand-picked scientists who promote land application. We do not need more misinformation passed out to cash-strapped farmers and the media claiming land application is safe and beneficial. We do not need more silencing of people who question the science that is generated by those who want to protect their reputation or who are making a profit from the practice of land application.

Change the Clean Water Act so that there can be no question that localities have the right to decide about land application and storage. Require a national database that will identify each and every tract where this pollutant has gone down. Place a moratorium on land application and put our best minds to work on writing a Clean Soil Act that will protect American people and their environment from our society’s dangerous and complex waste. The harm that is in this complex toxic stew is finding its way into our water and into the food chain. This practice is a social and environmental injustice that will adversely affect all future generations in ways we cannot now imagine.  As I write this land application is taking place on large farms within a few miles of ours and elsewhere in the county.