Huge Amounts Human
Waste Being Sprayed On
Farm Land In Ontario
By Krista Foss
Toronto Globe and Mail
Welcome to rural Ontario.
Hundreds of millions of litres of recycled human waste will be dumped on rural land this year, and that volume is on such a precipitous rise that residents are worried the province's bucolic backyard is fast becoming its outhouse.
Mount Albert farmers Tim and Terri Boadway can see used condoms and soiled sanitary napkins sprinkled on four hectares bordering their property.
Residents of a subdivision near Millbrook suffered from open sores in their nostrils and complained of stomach pains, after human waste was sprayed on nearby farm fields this spring.
And Frank Tersigni's young family and in-laws, who live across from a gravel pit in rural Puslinch, don't open their windows if the breeze is blowing in the wrong direction the smell of the septic-tank waste dumped there is so strong. The tragedy of contaminated well water in Walkerton has made Canadians painfully aware of the massive amounts of animal excrement generated and spread on land by intensive hog and cattle farming.
But if that's not bad enough, a growing proportion of human excrement originally flushed down Ontario's toilets and mixed with chemical and industrial wastes, is also being spread on the land.
It comes with its own potential stew of viruses, bacterium, parasites and heavy metals.
The practice is legal and it's growing.
"I moved next to a farm, not a sewage dump. The smell makes you nauseous," said Vickie Heard of Millbrook, a mother of two young children whose family lives across from a farm using recycled human waste to fertilize an animal feed crop. "I don't want to have people over. It's embarrassing . . . and I'm worried about my house value."
There are two types of recycled human waste being spread on rural land.
Sewage sludge is leftover waste from sewage-treatment plants that's increasingly recycled as a farm fertilizer. Septage is the sewage that's pumped from septic and holding tanks and can include waste from animal slaughterhouses. It is dumped on land without treatment or tests.
According to the Canadian Water and Waste Water Association, there are approximately 600 sewage-treatment plants in Ontario through which 4.9 billion litres of waste water or sewage pass each day.
Before the water is purified and returned to lakes and rivers, those plants screen out large items that go to landfill. What's left is called sewage sludge the solids of human excrement and remnants of industrial waste that get through the screening process.
If that sludge meets Ministry of Environment standards for heavy-metal content and fecal-coliform counts, or if it is kept for minimum periods in large composters, it is given a new name a biosolid and it can be applied to land as a fertilizer.
Last year, the province's largest municipality the city of Toronto produced about 80,000 tonnes of sewage sludge. A third of it - or 25,000 tons - ended up being applied to land in rural Ontario. The city has plans to eventually dispose of all its sewage sludge in this manner because incinerating it has become a political hot potato and burying it in landfill sites is too expensive.
But that's not the only source of human waste hitting the countryside. According to a 1998 Ministry of Environment reference document, up to 1.75 million cubic metres of sewage is pumped from more than a million septic tanks in Ontario each year. That waste is added to unknown volumes pumped from holding tanks and the portable-toilet business whose refuse is often mixed with formaldehyde and the water and muck from abattoirs where pigs and cows are slaughtered.
It's all called septage and it can be dumped directly onto land regardless of its heavy-metal count or pathogen levels.
Private sewage haulers who get paid to pump it and cart it away merely need a certificate of approval from the Ministry of Environment to dump on approved rural land. That certificate lays out how far back from roads and residential areas the sewage must be dumped, and how long before the sewage-soaked soil has to sit before it can be used to grow crops (12 months) or graze cattle (six months).
Are there regular soil, water and air tests done on and around the properties where the practice occurs?
"No," said John Mayes, the Ministry of Environment's district manager for Guelph. In his district, there are close to a half-dozen rural sites where septage is being dumped, including the Puslinch gravel pit across from the Tersigni family home.
Breslau-based Weber Septic Service started to dump sewage in the pit in March, before it had even been approved by the MOE to do so. According to Mr. Mayes, the ministry fined Weber a total of $510 for two provincial offences. After that, Weber's application to spray sewage into the pit was approved.
"The stuff just flies," said Mr. Tersigni, a father of two, who can see it from his home. "And sometimes it's black and sometimes it's white."
Mr. Tersigni said the septic trucks come at every hour of the day and night, including weekends, to spray their sewage.
In Mount Albert, it's the same story.
