The 1978-79 Sludge War
William Sanjour
October 1, 1999

Because of the recently revived interest in sewage sludge I have decided to memorialize the sludge battles in which I was involved in 1978-79 during the early days of RCRA.

Keep in mind that the purpose of a sewage treatment plant is to capture the toxic substances and other bad stuff in sewage and to concentrate it in the sludge. To start with, let me give you an idea of the kind of pressure EPA was (and is) under to try to find some use for the millions of tons of sewage sludge being and expected to be emitted by the waste water treatment plants funded by the EPA Construction Grants Program, the largest public works project ever in America. Here is a quote from a letter written by the Seattle Sewer District to EPA in 1974(1) in response to the Agency's then proposed guidance on "Methods for the Utilization or Disposal of Sludges". This was written long before RCRA and is typical of the kind of pressure exerted then and still being exerted on EPA.

The limits suggested for the metal content of sludges will not allow many large cities to use sludge for agriculture unless the metal content is reduced. If metals are removed at the source, it will represent a large cost to industry and ultimately to the consumer. There will be a demand on the natural resources for the chemicals needed to remove the metals, and there will be chemical and metal sludge to dispose of. If a cost benefit analysis is carried out, it would appear doubtful that the value of using sludge in agriculture could equal the costs. The proposed guidelines would appear to favor landfill or incineration.
Municipal sewage treatment agencies and their allies in the engineering, construction and fertilizer business dominated the policy of EPA's Construction Grants Program and that policy was to remove any impediments to the flow of federal money into the construction and operation of new sewage treatment plants. I saw an illustration of that domination when I attended a meeting of a panel of the EPA Science Advisory Board in 1976 to evaluate a proposed Technical Bulletin concerned with the health effects of using sewage sludge as fertilizer on crops. The EPA Science Advisory Board has a reputation for scientific objectivity which was not evidenced in this meeting. The Chairman was the former head of the Chicago Sanitary District and the originator of Chicago's sludge utilization program. In his opening remarks(2) he railed against the "negative nature of the Technical Bulletin" and said "there would not be a municipal official that would dare to approve land disposal in the form that report was proposed for our review". His bottom line was "you wouldn't even get favorable interest rates on your municipal bonds". The panel then proceeded to blast the Technical Bulletin without ever considering the human heath effects of sludge utilization. As a result, the bulletin was revised so as to be toothless. So much for science.

Earlier, in 1975, the Hazardous Waste Management Division, in which I was a Branch Chief, was working with Congressional staffers interested in drafting legislation to regulate hazardous waste disposal. Since many municipal sludges would meet any reasonable definition of a hazardous waste, I wrote a memo(3) warning of the implications of including municipal sewage sludge in the definition of solid waste in any of the proposed bills that were being discussed. In light of the Construction Grant Juggernaut, we did not want to be involved in that can of worms. In that memo I concluded:

What will happen, then, if Congress gives EPA regulatory authority over hazardous wastes? Will we have one policy for hazardous wastes which go through municipal treatment plants and a different policy if it goes through and industrial treatment plant? if so, we will end up in court looking like fools. Will we fail to adequately regulate industrial wastes for fear of compromising EPA's policy on municipal sludge? If so, we will be brought into court for failure to perform our duty.

Clearly there is a confrontation ahead, which can only be avoided by not getting regulatory authority or by changing EPA sewage sludge policy.

Nevertheless, when RCRA became law in October of 1976, municipal sewage sludge was included in the definition of solid waste and my worst fears came true. As we shall see, the result of this inclusion was not to strengthen the laws concerning the safe use of municipal sludge but rather to weaken the regulation of hazardous waste disposal.

