Safe or Not, NYC Sludge Draws Jeers in Arizona Town

Neighbors challenge farmer's use of sludge as fertilizer

WHEN New York City was forced to quit dumping sewer sludge in the ocean two years ago, city leaders turned to what seemed to be an ideal alternative - offer the stuff as fertilizer to farmers around the United States.

But New York didn't count on the hostile reaction of some towns, such as that from tiny Bowie, Ariz., about 100 miles east of Tucson.

Most of Bowie's 350 residents have been upset and angry for more than a year, ever since they learned that a local farmer was planning to fertilize his cotton fields with tons of sludge brought in by rail from New York City.

``If it's so great, why don't they use it on farms in New York?'' says Bowie resident Rhonda Woodcox.

She and others are concerned that the sludge has not been properly tested, that it could potentially pollute Bowie's air and groundwater, and that local residents were never consulted or even notified that it was coming.

Ian Michaels of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection admits his city's sludge may suffer from an image problem, but he insists it is no worse than sludge from any other city.

More than half of America's sludge is used safely on millions of acres of farmland nationwide, Mr. Michaels says.

``About 70 percent of New York City sludge is made into pellets and used on citrus groves in Florida and farms in Colorado,'' Michaels says. The city pays a contractor $1 million a month and $92 a wet ton to transport most of the rest to Texas and Arizona.

Sludge opposition

Bowie is not the first community to resist New York City sludge. In the past few years residents of the Oklahoma panhandle have fought successfully to keep it out of their area, but sludge opponents in the west Texas town of Sierra Blanca lost their battle to prevent it being used on a 30,000-acre grassland recovery project there.

Proponents say only prejudice and lack of information prevent people from accepting sludge.

They say it doesn't smell or attract flies and is particularly suited to the arid West because it helps hold moisture, adds needed nutrients to the soil, and is not as subject to runoff as it would be in rainier parts of the country.

Bowie residents refuse to be reassured. They say federal regulations on sludge contaminants are not tough enough. Although some states, including New York, have enacted stricter regulations than what the federal government requires, Arizona is not one of them.

Bowie residents' concerns appeared justified when, in April, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality ran a spot check on the first train load of New York sludge to arrive in Bowie and found high levels of both petroleum hydrocarbons and fecal coliform bacteria. In June, the state ordered farmer Ronald Bryce, who had already spread the sludge on about 300 acres, to fix the problem.

Experts question results

Mr. Bryce responded by marshaling a number of experts who maintain that the state's tests were improperly performed.One expert, Alan Hais of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), says he has never heard of petroleum hydrocarbon levels in sludge as high as those found in Arizona.

He says he suspects that the state's test cannot distinguish between safe oils from plant and animal sources and dangerous oils from mineral sources.

As for the fecal coliform, Michaels says the sludge is safe by the time it leaves New York and does not contain dangerous organisms.

The EPA conducted a massive study six years ago, looking for 400 different pollutants in 300 different sludge samples from around the country, Mr. Hais says. Of all the pollutants studied, including petroleum products, pesticides, and bacteria, the EPA found only 10 heavy metals, including arsenic, copper, and lead, occurring in high enough levels to regulate.

A closer look

Nevertheless, Arizona authorities say the controversy in Bowie may prompt them to take a closer look at what is in the sludge being spread around the state and to issue stricter standards on sludge contaminants.

That annoys some Arizona farmers and waste-water officials, who believe increased scrutiny is unnecessary. They are critical of the way Bryce handled his neighbor's concerns.

``When I heard about the possibility of New York City sludge coming into Arizona, I knew people wouldn't be happy about it,'' says George Brinsko, head of Pima County Wastewater Management. Sludge from Tucson, which is in Pima County, has been used on nearby farms for more than a decade.

``When you have something like this, you have to go through an extensive public education process to show people you're not creating a problem, either environmentally or aesthetically,'' Mr. Brinsko says.

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