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Sludge Industry Reveals "Resource Recovery" Spin
The Water Environment Federation (WEF), the sewage sludge industry trade group that invented the Orwellian PR euphemism "biosolids" for toxic sludge in 1991, is now "rebranding" sewage treatment plants as "water resource recovery facilities." The PR spin conveniently glosses over the toxic sewage sludge removed from the water and then heated and dumped on land for crops and grazing as "fertilizer" or misleadingly called "compost." The toxins in sludge can then bioaccumulate in the meat and dairy we eat and be taken up by the food plants that feed us.
Spinning Sewage Treatment Plants as "Water Resource Recovery Facilities"
Two new position statements, one on "Renewable Energy Generation From Wastewater" and the other on "Innovative Beneficial Uses of Biosolids", were adopted by WEF's Residuals and "Biosolids" Committee late this year. The first was announced at the 2011 BioCycle "11th Annual Conference on Renewable Energy from Organics Recycling" in Middleton, Wisconsin, by committee chair Todd Williams.
BioCycle Magazine is a publication serving the interests of the sewage sludge industry. (The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) attended the conference to observe.)
"Renewable Energy Generation from Wastewater" Still Leaves Behind Toxic Sludge
The "Energy Generation From Wastewater" statement, adopted on October 14, begins:
"WEF believes that wastewater treatment plants are not waste disposal facilities, but rather water resource recovery facilities that produce clean water, recover nutrients (such as phosphorus and nitrogen), and have the potential to reduce the nation's dependence upon fossil fuel through the production and use of renewable energy."
The WEF spin focuses on "clean water" and "renewable energy," but fails to mention that the other output of sewage plants is still toxic sewage sludge. In fact, the cleaner the water, the more toxic the concentrated sludge.
In the new processes WEF lauds, methane gas from the rotting sludge from industry and humans can be used as a fuel in a process called anaerobic digestion or "gasification." This process is different from just drying the sludge to remove the water from the toxic solids.
The statement also claims, however, that the remaining "nutrients" (i.e. sludge, which contains phosphorous and nitrogen as well as a whole host of toxins) can be "recovered." How? It is not until the fourth page (of eight) of the statement that it asserts sludge's "beneficial use as fertilizer" (emphasis added). There is no suggestion for how to remove toxic contaminants before spreading this sludge on soil.
We've Heard This Before: "Toxic Sludge is Good For You"
While it does reduce volume and pathogens, sludge gasification involves no process to remove contaminants such as dioxins and furans, flame retardants, metals, organochlorine pesticides, 1,2-dibromo-3-dhloropropane (DBCP), naphthalene, triclosan, nonylphenols, phthalates, nanosilver, and thousands more substances.
A 2008 study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found that the toxins in sludge end up in food from livestock grazing on sludge-contaminated land. The heavy metals tend to bioaccumulate in fat tissue and milk fat. Food crops grown in soil contaminated with sludge can also absorb heavy metals, which persist in soils and can continue to be taken up by food plants for "decades, if not centuries, after sludge is applied."
For more, see Center for Media and Democracy founder John Stauber's 1995 book, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You!.
Sludge Toxics and Viruses "Too Valuable to Waste"?
The new "Environment Federation Position Statement on Biosolids," adopted December 2, calls "biosolids ... a renewable resource that is too valuable to waste in the context of growing needs for renewable energy and sustainability."
WEF specifies that it "actively supports the promotion and enhancement of the beneficial recycling of biosolids that are best suited to meet the management needs of local communities, whether that use is beneficial recycling through land application, composting, energy generation, product development, landfilling, incineration, or other uses" (emphasis added). "Land application" is WEF's euphemism for spreading industrial and human sewage sludge on soil.
As CMD has previously reported, a few decades before sludge was such big business, WEF criticized the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) enthusiasm for spreading sludge on soil, fearing it could introduce viruses into the food chain. "The results can be disastrous," then-WEF director Robert Canham warned. By the 1990s, however, WEF members were running out of other storage locations, and WEF became an eager supporter of "land application."
In 2002, the National Research Council found that the "U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standards that govern using treated sewage sludge on soil are based on outdated science." This was again confirmed in 2011, when scientists found that noroviruses survive treatment that kills pathogens such as Salmonella.
History of "Rebranding"
According to Williams, the Residuals and "Biosolids" Committee task force on the "rebranding" of wastewater treatment plants is planning to publish another "position statement" in February 2012. This is another chapter in WEF's history of inventing euphemisms in order to "rebrand" itself and toxic sludge.
"Founded in 1928 as the 'Federation of Sewage Works Associations,' the organization in 1950 recognized the growing significance of industrial waste in sludge by changing its name to the 'Federation of Sewage and Industrial Wastes Associations.' In 1960, it changed its name again to the cleaner-sounding 'Water Pollution Control Federation.'
The WEF has been aggressively involved in promoting the so-called 'beneficial use' of sewage sludge for fertilizer. To avoid the negative connotations associated with the word 'sludge,' WEF invented the euphemism 'biosolids'."
The Conference on "Renewable Energy from Organics Recycling" focused on producing renewable energy from "organics." Most people think this term means foods not grown in chemicals, as with certified organic produce, and BioCycle banks on that understanding when it uses the term "organic" to describe carbon-based material laden with toxic chemicals.
A partial list of corporations and organizations exhibiting at and participating in this conference can be found on SourceWatch here. Some of these corporations are involved in the toxic sludge industry.