Health Concerns Grow as Oklahoma Farmers Fertilize Cropland with Treated Sewage | Civil Eats

Health Concerns Grow as Oklahoma Farmers Fertilize Cropland with Treated Sewage

Complaints about water and air pollution and health impacts to people and livestock haven’t stopped farmers in Oklahoma from spreading treated sewage on their land.

A farm tractor spreads biosolids on a farm field in Geneva, Illinois. (Photo CC-licensed by the City of Geneva)

Photo CC-licensed by the city of Geneva, Illinois.

The flies and health problems that now plague Leslie Stewart materialized as soon as her neighbor started spreading sewage sludge as fertilizer across his 160-acre farm several years ago.

Flies consistently swarm the 5-acre farm where she has raised goats for 18 years. Within weeks, the goats started getting sick, Stewart said. Soon after, 12 of the 36 died. She blames the flies crawling the goats’ feed, and the pests also began entering her home however they could—through tiny cracks in the building, through her stove vent.

The sewage sludge stench “knocks me to the floor, and I feel like a prisoner in my own home,” said Stewart, 53, who receives disability payments and was already on oxygen from existing health problems when the stench arrived. Moving would be prohibitively expensive, she added.

“A lot of elderly and disabled people are in the same boat,” Stewart said. “There’s no way we can afford to move. We’re stuck.”

Flies swarm the exterior of Leslie Stewart's home in rural Oklahoma. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Stewart)

Flies swarm the exterior of Leslie Stewart’s home in rural Oklahoma. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Stewart)

Stewart is just one of a number of rural Oklahomans who say sludge spread as fertilizer is putting their health at risk, destroying their quality of life, and contaminating drinking water, livestock, and crops with toxic PFAS and other dangerous chemicals.

Sludge is what’s left over when water is separated from human and industrial waste sent into the nation’s sewer systems. Also called biosolids, it is a semi-solid, toxic mix of human and industrial waste that’s also rich in nutrients like nitrogen. In recent decades, wastewater treatment plants have given it away to farmers for no cost as a cheap alternative to fertilizer.

The sludge in the region is largely produced by Oklahoma City’s wastewater treatment facility.

Recent independent testing of the region’s sludge detected hundreds of toxins, found elevated levels of some of those chemicals in the organs of local deer, and detected regions where large amounts of sludge have been spread leaving residents at greater risk of a range of health problems.

Local residents who spoke with Civil Eats say they have pleaded with state leaders for help, but a bill to ban the practice died in the state legislature in the last session, and environmental officials have not taken meaningful action to address the issues.

The waste management industry and most state regulators maintain the substance is safe and they have downplayed concerns that industrial chemicals packed in sludge may contaminate food and water. In a statement, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) said it follows federal guidance for sludge and stressed that the practice “is permissible under federal law.”

The Oklahoma farmers Civil Eats reached out to didn’t respond to requests for comment, but opponents say they hear versions of the same arguments: Farmers believe they have the right to do what they want on their land, and it saves them money. The practice is also lucrative for the waste management industry and saves money for municipalities that would otherwise have to dispose of toxic sludge in specialized landfills.

For now, the substance continues to be spread on farmland, and Oklahoma is just one of a growing number of flashpoints in a national sludge debate that’s pitting public health against the financial interest of the waste management industry, state governments, and the agricultural industry.

When Stewart approached her neighbor about her dead goats and showed him pictures of the flies swarming her home, the farmer told her he didn’t have a choice but to spread sludge because fertilizer is “too expensive.”

“It’s a no-win situation for me,” said Stewart. “And I can’t put a bubble over my property because of his negligence.”

‘Unlike Anything You Have Ever Smelled’

At first, John Smith and his family thought a boar carcass was rotting near their house. The smell of death hung in the summer morning air around their rural property north of Oklahoma City as they prepared to host a baby shower in 2019. But a thorough search of the vicinity didn’t turn up a boar, said Smith, who asked to use an alias for fear of retaliation from farmers or government officials.

As the guests gathered later in the day, the thick, putrid stench caused their eyes to burn, made them cough, and forced them to take shelter indoors. The smell didn’t relent in the following weeks, and Smith’s family members endured respiratory irritation, fevers, burning eyes, rashes, a staph infection, and other health problems.

Their neighbors had begun to suffer similar problems, and the Smiths soon identified the source: a farmer about a mile away had spread sludge.

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“It’s unlike anything you have smelled. The whole thing is insane,” said Smith.

The waste management industry claims biosolids, when treated properly, should not smell or attract pests. The Sierra Club has characterized sludge as “a witch’s brew” of toxic substances, but since the mid-1990s, wastewater facilities have increasingly treated it with lime, heated it, or air-dried it in an effort to eliminate the stench and pathogens.

The substance is then often repackaged as “biosolids” and applied on farmland, in home gardens, and in public parks as an alternative to synthetic fertilizer. In Oklahoma, up to 70 percent of the sludge produced is disposed of in state fields, a DEQ spokesperson told Civil Eats.

