The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) has opened a public forum on an application to continue a deal with the city of Charlotte that, according to one local man, stinks. Literally.
The renewal of this permit would allow sludge, or biosolids, to be used as fertilizer in several S.C. counties including Chester, Fairfield, Lancaster and York. The sludge would be brought in from Charlotte, N.C. and applied to farm fields in S.C. surrounding Winthrop University.
While Charlotte’s city website touts biosolids as “safe, nutrient-rich organic materials,” Dave Cole of Chester, S.C. has begun a personal crusade against the process, claiming that it is unsafe.
“I believe that this particular program is spreading disease far and wide,” Cole said. “What is being produced by Charlotte is biologically active. Chances are you would get very sick if you go around it. That’s what they’re going to dump all around Winthrop University starting in February.”
Cole says he first became suspicious of the program when he says DHEC dumped sludge near their home, causing his wife to experience a severe asthma attack. Cole had never before seen an attack quite like that one.
Instead of packing up their home and memories and moving, the Coles decided to stay and fight.
“My goal is awareness,” Cole said. “In this case there are better, cleaner, safer ways to protect both the people and implication sites and environment.”
“This material can travel up to five miles off the [farm] field,” said Cole. “It could affect students that live off-campus and can bring it back on campus.”
Many components that are in the sludge would not produce immediate side effects, according to Cole.
“A lot of components in sludge are carcinogens, things that affect hormones especially for women. Things are in sludge that if they become airborne will seriously mess up your physiology.”
The biggest hazard from this proposal could most likely occur if the sludge were to seep into nearby streams, according to assistant professor of chemistry, physics and geology Scott Werts.
“If there is too much runoff, then once the material enters the stream, fecal coliform outbreaks could occur which may make humans ill,” said Werts.
Cole says the process begins when Charlotte-area treatment plants break down solid waste and then distribute the remains to incinerators, landfills or to farmers in the form of fertilizer.
“The sludge is from treated human waste that is leftover as a solid material from sewage treatment plants,” said Werts. “Because this waste is biological material derived from plant and animal products to begin with, it can biodegrade readily in the soils.”
Local farmers in S.C. are able to procure this fertilizer at little to no cost.
“Charlotte is trying to get sludge as far away from their city as they can,” said Cole. “York, Chester and Fairfield counties are the ideal place to relocate waste. It’s much cheaper to dump it in a different state than in a landfill in their own state.”
Cole advocates upgrading Charlotte treatment facilities so that they could process the waste even further into a “Class A” sludge which would make it safer and would, according to Cole, be able to be given to their own residents.
“Charlotte sees South Carolina as a completely screwed up state, and they’re right. Most people are completely oblivious to this particular program,” said Cole. “If the student body accepts Class B toxic waste—above the ground, into the air—they have let the corporate body win. They have let Charlotte, quite frankly, shit all over South Carolina.”
Not everyone on Winthrop’s campus is as actively concerned as Cole.
“If they can find a way to make sure nothing can harm the food supply, water supply or the ecosystem…then I think it’s a good idea,” said Adam Sullivan, a freshman music performance major.
“They’ve been doing it for years and nothing major has yet to happen, so if they keep the same processes going in order to keep it safe then I don’t see a problem with it being renewed.”
“Biosolids (treated sewage sludge in this case) have been evaluated for their safety in selected uses and these evaluations have had time to be challenged or corrected (if needed),” said Marsha Bollinger, chair of interdisciplinary studies. “If regulations are properly followed, there is little risk to humans whether it relates to food or water quality.”
DHEC’s original permit that allowed Charlotte to bring its sludge to local farms has long since expired. According to federal pollution laws, people and companies are unable to dump toxic chemicals into the air or water unless they have a permit.
According to Cole, there are over 500 permits that have expired, yet are still continuing despite their expiration date.
“It’s a lengthy process to renew permits,” Cole said.
DHEC will hold a public hearing on the renewal of the permit on Feb. 26 at 6 p.m. at the Richburg Fire Department in Richburg, S.C.
Werts said the chief concern thus far seems to be the smell of the sludge.
“Unfortunately, some biosolids smell badly. But overall, using biosolids as fertilizer is a well- established form of recycling and has many benefits,” Bollinger said.
Meanwhile, Cole is urging students to pay attention to where their food comes from and what is going on in the local government.
“When they’re touting that toxic sludge is good for you, that should be a big red flag,” said Cole.
“South Carolina’s government and the federal government are trying to tell students ‘don’t worry about
this, we got it handled’ and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Participation is another way for students to become involved. Concerned students are encouraged to contact DHEC with any comments or questions regarding the sludge process and permits.
“As an American, you have to be your brother’s keeper,” said Cole. “You have to look out for your neighbor. If you don’t, you become part of the problem. If you don’t stand up to these big corporate interests, you’ll be nothing but a pawn or lab rat. And I refuse to become a statistic.”