(NaturalNews) Residents of Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, have complained about a state program to spread sewage sludge on public lands near their homes, citing health concerns.
The treated sewage sludge, formally known as "biosolids," is intended to enrich the soil and help vegetation regrow on the site of a former strip mine that has been turned into a state game reserve. A New York waste management company has received a permit to dispose of biosolids on 50 acres of Pennsylvania state land without paying any disposal fee.
Local residents such as Brian Gould, 30, who recently built a house on property abutting the game lands, have expressed concerns about the health effects of spreading treated sewage next to their homes.
"Whenever they spread it, the valley fills in with a fog," Gould said. "We're at the highest point around. The wind is always blowing. Whatever they spread up here is going to be carried all around."
"It smells like if you took 40 Porta-Johns and kicked them over in July," he said. "And that's being nice."
Gould's wife, Allison, recently told game officials that, when the spreading began, she was hospitalized with bronchial spasms, which feel like a heart attack. The doctor told her that such spasms can be triggered by airborne pollutants.
"I'm 27. I've never had asthma or any respiratory problems," she said. "But that night, I had an elephant sitting on my chest. ... What is this stuff going to do to our families, to our kids?"
Residents confront game officials
At a recent town meeting, roughly 100 residents confronted officials of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which is responsible for the program.
"The people here pay your wages, and we don't want it," shouted Bell Township Supervisor Dave Kauffman. "Pull the permits!"
Although state Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Daniel Spadoni assured residents that the biosolids site has been inspected five times with no violations found, residents said that they have been suffering from chronic headaches and nausea.
"It can't be good for you," said Ryan Smith, 32. "I mean, it smells like dead animals. You can sit in our living room and feel like you're eating it."
Many residents, including the Goulds, are testing their water to establish a baseline against future contamination, and Mahaffey Fire Chief Dan Wright announced at the meeting that he will refuse to dispatch firefighters to any fires that break out too close to the sludge.
"You can't guarantee it's safe, so I won't send them in," he said, standing and jabbing his finger at the game officials.
Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows for the application of treated sewage sludge as fertilizer, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club warn that biosolids may contain pollutants and disease-causing contaminants that can cause both short- and long-term harm to humans, animals and the environment. For example, contaminants could leach into nearby wells and groundwater.
"Biosolids is a euphemism for sewage sludge," said Tom Richard, director of Penn State Institutes for Energy and the Environment. "Before we started spreading them on our land, we used to put them in landfills and dump them in the ocean. That didn't work out so well, because some of it would wash up on the shores of New Jersey, and people didn't like that."
Richard noted that, while EPA tests have indicated that the health risks from biosolids are "low," it would be deceptive to claim that biosolids are completely safe.
"Unfortunately low is not zero," he said. "It's not zero risk for all the things they've tested, for heavy metals, pathogens, etc. Anyone who tells you it's zero risk doesn't understand the way the risk analysis was conducted."