December 5, 2005

Industry leadership needed for biosolids management

By: Colin Isaacs

"Be careful what you wish for because you might get it," a representative of Ontario farmers advised recently. He was referring to Ontario's Nutrient Management Act, still a thorn in the side of many farmers and industries. He reminded a public meeting that the Act stemmed from a request by farmers for provincial action following decisions by many municipalities to implement their own nutrient bylaws.

Most of the bylaws were quite farmer-friendly, but provincial action was sought because about 5% of the bylaws were not quite so accommodating to farmers. None of the bylaws were anywhere near as onerous as the provincial legislation, however, leading many in the farm community to regret having asked for provincial action.

Farmers should perhaps not feel quite so regretful. Today much of the pressure for action on biosolids is coming from one woman and her Web site. Self-styled "Sludge Queen" Maureen Reilly runs a list server called Sludgewatch on which she posts and distributes news articles relating to biosolids and adds her own commentary. The articles come from all over Canada and the United States.

The commentaries are, to put it mildly, vitriolic and mostly not constructive, though Reilly does seem to have some preference for incineration of biosolids and last year apparently touted a plan by a disposal company to dump treated biosolids into the Florida Everglades. Hundreds, and likely thousands, of people are subscribing to Sludgewatch and many seem to consider it an authoritative source of information.

The fact is that the public and politicians alike are badly misinformed regarding their knowledge of wastewater treatment. Most politicians seem to think that the more dilute the input effluent, the better. Many believe that wastewater treatment plants can remove everything, from industrial organics to drug residues and dissolved heavy metals.

Fuelled by misinformation, the regulatory situation for all industries discharging to sewers - and thus contributing to the biosolids challenge - is only going to get worse.

Sometimes ignoring a problem can be worse than wishing for change. It is time for industry, including agriculture and manufacturers who discharge to sewers, to take the lead in establishing a 21st century program for dealing with wastewater discharges and sludges. The same industries must also engage in a program of providing accurate public and politician education.

Ignoring the problem will mean that future rules are based on the advice of Maureen Reilly and her many followers. The result will be very expensive for industry and for agriculture.

Sludgewatch commentaries can be viewed at

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