A few months after RCRA went into effect Thomas Jorling was named Assistant Administrator for Water. Jorling had previously been a Congressional staffer credited for being instrumental in passing the Clean Water Act. One of his first actions was to get the Office of Solid Waste (i.e. my office) transferred to his Water Office so that he now had jurisdiction over municipal sewage sludge and hazardous waste(4). The Water Office (OWPO) made it very clear that it could not live with any sewage sludge being labeled a hazardous waste. My boss, Jack Lehman, wrote(5): "Will the hazardous waste definition mean that some/much municipal wastewater treatment sludge is labeled 'hazardous' due primarily to heavy metal contamination? If so, OWPO wants the definition changed."

I was in charge of writing the RCRA 3004 regulations for the treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous waste. I did not see how we could regulate hazardous waste from industrial plants differently from similar waste from waste water treatment plants, especially in light of the fact that a great deal of the input to municipal waste water treatment plants is from industrial sources. A compromise was proposed(6) which would exempt sewage from RCRA regulations (and the opprobrium of having some sludge labeled "hazardous") and regulate it under the Clean Water Act under the condition that the Water Office regulations for defining and treating the sludge would be identical to those which would apply if regulated under RCRA.

However, the Water Office was anxious enough to go along with that aspect of the compromise dealing with the transfer of jurisdiction but was less anxious to accept the need for equivalency of the regulations. I pointed this out to Lehman in a memo(7) concluding:

I should think that in regulating pollution which its own regulations and funds created, EPA would apply at least the same standards as it does to pollution created by industry. If EPA takes advantage of its position to write lesser standards for its own pollution it will surrender the moral leadership it now commands.
The debate between the two offices continued throughout that summer(8). Human health considerations took a back seat to the need to keep the money and the sludge flowing without additional costs, which were already astronomical. Rationalization substituted for science in the Water Office which believed its own propaganda that:
Sludge should be covered [i.e. regulated] independently because it contains nutrients and organic matter which have considerable benefit for land and crops. Most industrial wastes do not have such benefit(9).
In fact sewage sludge contains very little in the way of nutrients relative to commercial fertilizers, so much so that some sanitary districts add nitrogen to their sludge in order to give it away(10). Furthermore, many instances of land farming industrial wastes were known at the time(11).

The draft standards prepared by my office(12) limited the arsenic, cadmium and lead which can be applied as soil amendments made from hazardous waste.  At the intra-agency meeting to review these draft standards the Water Office objected that the regulations for arsenic, cadmium and lead may set a dangerous precedent for the Section 405 (i.e. sludge) regulations(13).

By September, everyone involved recognized the futility of resisting the sludge juggernaut -- everyone but me, that is. I was finally instructed by Gary Dietrich, Jorling's hatchet man, to weaken the standards for land farming hazardous industrial waste to the comfort level of the Water Office, regardless of the consequences to human health(14) And the consequences of this cruel decision were indeed far ranging and severe as not only sewage sludge but raw industrial hazardous waste is "recycled" into fertilizer to this day(15).  Eight days after this decision I was canned(16).

Different people handled the defeat in different ways. I became a whistleblower(17). My ex-boss, Jack Lehman, consoled himself with the knowledge that there was a potential medical treatment for the people we were poisoning(18). And Bob Tonetti wrote the definitive letter to the Washington Post(19).

The Environmental Protection Agency is in need of being told not to waste hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. I believe the problem to be mismanagement. You judge:

The clean Water Act requires EPA to develop regulations for the disposal of sewage sludge. The agency is already six months--and could be another 18 months--late in meeting the act's mandate. Meanwhile, cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and many others venture on with development of local sludge programs. When EPA finally completes its regulations, many of these programs may be found inadequate particularly those that distribute sludge for homeowner use as mulch or soil conditioner.

More than two years ago, the General Accounting Office requested that EPA provide "immediate" guidance on sludge distributed to the general public because of "potential health hazards." This guidance has not yet been provided.

Highly contaminated back-yard soils have now been found In Chicago, where sludge was used as a mulch. Thousands of Chicago-area back yards have been contaminated in a program that continued for one year following GAO 's warning to EPA. Many similar programs are still ongoing nationwide--without restriction.

