By Myrna Wood, Prince Edward County Safe Water Group, Picton, Ontario
Prince Edward County promotes itself as a pristine tourist destination, as well as a source of quality food and wine. Located on the north shore of Lake Ontario, the county is virtually an island. However, a common management practice was putting our valuable farmland, livelihoods, and water at risk – application of sludge to farmland. Sewage sludge (also called biosolids) is the by-product of municipal wastewater treatment facilities.
Municipal governments convince farmers (some even pay them) to accept sludge and apply it to their land as fertilizer and as a means of disposal. However, seven years ago after e-coli contaminated water, killing seven people and sickening hundreds in Walkerton, Ontario, concerns about sludge application magnified.
The contents of sludge vary greatly. The organic matter can be a fertilizer, but anything that gets flushed down the toilet and drains can end up in sludge, including chemicals, heavy metals, pathogens, and medicines. In a recent publication,“The Case for Caution,” researchers at Cornell University have determined that the current practice of land application of sludge needs better regulation to insure the safety of drinking water and food (http://www.cfe.cornell.edu/wmi/).
Starting in 2001, the Prince Edward County Safe Water Group wanted to find alternatives to the dangerous practice of spreading sewage sludge on rural land. After a family’s well was contaminated the County adopted a ‘protocol’ to notify neighbours of proposed sites. This notice allowed rural people to organize themselves and protest to the Public Works department. Neighbours often knew more about water courses than Public Works and the plan to spread would be withdrawn. Many times the farmers would withdraw to maintain good relations with their neighbours.
Finally after much hard work, in December 2007, Prince Edward County adopted a moratorium on sludge application. The moratorium is temporary until an alternative disposal method can be found. A number of innovative technologies are being investigated.
We seized the opportunity of the moratorium to raise public awareness of the health concerns related to sludge application. Working with our partners, the National Farmers Union, the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario Canadian Organic Growers, we conducted a campaign by writing letters to local papers; organizing public screenings of Sludge Diet – a powerful educational video on the perils of sludge; distributing roadside signs (NO SLUDGE HERE) for people to put on their land; and organizing a series of talks in the region by Dr Murray McBride, a soil scientist from the Cornell Waste Management Institute.
Where there are people, there is sludge. But now more than ever,we must manage our sludge carefully to protect our health, farms,water, and communities.
For more information on the protocol, moratorium or educational resources on sludge, contact Myrna Wood, firstname.lastname@example.org. Toronto Star published a series of ten articles on the sludge issue, the archived articles can be found at http://www.thewatchers.us/Toronto-Star.html
The video Sludge Diet has been nominated Notable Video of the Year by the American Library Association copies can be purchased at www.cinefete.ca.