Turning Toxic Sludge Into Fertilizer

Effort marks test of new and controversial way to clean up Superfund sites inexpensively

Dick Price has lived in the same house - on the same 19,000-acre plot of east Colorado farmland - for almost eight decades.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Mr. Price has nurtured the land through bad years and good, through droughts and bounty. The land has become a defining part of his life. But now, he's facing a new challenge, one he says he is powerless to stop.

The farm adjacent to Price's is owned by Metro, a wastewater treatment plant in Denver that makes fertilizer from its recycled sewer sludge. In a few months, Metro, along with other Colorado agencies responsible for cleaning up a Superfund site near Denver, wants to add that site's toxic waste to the sewer sludge mix. And while Metro and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) insist that the sludge is safe, local farmers like Price are unconvinced.

"There's nothing being said about the people out here like us who are trying to make a living on the land," says Price. "You pay your taxes all your life, and you think you have some say about this sort of thing."

A public comment period, in which citizens voice their opinions on the plan, ends June 30. After that, the EPA will take the public's suggestions under consideration and then decide whether to move ahead.

As the debate about the Superfund cleanup plan develops, the issue is becoming the latest chapter in a national debate over how to best deal the growing stockpile of hazardous materials. And the decision here could determine whether other Superfund sites around the country are cleaned up the same way.

The Superfund site at the center of the controversy, Lowry Landfill, is among the worst in the nation: The toxic mix includes industrial solvents, petroleum oils, and pesticides. The greatest debate, however, concerns the presence of radioactive material at the site.

Despite the conclusions of a 1991 report that claimed a "large number" of radioactive particles exist at Lowry, the EPA remains firm that the sludge would not be dangerous.

"In order for Metro to accept Lowry water, it must meet all standards that exist for treatment of wastewater," says Marc Herman, EPA site manager for Lowry. "The water placed in the sewer system will be neither radioactive nor hazardous."

"You can't go by the conclusions of one report in 1991," he adds. "Our understanding of a lot of issues at the site is constantly evolving. We may not know the exact values, but what we do know is that the concentrations of plutonium are extremely low."

Indeed, Stephan Frank, a Metro spokesman claims that the new sludge fertilizer will be the same as the old. But Dick Price's son, John, is wary of the whole idea of sludge as fertilizer: If previous studies were wrong, perhaps current conclusions are too, he says.

UNDER the new proposal, liquid waste from Lowry would be discharged through municipal sewer lines to a treatment plant. Once there, it would be treated with 150 million gallons of household and industrial sewage daily. The resulting sludge would be trucked to the 50,000-acre Metro wheat farm next to Price's.

Still, farmers are not sold on the safety of the plan - and neither is Hugh Kaufman, a senior EPA engineer. Mr. Kaufman, a 26-year EPA veteran, has a history of publicly questioning EPA decisions. He is again raising his voice.

"On the one hand, the EPA is saying this waste is so dangerous it has to be cleaned up. Then they're saying it's safe enough to grow food on. That's ridiculous."

He also echoes many other's concerns about the labeling of the food grown on sludge-fertilized farms. Food grown on sludge fertilizer isn't labeled to inform consumers of that fact, he notes.

"The general public doesn't even know that this waste is being used to grow food. Growers can label this food as organic."

Meanwhile, Price worries what will happen if chemical residues, carried by wind or rain, contaminate his land or the water his cattle drink.

"If this stuff is so good, then why do they want to bring it out to us?"

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