The application of treated sewage sludge (euphemistically labeled “biosolids”) to crop land is sadly gaining popularity as a cheap, but disgusting way to dispose of toxic waste. Currently, the well-being of the residents of Mill Canyon (near Davenport in Lincoln County, WA) is threatened by a proposed application of sewage sludge by a neighboring wheat farmer.
Concern about spreading “biosolids” in Mill Canyon is a local example of a national problem. The progressive journal In These Times has recognized the threat and has begun to publish a series of in-depth exposés of the hazards of municipal sewage sludge use on agricultural land.
In These Times reports that municipal sewage sludge contains
“…whatever goes into the sewer system and emerges as solids from municipal wastewater treatment plants. Sludge can be (its exact composition varies and is not knowable) any of the 80,000 synthetic chemicals used by industry; new chemicals created from combining two or more of those 80,000; bacteria and viruses; hospital waste; runoff from roads; pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter drugs; detergents and chemicals that are put down drains in residences; and, of course, urine and feces flushed down toilets.
“Sludge that is heat dried, anaerobically digested, composted, limed or otherwise stabilized is called “biosolids”—a made-up euphemism for sewage sludge that makes it no safer. In addition to toxic metals, pathogenic viruses and bacteria, some hazardous materials in “biosolids” include: endocrine disruptors like brominated flame retardants (PBDEs, which are a lot like PCBs), phthalates like DEHP (a reproductive and developmental toxin), persistent and toxic ingredients in personal care products (e.g., triclosan and galaxolide) and pharmaceuticals that the human body excretes in feces or urine (hormones from birth control pills, etc.).
“The Targeted National Sewage Sludge Survey, a 2009 EPA study, concluded that all sewage sludge contains toxic and hazardous materials”
Located about 35 miles west of Spokane, Mill Canyon is home to quite a few residents with both commercial and amateur organic farms and gardens, some of which have been tended organically for over 50 years. Tolstoy Farm, one of the oldest secular intentional communities in the US, is located in Mill Canyon. Tolstoy Farms, one of the oldest and most well known organic farms in the region that supplies produce to hundreds of customers is in Mill Canyon. The farm operates a market garden that has been certified organic for nearly 20 years. Tolstoy Farms helped create the Spokane Farmer’s Market and was at the forefront of introducing fresh, local, organic produce to Spokane. Farmers from Tolstoy travel twice weekly during the growing season to sell their produce at the market and they supply nearly 100 families with a weekly CSA share of the harvest through their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. While the water source for Tolstoy Farms is not within or downstream of the areas currently proposed for "biosolids," Tolstoy Farms opposes the application of "biosolids" as well as the spraying of agricultural chemicals on the wheat fields in the area. Tolstoy Farms is very much opposed to "biosolids" use becoming an accepted practice in agriculture.
Go HERE to view a map showing the tributaries that feed Mill Creek, and ultimately the Spokane River, that are threatened with sewage sludge application.
Rosman Farms, a broad-scale, commercial grain farm that is situated above Mill Canyon, wants to have sewage sludge applied to their fields by an outfit called Fire Mountain Farms (FMF). FMF has applied to the Washington State Department of Ecology for a permit to spread sewage sludge on thousands of acres in Eastern Washington, including onto the fields of Rosman Farms, which is located in the Mill Canyon watershed.
It is difficult to understand why, with 2 million acres of rolling wheat fields in eastern Washington, Fire Mountain Farms (FMF) would propose Rosman Farms as a site to apply "biosolids." Rosman Farms consists of highly erosive soils. Water, soil, and rock routinely course into the steep canyons, including Mill Canyon, that border its property. The canyons eventually discharge into the Spokane River. Crop fallowing (keeping fields bare for alternating seasons) and tillage practices that characterize eastern Washington dryland agriculture create conditions in which wind erosion will lead to wind-borne release of "biosolids" particles into Mill Canyon and beyond, coating crops and people’s lungs. Recent catastrophic flood events in Mill Canyon are evidence of the erosive potential of the farmlands above the canyon to contaminate creeks, springs and groundwater with sewage sludge (view this video of the flood). In fact, normal spring thaw runoff has the same contamination potential. In addition, a neighboring spring has supplied drinking water for dozens of families in Mill Canyon for over a century. This spring will be vulnerable to contamination by the known and unknown contaminants of the sewage sludge if the permit is granted for Rosman Farms to apply "biosolids" to their fields. For more information on sludge contaminants, see Cornell Waste Management Institute Comments to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Sierra Club Comments re: Permit BT 9902, Fire Mountain Farms Application to spread sewage sludge on Rosman Farm in Lincoln County.