Residents’ fears about the health impact of spreading sludge on farms are supported by independent research. A 2002 study authored by a former EPA scientist found that sludge caused many of the same health issues as those experienced in Oklahoma. Meanwhile, researchers found DNA from bacteria in Oklahoma City’s sludge matched that of bacteria found in a furnace filter in a home near a sludge field, highlighting how the practice can pollute neighbors’ indoor air. A sample of a 2016 batch of Oklahoma City sludge that was sent to a field in the region showed it contained strep and other pathogens.

Sludge has also been found to contaminate drinking water and food. The EPA does not require the biosolid treatment process to remove any of the 90,000 human-made chemicals that may be discharged into sewer systems, including PFAS, pharmaceuticals, hormones, and heavy metals. Those substances can move from sludge into soil, crops, cattle, and nearby drinking water sources.

“Your rights don’t allow you to do something that could harm your neighbor, like contaminate the aquifer. Your rights end where mine begin.”

All sludge is likely contaminated with toxic PFAS, say researchers and environmental groups that have worked on the issue. Regulators in Michigan and Maine have implemented robust testing programs for PFAS in sludge, and in Michigan and Maine they found it in every field where the substance was spread, as well as in crops, livestock, groundwater, and farmers’ blood.

The contamination has put farmers in both states out of business, and the substances have also migrated into neighboring fields, contaminating wells. The crisis prompted Maine to ban the application of sludge to fields.

The Oklahoma DEQ said it does not test residential wells for PFAS, though it does have in place a program to prevent some chemical pollution from being discharged into the sewer system. Stewart said she hasn’t tested her well for PFAS contamination, and Smith said he detected high levels of the chemicals in his well.

The contamination of drinking water gets at the heart of the property rights debate, residents say. “Your rights don’t allow you to do something that could harm your neighbor, like contaminate the aquifer,” said Oklahoma farmer Saundra Traywick, who doesn’t use sludge on her farm and has pushed for more regulation. “Your rights end where mine begin.”

Property Rights

Twice a year, massive semitrucks belonging to waste-management giant Synagro haul sludge between a wastewater treatment plant and a farm several miles away from the RV park where owner Shelley Dobson and dozens of other residents live.

The trucks make 90 round trips from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily for several weeks, often using the narrow, dirt road on which the RV park sits. The property, Dobson said, is then left coated in dust from the road and the sludge.

Once the sludge is on the nearby fields, the stench is powerful, even at a distance of several miles, Dobson said. It causes respiratory problems for tenants, and she has seen sludge running off fields and into roadways or streams. According to Dobson, when she approached the farmer, “he said it’s his right and his farm had been there longer than my RV park.”

But Dobson, whose RV park has been there for around 30 years, disagrees. “You don’t own the air, but you’re contaminating it,” she said. “If it affects my livelihood, I’m going to fight back.”

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The situation is emblematic of the tension between the large-scale farmers who are more commonly using sludge, smaller farmers who refrain from using it, and other nearby property owners. Some say the practice is tearing at the fabric of rural communities.

The Smiths said they also approached the farmer who spread sludge a mile from their home and explained the health problems and the impact on their quality of life, and he refused to stop.

Now, the Smiths are in the process of selling their property and moving around 50 miles east, where sludge is not being spread. “This has been making us sick for a long time, and once we started connecting the dots we were like ‘OK, we have to move,’” said Smith.

Political Fight

Sludge opponents in Oklahoma say they have looked for help at the state, federal, and local levels, but even with some sympathetic lawmakers and leaders, the practice seems likely to continue throughout most of the state.

Senator Shane Jett (R) proposed the bill that would have banned the application of biosolids in the 2022 legislative session, but it was never brought up for a vote in committee. Jett didn’t return multiple requests for comment.

At the local level, the city of Luther banned the use of biosolids, as did the city of Choctaw, before it reversed the decision to allow some forms of the substance to be spread. Traywick said rural residents are frustrated because they can’t vote Oklahoma City councilmembers out of office for dumping the city’s waste on their communities because they live outside their districts.

Stewart said she hasn’t called the DEQ or any other state office because nothing changed after her neighbors called, and she feels defeated. “It’s going to fall on deaf ears, so what’s the point?” she asked.

In a statement to Civil Eats, a DEQ spokesperson did not address the residents’ complaints about stench and health problems. Instead, the spokesperson said the DEQ hadn’t been contacted by the state’s health department about illness outbreaks near sludge fields. The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture and Forestry is responsible for testing meat and crops for contamination. A spokesperson for the department directed questions to the DEQ.

Meanwhile, the EPA is analyzing the risk of PFAS contamination for two kinds of PFAS compounds, but that analysis won’t be ready until 2024, and it’s not clear whether it will result in any new regulations of the substance.

“Every agency that is supposed to be protecting us is protecting the wastewater industry,” Traywick said, “so big cities are dumping their waste on people who don’t have a say.”

Tom Perkins is a freelance reporter based in Michigan. His work has appeared in the Detroit Metro Times, The Guardian, The Nation, and many more. Read more >

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