On Tuesday, Aug. 15, Tamaqua council plans to debate an ordinance banning the dumping of sewage sludge, or what its boosters prefer to call "biosolids." But make no mistake about it, this is not mere poop we're talking about: Municipal sewage sludge also contains hazardous industrial chemicals, heavy metals and even radioactive materials. For more details about the history and hazards of sludge -- including how it came to be called "biosolids" -- check out the book "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry"
by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton.
The sludge issue arose in Tamaqua because Coal Creek Ranch -- a subsidiary of Reading Anthracite
-- recently got a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection to dump Philadelphia sewage sludge along Route 209 from the western edge of Tamaqua near the elementary school to Tuscarora. The land lies in Schuylkill Township, which recently began considering
a similar ban.
The ordinance is the brainchild of the folks at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund
, a Chambersburg-based group that helps local communities challenge local corporate power by passing ordinances regulating everything from waste hauling
to genetically modified crops
to corporate retail operations
The last time the sludge ordinance was discussed at a Tamaqua council meeting, tempers flared so hot that Mayor Chris Morrison threatened to call the police. The ordinance has also sparked fiery rhetoric from its critics. Tamaqua Councilor Micah Gursky, for example, characterized it as a bid for "secession" from the federal and state government, according
to the Pottsville Republican.
"Seceding from the Union is a pretty big deal to me," Gursky reportedly said. "Granting rights to ecosystems is a pretty big deal to me."
In truth, Tamaqua wouldn't be going the way of the Confederacy by adopting the ordinance. But it would be adding a layer of local rules to the regulation of sewage sludge, which in Pennsylvania falls under the aegis of the DEP's Biosolids Program
. Local regulation is necessary, the ordinance says, because DEP has failed to adequately protect the public from the hazards of sludge:
In April 2002, the Inspector General of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which oversees state sewage sludge regulations, issued a report in which it concluded, “EPA cannot assure the public that current land application [of sewage sludge] practices are protective of human health and the environment.” Among the Inspector General’s concerns were the following: “failure to properly manage sludge may have adverse effects on human health and the environment”; “EPA does not have an effective program of ensuring compliance with land application requirements”; and state officials have criticized the lack of EPA oversight, staffing, and commitment toward ensuring the safety of land applied sludge.
In 1994, eleven-year-old Tony Behun from Rush Township, Centre County, Pennsylvania, died from a staph infection shortly after being exposed to sewage sludge. The following year, seventeen-year-old Daniel Pennock from Reading, Pennsylvania, died from a staph infection shortly after being exposed to sewage sludge. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes staph as a potential pathogenic component of sewage sludge.
In spite of these risks, Tamaqua Borough has been rendered powerless by the state and federal government to prohibit the land application of sewage sludge by persons that comply with all applicable laws and regulations.
In order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the residents of Tamaqua Borough, the soil, groundwater, and surface water, the environment and its flora and fauna, and the practice of sustainable agriculture, the Borough finds it necessary to ban corporations and other limited liability entities from engaging in the land application of sewage sludge. It is recognized that a small number of waste management corporations control the vast majority of sludge hauling and land application, and that corporate concentration enables those corporations to define waste management practices at the State level to the detriment of municipal communities. It is also recognized that limited liability shields prevent financial recovery (and accountability) for damages caused by business entities because limited liability insulates the persons managing the corporation from harms caused by their decisions. Finally, the Borough recognizes that corporations wielding government-conferred constitutional powers against the municipal government renders the Borough Council unable to guarantee to its citizens a republican form of government in the Borough.
Tamaqua Borough Solicitor Michael S. Greek has been criticized by local environmentalists for saying the ordinance is unenforceable and could even subject the borough to lawsuits. But if challenged by sludge-dumping interests, the ordinance probably does
face an uphill battle in court. That's because at least two decisions -- one from the U.S. District Court and the other from the Penna. Supreme Court -- have held that the state DEP is solely responsible for setting rules for sludge use (for more details, see "Local unease over sludge fuels debate," Reading Eagle, June 7, 2006
Even the CELDF folks acknowledge that Tamaqua faces a fight if it passes the ordinance. In an op-ed submitted to local media, CELDF Project Director Ben Price notes that Greek advised supervisors in nearby Walker Township that once sludge haulers get a permit, "you're not going to stop it from being dumped here. The way it is, we can't say we don't want it here."
"Solicitor Greek was right about 'the way it is,'" Price wrote, "but if we live in a democracy then that’s not the end of the story. If we live in a democracy, then the people, who have an absolute right to self-government, can change 'the way it is' and stop the sludge dumping, no matter what the DEP says."
Why is it so hard for a local community to reject sludge, anyway? In 1997, Pennsylvania enacted a waste-disposal law backed by agribusiness interests that barred townships from passing regulations for factory farms and sludge dumping tougher than the state's. Through its work in Tamaqua and elsewhere, CELDF is challenging that disempowerment of local communities -- and its efforts are part of a broader U.S. movement taking on corporate power. In Minnesota, for example, State Rep. Bill Hilty introduced a state constitutional amendment eliminating corporate personhood, while a number of states have passed laws regulating corporate ownership of farms, according to a report
about CELDF in Orion magazine.
It's certainly not hard to understand why many Tamaqua residents distrust the state when it comes to protecting them from sludge, however. After all, the sludge-dumpers are major contributors to the politicians responsible for regulating the stuff. Since 2001, for example, Reading executives John W. Rich and Jane Rich have contributed at least $58,000 to Gov. Ed Rendell, according to the Institute on Money in State Politics
. Rendell, of course, oversees DEP, whose chief serves at his pleasure.
John Rich has also given generously to state Rep. David Argall -- at least $2,575 since 1998.
The anti-secessionist Gursky, of course, serves as Argall's aide.