The Rosman Farms fields are not an appropriate place where sewage sludge should be applied. In 2016, a group of Mill Canyon residents attempted to negotiate an agreement with the owner of Rosman Farms which would have removed certain unsuitable lands from "biosolids" use and establish buffers to protect neighboring properties. Eventually Rosman Farms broke off discussions and renewed efforts to have Fire Mountain Farms apply sewage sludge to their fields.
Both Fire Mountain Farms and Rosman Farms have negative track records with respect to compliance with "biosolids" law. FMF has been the subject of several disciplinary orders, issued by the Department of Ecology, for mixing dangerous waste with "biosolids" , and was recently denied permission for some of its application sites in western Washington. B&B Septic, a septic tank pumping service located in Harrington, WA, has been applying septage to Rosman Farms for several years, and it is believed they have over-applied that product to fields that drain to an area of Mill Canyon known as Angel Springs. This poor compliance record indicates a need, at minimum, to impose stringent monitoring conditions on any approval of FMF "biosolids" use, if not outright denial of the request for a permit.
This map shows Rosman Farm areas (black outline) and section numbers (yellow numbers) of sections where sludge could be applied as indicated in the permit application. Areas where application of "biosolids" would violate regulations due to the highly erodible nature of the soils (according to the USDA NRCS soil survey) are indicated in red. Blue shading indicates Mill Creek at the bottom of Mill Canyon.
In 2016, the Department of Ecology held hearings and provided for public comment on a permit application by Fire Mountain Farms which included seeking permission to apply sewage sludge on Rosman Farms in the Mill Canyon watershed. Several Mill Canyon residents submitted detailed comments that were highly critical of the proposal and asked Ecology to deny the permit. The comment period closed on October 31, 2016, but the Department has not yet made a final ruling. Despite strong arguments put forward that would support denial of the permit, the Washington State Legislature, which for some reason “recognizes biosolids as a valuable commodity,” has mandated that the Department of Ecology “implement a program that maximizes beneficial use” of "biosolids." Therefore it is expected that Ecology will eventually grant the permit (quotes from the Dept. of Ecology website).
In light of this, a new organization, Protect Mill Canyon Watershed (PMCW), is preparing to appeal a decision that would grant permission for sewage sludge to be applied to fields in their watershed. Filing such an appeal would be an expensive undertaking and should that eventuality come into being, PMCW will seek financial support from concerned citizens like you.
If this permit is denied outright, or the appeal, if one is needed, is successful, it will set an important precedent for protecting the health and livelihoods of Washington communities facing similar threat as well as the health and well-being of food shoppers who choose to purchase nutritious and tasty locally-grown produce that they would not want to be contaminated by municipal sewage sludge.
Protecting the Mill Canyon watershed will require help and support from many people. Please sign their guestbook so that they have your contact information when and if it becomes necessary raise funds and engage the larger community in this struggle.
Protect Mill Canyon Watershed is an informal committee of Mill Canyon residents.
Morton Alexander, Corrina Barrett, Ernest Barrett, Laura Harris, Paige Kenney, Chrys Ostrander and Timothy Pellow.
Jill Herrera, Grant Writer
Rachael Paschal Osborn, Legal Adviser
Donald Hansen, Science Adviser
Design Engineer, NRCS, Washington State NRCS Office
Patricia Martin, Technical Adviser
Safe Food and Fertilizer, a project of Earth Island Institute