NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Sludge.
Usually thought of as mundane, stinky and belonging in a septic tank, the slimy stuff is now unavoidable and could affect the food supply and the health of every American.
U.S. residents generate 22,000 tons of sludge every day, and by federal law, that sludge can no longer be dumped in the ocean. The Environmental Protection Agency now reclassifies that waste as "biosolids," and farmers spread it on their pastures.
One farmer made a home video to show how he thinks sludge killed more than a hundred of his cows.
"We had the vet for her this morning. And the vet says there's something toxic in her," farmer Bob Ruane said. "She don't know what it is. She says to take the cow to the slaughterhouse right away because the cow is going to die."
State and federal officials say they studied the case and found problems with the way Bob Ruane ran his farm, but no demonstrable link between the cows' deaths and sludge.
Ruane's evidence is largely circumstantial. He says the cows got better after he stopped feeding them corn grown with sludge. A lawsuit is pending.
Whether or not sludge killed Bob Ruane's cows, the federal government is pushing the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer. And it's spreading across the country.
Farms in eastern Colorado use sludge to grow wheat for human consumption. In Frenchtown, N.J., Bill Pandy uses it on his crops grown mostly for animal feed.
"I've never seen any adverse effects on my cows, on me
using it, on plants, on wildlife, on anything," Pandy said.
But there's one small problem.
"It smells. It has an offensive odor," he said.
No doubt about it, sludge production is a dirty business.
It's made from everything you flush down the toilet, and everything industries put down the drain. The EPA does set limits on nine heavy metals, such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead. But the agency does not regulate or even monitor the levels of potentially deadly dioxins in sludge.
There are no regulations for PCBs and no monitoring for pesticides. The EPA is not testing sludge on a nationwide basis. The last comprehensive national study ended in 1989, and the agency scrapped plans for a new study last year.
"They're not testing for the chemicals or the synergetic effect of all these chemicals coming together and becoming more potent," said Charlotte Hartman, national coordinator for the National Sludge Alliance. "What are we talking about here? We're talking about toxic soup."
A threat is posed not just to food grown with sludge. but to the land and the groundwater wherever sludge is applied.
"It was banned from ocean dumping because of its threat and risk to the water and marine life," said Stephen Lester, science director for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.
"How can you take the same material and say that now it is safe to
apply on farmland?" he asked. "That just makes no common sense, let alone technical sense."
In New Hampshire, eight towns have either banned or sharply restricted sludge farming. The rolling White Mountains may seem like an unlikely place to talk about industrial waste, but some area residents are worried about sewage sludge that's trucked in from out of state.
The concern on a June night in the town of Webster is whether to continue a moratorium on spreading sludge on farm land.
"There isn't a farmer in this state that goes down to the grain store and says to the man behind the counter, 'I want some fertilizer. I want lead. I want arsenic. I want cadmium. I want mercury. Give it to me in a big bag, because I'm going to spread it on my fields and make my crops grow,'" said Charlie Reid, an organic farmer at the town meeting.
But federal sludge policy is not about crop growth, and it is not about agriculture. The policy is driven by the economics of waste disposal.
"Our cost on the application sites run about 4 to 5 cents a gallon," said Dennis Palmer, executive director of the Landis Sewerage Authority. "If we were hauling off-site, to another disposal site, it would be closer to 10 to 12 cents a gallon."
Consider that the United States produces 8 million tons of sludge a year. Recycling sludge is much cheaper than legally dumping it. The savings run from $100 to $600 a ton.
The potential savings nationally could approach $5 billion a year. But to Bob Ruane, those savings come at a greater cost.
"I would say to any farmer right now, 'Don't even think of it. Don't even consider it,'" Ruane said. "They'd be making a big mistake. And I know this from experience."
In part two of Moneyline's special report, Bill Dorman will report from Colorado on what could be a precedent-setting stretch of federal sludge policy: an EPA plan to take waste from a hazardous, toxic Superfund site near Denver and turn it into government-approved fertilizer.