It must be lonely being sludge. No one wants you near them. People protest your arrival, especially when you come from the toilets of the largest metropolis in the country and stand accused of being particularly pungent - and toxic.
Since word got out last month that Michigan's citizens would no longer tolerate the stinky stew of Canadian sewage coming across the border after August 1, Toronto has been scrambling for alternatives. Then, just last week, the province announced that it was green-lighting the mega-expansion of a private dump outside London. While Londoners grimace and T.O. waste reps celebrate, environmentalists are equally divided. Some say we should put the sludge to good use and spread it on farms as fertilizer. Others argue that landfilling is the only real green choice. Either way, the shit is surely set to hit the fan.
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If you listen to Toronto officials spin it, you'd think nearly all our sludge has been pleasantly fertilizing the fields of Ontario through what is euphemistically called "beneficial reuse." Municipal wastewater engineer Nancy Fleming echoes the city mantra, "If we can't apply [sludge] to agricultural land, we send it to our contingency plan, which is landfill." But it seems our backup plan is the recipient of the vast majority (38,000 dry tonnes annually, or 15 trucks a day), while only 5,000 tonnes goes to beneficial reuse.
Municipal politicians would rather choke on a bone than admit the city has had trouble marketing the benefits of smearing sewage cake on fields, even though they've been handing the stuff out for free. They're even reviving the notorious sludge pelletizier that burned down in 2003 in hopes of pushing the combustible dry pellets on farms again. But farmers aren't biting. In fact, about a dozen county agricultural federations across the province are asking their members to stop taking sludge from places like T.O. .
However, Deputy Mayor Sandra Bussin insists it's not so much that the sludge is unpopular with farmers - in fact, she says, "they actually want it." The problem, she says, is that the Ministry of Environment has been slow to provide individual certificates of approval for land applications. "It's a political thing. Our sludge is good sludge, probably the best in the province."
But is it really? Some environmentalists aren't convinced. "Because so many businesses dump toxins down the sewers and so many hazardous household products go down the sewers, our sludge can't be treated in the ideal way, which would be to compost it and put it back onto farms," says Gord Perks of the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA).
Perks feels there's only one ecologically responsible option. "Technically, what you do as an environmentalist when you're left with something you can't reuse, recycle or compost is find a way of disposing or storing it that minimizes the risk of its dispersal into the broader environment. In this case, that means landfill."
Perks says the Greenlane landfill in London that was recently given the go-ahead for expansion by the province is a reasonably well-maintained site.
"It's never good news that we have to find new landfill space," says Perks, "but if I were in Anytown, Ontario, and my options were either that Toronto sewage sludge be spread on land in my community or in a landfill near my community, I'd always take landfill."
But this is where TEA and greenies at the NDP diverge. NDP environment critic Toronto-Danforth MPP Peter Tabuns points out that the city's municipal sewage bylaw has, surprisingly, improved matters since it was implemented in 2000.
"The sewer use bylaw has actually done an awful lot to reduce toxics loading in the sewage system," says Tabuns. "The medical officer of health has said he's seen a substantial drop in heavy metals." Adds Tabuns, "If the medical officer of health feels sludge can be applied to land at this point, I would say it's probably a safe bet."
The MPP notes that Toronto does have a problem with pharmaceuticals being flushed down toilets, making our sludge drug-laden. His take? "We'd like to see stricter [provincial] pollution prevention laws so Toronto has a very good method - not landfill or incineration - for disposing of its sewage sludge."
Ah, yes, incineration, that old devil. As much as politicians talk about firing up our garbage, no one's openly jumping on the topic of burning our sewage. Still, Maureen Reilly of Sludge Watch argues that urbanites have been forcing poor rural communities to deal with our waste, in landfill or land application, when an urban solution is at hand. "There shouldn't be confusion between old incinerator technology and new biomass and gasification and plasma arch techniques. The new European technologies gather up the contaminants and have a very small ecological footprint."
Eco-heads like Perks, of course, are quick to disagree. "These people who talk about new European incinerators have to stop taking the word of the incinerator industry and start listening to what European environmentalists are saying.
"There are and always have been vast numbers of environmental organizations in Europe that are fighting to stop the incineration of waste."
Other options for sludge do exist, and a couple of committees (one citizen-run looking at all waste issues and one led by Bussin strictly on sludge) are dreaming up long-term alternatives to the alternatives. Sludge can be used to neutralize acidic mine tailings and cap old abandoned mines with mounds of the stuff, or can be burnt as fuel in cement kilns. An Israeli company is even looking at ways of extracting oil from sludge and turning it into gasoline, and Japan has long been making sludge bricks. Enviros are keeping a watchful eye on the alternatives, trying to ensure that in our quest to avoid politically unpopular options we don't jump at the unknown.
Though the Greenlane deal with Toronto isn't done yet, London area politicans have made it clear they don't want our sludge anywhere near them. T.O. works committee chair Councillor Shelley Carroll says the city feels for them.
"There's going to be some protest around any landfill when a high-profile client moves in, and we take that seriously." Their only consolution right now? "We have a strong environmental community that questions our practices whether we're dumping sludge here or somewhere else."
And that community has less than a month to speak up.