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Ruling puts the spotlight on the spread of sludge

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The use of biosolids hit the national spotlight this week as a federal judge took the Agricultural Department to task for problems caused by the use of sludge by two Georgia farmers.

According to an article by the Associated Press, the judge ordered the department to compensate a farmer who lost the use of his cattle and his land because of using biosolids. This ruling is likely to further call into question the use of the product and the government's stamp of approval on it.

Furthering the concern, according to the article, was the fact that the contaminants that poisoned the farms also showed up in milk produced from a neighboring farm's cows. The story stated those elements were more than 100 times the concentration allowed in drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency.

All of this is likely to foster the concerns some have about the three-decade long permitted use of sewage sludge.

And it should.

This is an area that should be closely studied ? and regulated. Those are legitimate concerns that have been expressed by some Bedford County residents now for several years. And Bedford County has responded by exercising its right to regulate any biosolids storage facilities in the county.

Virginia has also tightened its ship by shifting the regulation of biosolids from the Department of Health to the Department of Environmental Quality. There had been concerns that the DOH was being too accommodating to companies such as SYNAGRO that operated in the county.

There are obviously two sides to this story. We understand this well.

For the farmers, the use of the free sludge saves precious dollars on fertilizer that can mean a significant financial impact. More regulations could mean that the pipeline of that free product is lost.

But consumers, neighbors, and the farmers themselves must be properly protected.

In making his ruling on the Georgia case, the judge ruled that the EPA took "extraordinary steps to quash scientific dissent and any questioning of EPA's biosolids program." Those are serious claims that, if true, call into question the entire program as it currently stands.

Each year, according to the AP article, some 7 million tons of sludge are produced, half of which end up on U.S. farmland for fertilizer. Almost a quarter of a million tons of sludge were spread in Virginia just a couple of years ago.

A story that appeared on the RepublicanHerald.com Web site quoted one opponent to the use of sewage sludge, a supervisor in the East Brunswick township of Pennsylvania, as saying this: "This is deadly stuff," said Donald Rubinkam. "Finally, we have a federal judge throwing the book at the authorities ... no judge is going to do that, write a 45-page ruling like that- unless he's convinced that what's going on is wrong. ...This stuff has tainted crops, it's killed cows and the next thing you know, it's going to kill people."

Concerns over sewer sludge go far beyond the borders of Bedford County, as that quote notes.

And the governing bodies at the federal level need to take those concerns seriously.

The ruling of the federal judge was based in large part upon the government's failure to act, even with overwhelming evidence that there was a problem. Yes, that problem might have been isolated to the sludge provider in Georgia. But maybe not. There must be a reliable system in place to test.

If such products are to be used, we all must be assured they are safe ? all the time. The regulatory agencies must do their job, and not push concerns under the rug.

Anything less is unacceptable.