The position of EPA's construction grants program has been the biggest factor in the delay of the sludge regulations. Construction grants provide funding for the planning, design and construction of sewage-treatment plants. These are the plants generating the sludge that another part of EPA, the Office of Solid Waste, has responsibility for regulating.

Since 1973, construction grants have provided cities some $22 billion, of which sludge systems take up no small portion. The grants program has assisted the cities so well, it's often hard to tell the regulators from the regulated.

This "industry's" influence was primarily responsible for the exemption of municipal sludge from EPA's proposed hazardous-waste regulations. The exemption will apply even though some sludges contaminated with industrial wastes can be quite hazardous.

The construction-grants program should not be capable of so strongly influencing other offices in EPA that are charged with regulating certain aspects of sewage treatment and disposal. Perhaps the grants program should be set in some corner of EPA where this influence could not be exerted. Or, maybe placed in another agency altogether. (Please not the Army Corps of Engineers.)

Burtonsville, Md.
(The writer is an employee of the Office of Solid Waste at the Environmental Protection Agency.)


1. Charles V. Gibbs, Executive Director, Metropolitan Seattle Sewer District, Letter to Harold Cahill, Director EPA Municipal Construction Division, May 20, 1974.

2. A. Blakeman Early, Environmental Action, Letter to Russell Train, EPA Administrator, May 26, 1976.

3. William Sanjour, Chief, EPA Technology Branch, "Policy Implications of Sewage Sludge on Hazardous Waste Regulation", memo to John P. Lehman, Director Hazardous Waste Management Division, October 17, 1975.

4. This conflict of interest created so much friction that Congress ultimately created a new Assistant Administrator for hazardous waste.

5. John P. Lehman, Director, Hazardous Waste Management Division, "Hazardous Waste Issues", memo to Steffan Plehn, Deputy Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste, November 18, 1977

6. Lehman, "Implementation Options for POTW Sludges", memo to Plehn, May 24, 1978.

7. William Sanjour, Chief, Assessment & Technology Branch, "Implementation Options for POTW Sludges", memo to John P. Lehman, Director, Hazardous Waste Management Division,  May 30, 1978.

Note, in this memo that in anticipation of a sellout by Jorling I started sending copies of my memos to the Public Docket. This did not endear me to him and he later had all my memos surreptitiously removed from the docket.

8. Plehn, "Regulation Development for POTW Sludge", memo to Jorling, August 4, 1978.

9. John W. Walker, Municipal Technology Branch, "Sludge Regulation -- Subtitle C vs 405/4004", memo to Henry L. Longest II, Associate Deputy Assistant Administrator for Water Program Operations, September 12, 1978.

10. In non-industrial societies, where organic waste is not contaminated by industrial and other toxic waste, it can be piled on the soil as heavily as necessary, but the spreading of most municipal sludges is limited by its toxic content.

11. Lawrence A. Weiner, Environmental Scientist, "Industrial Waste Landfarming Operations that Grow Food-Chain Crops", memo to Tim Fields, Program Manager, May 2, 1979.

12. Fields, "Standards for Owners and Operators of Hazardous Waste Treatment, Storage and Disposal Facilities", September 25, 1978.

13. Alfred W. Lindsey, "Minutes to the October 3rd ITF Meeting on the Draft 3004 Regulations", memo to Lehman, October 24, 1978.

14. Sanjour, "Standards for Landspreading of Hazardous Waste", memo to Lehman, September 21, 1978.

15. See the series of articles by Duff Wilson in the Seattle Times.

16. Plehn, "Staff Reassignments", memo to OSW Senior Staff, September 28, 1978.

17.  Statement of William Sanjour Chief, Hazardous Waste Implementation Branch, Environmental Protection Agency, Before The Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, Committee on Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, August 1, 1979.

18.  Lehman, "A Cure for Metal Poisoning", memo to Plehn, January 9, 1979.

19. Robert Tonetti, "EPA and Sludge: A Nudge From Within", Washington Post, Letters to the Editor, July 19, 1979.

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