Since January, Ms. Boadway has recorded about 200 loads dumped on her neighbour's land by Brent Brethour Septic Tank Pumping Inc. She has asked for soil tests and for the ministry to monitor how much is being spread on the land. MOE officer Dave Fumerton confirmed that Brent Brethour recently filled out an application that would allow him to dump more septage on the same land. No soil tests have been done.
Toronto environmental consultant Maureen Reilly, who is an expert on the disposal of industrial and human wastes, can't decide which is the bigger threat: sewage sludge, which contains industrial wastes but has to pass some standards before being applied to land, or septage, which can be dumped without any testing.
According to her, it doesn't matter how it gets there putting human waste on rural land isn't being watched carefully enough by the Ministry of Environment. And there are safety concerns.
"If there is no inspection and nobody is out there inspecting and enforcing, then it is an unregulated activity," Ms. Reilly said. "What's dangerous about it is that nobody knows what's going on."
For the residents of a 30-year-old subdivision in Cavan Township outside of Millbrook, the use of human waste on farmland has become a double whammy they already live with the smells of animal manure.
Nearly 150 homes are within a quarter of a kilometre of an intensive hog-farming operation owned by Hugh Allin. This year, about 36 hectares of the farm used to grow corn to feed the hogs were sprayed with recycled sewage sludge from the Peterborough sewage treatment plant.
The sewage sludge - or biosolids - is a cheap alternative to fertilizer. It has been demonstrated to raise the level of phosphorous and nitrogen in the soil. Farmers such as Mr. Allin get it for free. This year the Allin farm applied it on its corn crop using spray irrigation instead of mixing it into the soil.
Anne-Marie Scheuneman, a 30-year resident of the area, said that soon after the spraying began in May of this year, she developed open sores inside her nostrils. So did her two teenaged children and her 71-year-old mother who lives next door.
The smell was also so bad this year that Ms. Scheuneman has used a perfumed pillow over her face in order to get to sleep.
Neighbours in her area tested their well water, and about a dozen came back with positive results for contamination.
Jamee Chatten was one resident whose well was contaminated. Even if her well was clean, Ms. Chatten said she would be worried about what's happening at the Allin farm.
"Most of us here have been raised on farms or have lived in farming communities," she said. "Animal waste is spread on the land all the time . . . we know that there is an odour. But human waste has come about in just the last 10 to 20 years. Where is the documentation showing that spreading animal and human waste is safe? Nobody can tell us."
Bruce Hancock, district manager for the Ministry of Environment in Peterborough, suspects that people have developed a "heightened awareness" since Walkerton.
"Everybody is more sensitive about water," he said.
He denies that the odours from the Allin farm are any worse than usual, though he admits he hasn't visited the subdivision himself.
Yet bad smells may be the least troublesome result of spreading human waste on farm land.
The issue has become increasingly controversial in the United States where at least two deaths have been linked to sewage sludge on farms. In 1994, an 11-year-old Pennsylvania boy died within days of riding his motorcycle over a sludge-drenched field. The next year, a 26-year-old New Hampshire man died after sewage sludge was applied on a farm field that was 45 metres from his home. His family launched a wrongful death lawsuit against the waste management company that delivered the loads.
On July 28, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control put out a hazard-identification warning for Class B biosolids the same kind of sewage sludge being applied to Ontario land after it investigated a rash of illnesses at an Ohio sewage-sludge facility.
The CDC report said that workers involved in the handling or spreading of sludge "may be exposed to disease-causing organisms" including E. coli, salmonella, shigella, campylobacter, cryptosporidium, giardia and viruses, protozoa and parasitic worms.
According to the report, the biosolids sampled were releasing bacteria into the air during land application and storage.
Ontario's rural residents are getting wise to the risks in their community. Last month, residents of Hillsburgh, just outside of Guelph, successfully battled against a local businessmen's proposal to dump 600,000 litres of waste from his portable-toilet business on four hectares of his family farm. His property slopes downward into the residential homes, the headwaters of the Grand and Credit Rivers and the springs used by bottled-water manufacturer Aberfoyle Springs.
Aberfoyle Springs recently purchased the farm. President Bob Elliott said he bought the property to "protect" his business.
Not everybody can afford such protection. This week, Ms. Scheuneman watched a car park alongside a cornfield that had been sprayed with sewage sludge. A 10-year-old boy got out and trounced through the cornfield.
"It occurred to me they must not be from around here," she said. "They wouldn't know it's not safe."
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