Nine months before tens of thousands flocked to a popular music festival in Austin, Texas, the concert park grounds were spread with sewage sludge. It was autumn of 2009, and sewage sludge was used as a "fertilizer" to make the grass -- parched from prior dry seasons -- green. But it rained the weekend of the festival, turning the grounds into a huge mud pit, with a stench that one concert-goer described as the smell of "pig manure," with the consistency of pudding.
Following the event, several attendees reported rashes and other maladies that they believe were contracted from coming in contact with the churned up human and industrial waste. The local media was abuzz with stories of the festival's epidemiological aftermath.
The city of Austin markets its sewage sludge as "organic" compost under the trade name "Dillo Dirt" -- in tribute to the native nine-banded Armadillo. The sludge qualifies for "unrestricted use," which means it has been "cleared" for use even on vegetable gardens (although there used to be a warning printed on the bag suggesting gardeners not use it on vegetable gardens). There are some 265 facilities across the country that handle hazardous sludge and many of them are attempting to market sewage sludge as "compost."
Two years have passed since the Austin City Limits (ACL) 2009 festival at Zilker Park and those affected have few answers about what happened to their bodies after the event.
"Pathogens Come Roaring Back"
For Samuel,* a man from Dallas, 2009 was his fifth year attending ACL. While listening to the Arctic Monkeys perform in the rain, he said he was overwhelmed by the smell of human feces.
"It was a weird mud, too, very liquid-y. And whatever they test it for, whenever they test the Dillo Dirt, they're not testing it wet, warm and stirred up by thousands of feet like it was then. If anything's going to make pathogens come roaring back, it's that," he told the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD).
Researchers have found that sludge has the potential to "reactivate," altering the levels of fecal coliform and E. coli, based on moisture and temperature changes.
Samuel woke up the next day with an itch on his genitals and other parts of his body. The itch spread quickly until it reached his face culminating in a mass of inflamed tissue around his eye. During a trip to the emergency room, Samuel was told that he could have poison ivy and was given a steroid shot and a $600 bill. Having had poison ivy before, Samuel said the nature of his rash from ACL was different.
Seeking answers, Samuel contacted the Travis County Health Department. Janet Pichette, Austin's chief toxicologist who was tasked with investigating the complaints from ACL, told Samuel he would have to know where exactly at Zilker Park he was exposed -- a seemingly impossible task in the park-turned pig pen. When he reached out to the city's adjuster to find out what exactly was in Dillo Dirt, he was referred to the city's attorney.
Samuel says his eyes have not fully recovered since the incident. He believes that as a result of his exposure to the sewage sludge his right eye has blurred vision. He tried to get help from the city to pay his emergency room bill, even agreed to sign a waiver, but has not been successful.
Samuel has not been back to ACL since.
"Repulsive, Flame-Red Eruptions"
Crystal Nolan, from Washington State, began feeling ill a few days after she arrived home from Austin. In an article in Austin's The Statesman, she describes being horrified to find "repulsive, flame-red eruptions reaching as far as my upper thighs over the course of a couple days and climbing to my forearms and elbows after a week. A sea of red papules eventually coalesced into large blotches." Nolan was diagnosed as having an inflammation of the vascular system and was prescribed Prednisone for 8 months. The doctor said if the drug hadn't worked, she would have had to go on chemotherapy. The doctor couldn't confirm that the reaction was from Dillo Dirt but said that her body was reacting to exposure to "something." Her body is still marred with "terrible scars."
Nolan was also given the run-around by the health department and was told she would have to pinpoint the exact spot in Zilker Park where she was exposed. The department told her that only a few people had called, and that they were found to have pink-eye or poison ivy after the festival. This is the same message that the department made public.
No Disclosure at Festival of Splattering Sewage Sludge
Laura Ramirez, a 27-year old software engineer who lives in Austin, told CMD that exposure to the mud was unavoidable at the festival. It splashed up her legs, leaving her with a rash that kept her up at night for several weeks because of the intensity of the itch. Her dermatologist also suggested that it might be poison ivy, but Ramirez considers that unlikely because she wasn't in any areas where she would have been exposed to poison ivy. Ramirez had insect bites on her legs before the festival and had been wearing flip-flops.
She, like the others CMD spoke with, wishes there had been public disclosure to the festival-goers about the recent spreading of municipal sewage sludge in the park.
"They should have said something. If I would have known I would have worn rainboots. Nobody had any idea," she said.
