Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Toledo’s sludge mess

When private industry finds beneficial uses for waste products, that’s a social victory. But it’s still unclear whether a public-private partnership to manage the muck left behind by Toledo’s sewage treatment process is serving this region well or creating more problems.

Since 2011, S&L Fertilizer of East Toledo has had sole access to Toledo’s sewage sludge. For years before that, the company received the small amount of sludge that wasn’t used by its chief competitor, N-Viro International.

Both companies use sludge to create soil-like products; N-Viro’s is classified as better at eliminating pathogens. S&L hauls sludge to a man-made island in Oregon, where it mixes sewage by-products with contaminated silt from the Toledo shipping channel that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has deposited.

S&L markets its product, Nu-Soil, as landfill cover and soil fill. It operates in one of the Great Lakes region’s most sensitive areas. Anything that slips into the water from the island is of special concern amid efforts to suppress algae, bacteria, and chemical waste. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is looking harder for liquids that might leach from the site.

The city has given S&L exclusive rights to its sludge, driven largely by the company’s offer to provide $200,000 a year worth of free landfill cover. City of Toledo officials rejected a University of Toledo offer to help investigate operations at the island, called Facility 3. Both decisions raise questions.

There remains a lack of consensus on the best ways to reuse sludge. A decade ago, the National Research Council called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to improve its oversight of the process. The agency took action on only some of the council’s proposals.

Cornell University researchers have documented multiple cases of mouth sores, throat blisters, and bleeding among people who are believed to have frequently inhaled or made skin contact with sludge. At least two deaths in Pennsylvania and one in New Hampshire prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to become wary of Class B sludge, the type S&L produces.

Recycled sludge has been used as farm fertilizer for years. But proper management of it remains essential — and the government remains unsure how to achieve that.

Sludge recycling wasn’t such an issue before the modern era of sewage treatment, because solids weren’t captured in such volume. But they are now, by Toledo’s sewage plant and others.

Until recently, the Ohio EPA’s director says, the agency did not require S&L to track and report where Nu-Soil went, other than to the city’s landfill and Ravine Park. Neither appears contaminated, although experts claim sludge has pollutants that can go undetected.

S&L’s exclusive contract for Toledo’s sludge could yet prove to be beneficial, but it’s a gamble. For now, sludge is not the nonissue that Mayor Mike Bell and some City Council members claim.

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