Liquid gold. according to Toronto officials, the waste you flush down your porcelain pot is a rich blend of nutrients and minerals perfect for jump-starting crops and making pastures greener. But some say the pitch to send T.O.'s ceaseless sewage sludge to the rural hills stinks to high heaven. "They sold us a pipe dream," says Wendy Kunderman, whose partner, Peter Couse, decided to open their Tillsonburg property up to truckloads of Toronto sewage sludge from USFilter (the mulitnational paid by T.O. to pelletize and market the city's sewage). But as soon as they started stockpiling them, acrid smoke began rising from the oversized marbles.
"We told (USFilter) on the phone they were smoking, and the company said there's no possible way they could be." But for five days, 20 firefighters hovered at the scene as the massive pile of poop smouldered and burst into flames, sending a noxious haze over an irate community. Kunderman says they were never told the pellets were self-heating, let alone that they were laden with chemicals. "(USFilter told us) they were natural." Now she and her partner have decided to sue.
Mercury, lead and arsenic are some of the better-known toxins stewing in Toronto waste-water facilities and burning in a handful of pellet fires. A slew of unmonitored pharmaceuticals are also part of the mystery mix. "Whatever people are putting down their drain (and whatever goes) down the storm sewers ends up at the sewage treatment plant, which is then made into fertilizer," says the Sierra Club of Canada's Jennifer Weninger.
But advocates of "biosolids" (the sanitized name for the treated goop left over once all the tampons, condoms and water have been filtered out) say it's a safe, economical and organic fertilizer. In fact, Toronto generously gives away almost a quarter of the 50,000 tonnes of urban sludge we produce annually to farmers throughout rural Ontario, who save a projected $100 per acre on fertilizer. The other half of that waste is supposed to be further disinfected, pelletized and then shipped to subcontractors like Couse.
Of course, that's more an ideal than actual practice. With the pelletizer down since March (and the contentious incinerator closed since Christmas), most of our excretions are heading to a Michigan landfill.
Since landfills everywhere are bursting at the seams while waste oozes from the city 24/7, the push to sanitize the image of biosolids in the public eye is on, and both officials and industry are quick to downplay any potential dangers.
"I don't think there's any cause for concern," says Nancy Flemming, an engineer with Toronto's water pollution department, when asked about the volatile dung. "We had a smouldering problem, but it's been resolved."
Deborah Ross, former president of the Water Environment Association of Ontario (WEAO), an industry lobby group, assures me that "in the 40 years Ontario has been spreading biosolids on land, there's been no documented health-related impact." But her own association issued a report last year saying that little is known about many of the chemicals sitting in our sewers and potentially making their way back to our dinner tables.
Now the anecdotal evidence is mounting, especially in the U.S., where 60 per cent of restroom leftovers have been going to ranches and farms since Congress banned ocean dumping in 92. Vomiting, diarrhea, even a few deaths have been tied to the fertilizer. Hundreds of sludge-related complaints have been reported in both countries, and a number of lawsuits await trial. Just two weeks ago, a Georgia farmer was awarded half a million dollars when hundreds of his cattle died after munching on hay laced with the human manure.
"WEAO and the waste industry like to say there are no documented health effects. That's not true any more," says the Sierra Club's Maureen Reilly. "We have dead people. We have dead animals. We have hospitalized infants."
The evidence has been convincing enough to push the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control to call for more research. And several municipalities have even legislated sludge bans.
North of the border, the Canadian Infectious Disease Society has called for an all-out moratorium on sludge dumping until more digging is done.
But the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE), which oversees and certifies the spreading of free sewage sludge, insists that as long as everyone plays by the rules, the land application of toilet tailings is not only safe but good for growing grains and grass.
Perhaps, but even the Environment Commissioner of Ontario said the MOE has fallen down on its job of enforcing those rules, thanks to the Harris Tories' disembowelment of the agency in 94, slashing staff by a third.
Not that the MOE did a lot of investigating into biosolids even with more staff, say some government insiders. After all, you can't come down too hard on the golden goose of the waste sector when alternatives are few and far between. Smokestacks and landfills are PR nightmares, whereas biosolids have managed to dodge much of the spotlight. But in the post-Walkerton alarm over manure trickle-down, the MOE did promise to review its waste regs, biosolids included.
There's talk that OMAF (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food) will take over from the MOE to clean up the sewage scene. But critics worry that with oversight in the hands of the pro-agro ministry, enforcement will only further waste away.
In the meantime, Couse and Kunderman have just filed a multi-million-dollar suit against USFilter for damages. The company insists it did nothing wrong and provided Couse with all the necessary info on product usage, storage and contents.
Reilly says the Sierra Club is just getting warmed up in its campaign to pull the blinders off urbanites who "like to think their poo disappears when they pull that little handle.
"The transfer of urban industrial waste to the countryside on a wholesale basis under the lie that it's some sort of fertilizer just won't bear public scrutiny," adds Reilly. "I think it's a boon to the waste industry and a boondoggle to rural municipalities who see this as nothing more than a cheap waste manoeuvre."