City Says Dillo Dirt is Safe
Pichette said that she only heard from about four individuals regarding health issues after the festival, while more victims were taking their complaints to the blogosphere. Without these cases to document, and without knowing where exactly in the park that the individuals were, she was at a loss, she said. According to an email from the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department obtained by CMD, the whole park was spread with Dillo Dirt, which would make a person's exact location in the park irrelevant. The health department had been under the impression that only the upper field was treated with Dillo Dirt.
According to other emails obtained by CMD, representatives from Austin's Water Utility reported back to colleagues with confidence that Dillo Dirt was not to blame for the reported issues: "We monitored all the mud and found no signs of Dillo Dirt emerging from the mud.... The turf held together well but the lower fields could not drain through the clay subsoil. It was a silty mud that oooooooozed up through the turf. The aroma was not Dillo Dirt, but the anaerobic muck of swamps."
The city did not test the mud.
In 2005, Pichette had studied Dillo Dirt samples that had been collected in 2003. The two samples were tested for over 140 compounds. Her conclusions were that Dillo Dirt does not pose a threat to those exposed to it. But according to a report by Brandon Roberts, editor of The Austin Cut, this test may have not taken into account all of the risks:
Of the two samples, one of them contained a range of cancer-causing PAHs (petroleum byproducts), pesticides (including DDE, a DDT derivative), and DEHP (a toxic carcinogen linked to a range of adverse health effects including small penis size, cardiac problems, and
Although the level of each pollutant was below its PCL level, that doesn't say a whole lot about the safety of growing food in the mix of these chemicals.
No further testing was carried out as was recommended in the conclusion of the City's memo on this test.
The test was frequently misquoted in the media after the ACL controversy as saying the Dillo Dirt spread on Zilker Park had been declared safe, Pichette said. She called this inaccurate, because the test was dated, and she could not ensure that the Dillo Dirt used on Zilker Park was comparable to the samples she had studied.
Too Many Toxins to Test For
The Austin Water Utility's Hornsby Bend "Biosolids" facility is a 1200-acre site that stretches along the Colorado River. The sewage sludge is brought to the site after it is separated from wastewater at another site. At Hornsby Bend, the sludge is then mixed with yard trimmings.
The facility sells the Dillo Dirt wholesale, and third-party vendors package it and sell it at local Home Depot's and other gardening shops with a logo of a cute armadillo pushing a wheelbarrow on the bag. The facility also "donates" the sewage sludge to be dumped on city parks and used by local non-profit groups.
Jody Slagle, an engineer at Hornsby Bend, admits that it's difficult to know whether the heating process actually does eliminate potential hazardous substances.
"There are so many chemicals that could potentially be tested for and little information out there on these different chemicals and what they may or may not be doing at different levels. It's a real challenge," he said.
The Dillo Dirt package prominently proclaims that it contains "organic compost & soil conditioner." Slagle explained that the word "organic" is used in the sense that the sludge has carbon compounds, even though ordinary people are unlikely to know that the term does not mean "organic" as used in certified organic products approved for use in organic farming. When asked by CMD whether that might be confusing to consumers who associate the word with chemical-free agriculture, he responded: "That's probably something we should think about."
Irving Lopez, a supervisor at Hornsby Bend, told CMD that "every once in a while people call and say that their dog ate grass that Dillo Dirt was used on and then dies. But they don't have enough proof of it," he said.
Slagle believes that there could be other factors that contributed to the ACL rashes, including substantiated rumors that after the park became muddy, some people supposedly stopped using the porta potties and used the field as a toilet.
Dillo Dirt Program Praised
The US Composting Council, a trade organization that promotes the use of sewage sludge as a fertilizer, chose Austin to host an industry conference in January where the use of sludge was touted. As part of the pre-conference, attendees took a tour of Hornsby Bend. During the plenary session, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole welcomed the conference attendees and bragged about the city's Dillo Dirt program.
The city is receiving glowing recognition for its Dillo Dirt program. Under the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Hornsby Bend recently received over $31.8 million in stimulus funds to expand its infrastructure.
Synagro, a Houston-based corporation owned by the Carlyle Group that deals in sewage sludge, recently began spreading sewage sludge that is heated to reduce pathogens but not to remove other toxic substances from Austin on other parts of Texas. The state also receives sewage sludge from other parts of the country, like New York City.
*Our source wishes to remain anonymous, so we've used the name "Samuel," which was also used in reference to him in an Austin Cut article on the same topic.
--CMD's Rebekah Wilce contributed to this report.