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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Guest Opinion: Morton Alexander and Chrys Ostrander: Keep sewage sludge off farmland

By Morton Alexander and Chrys Ostrander For The Spokesman-Review

Protect Mill Canyon Watershed thanks reporter Jim Camden for the Sept. 27 article covering our opposition to the Department of Ecology granting a permit for application of municipal sewage sludge, marketed as “biosolids,” to farmland above Mill Canyon, northeast of Davenport, Washington.

Clear, clean water (recently tested) from the spring on my (Alexander’s) land has been used by many families throughout the canyon for more than a century as a free source of drinking water. It feeds my home, garden and orchard, as well as those of my neighbor. Rosman Farms’ land, where the sludge is proposed to be dumped, is just uphill, in line with our spring. The risk to this natural spring is too great to justify approval of the permit.

The USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service has classified most of the land perched above us as Highly Erodible Land (HEL). One would think it illegal to deposit sludge on such soil, but it isn’t. This is one of many regulatory shortcomings that increase risk of contamination of our beautiful canyon if the permit is approved.

Where the type of farming practiced by Rosman Farms (rotational dry-land grain) is in use, Ecology singles out HEL-type soils as areas where special tillage restrictions are recommended to prevent migration of the sludge. Ecology’s tillage recommendations aren’t requirements, thus inadequate protection against the inevitable erosion when HEL soils are dry-land farmed. Even the non-HEL-type farmland where the sludge would be dumped is still erodible, especially since much of it is left fallow (bare soil/stubble) for most of each year.

According to the news article, state Rep. Gerry Pollet of Seattle considers Ecology “way too cavalier” about biosolids and proposed legislation requiring food grown in it to be labeled as such. “We need a lot more work on this,” Pollet said.

Old enabling legislation deemed biosolids a “beneficial resource” and mandated Ecology to promote its use, making the department a booster of this dubious practice rather than a credible regulator in the public interest.

Of the hundreds of pollutants detected in sewage sludge, Ecology only requires testing for nine. It’s impossible to know what pollutant contaminants are in any given batch of biosolids, or at what concentrations. “Spikes” of pollutant concentrations are not uncommon and many batches of sludge go untested onto agricultural soils.

Taxpayers spend millions of dollars on municipal sewage treatment to filter pollution out of wastewater so that clean water can be returned to our waterways. As technology improves, the treated water is getting cleaner while the sludge (all the filtered out filth) is getting dirtier. Taxpayers should be concerned that the state recycles that expensively extracted pollution back into our environment. Garbage out, garbage back in! Our agricultural soils are no better a place to dump pollutants than are our waterways.

A 2009 EPA study concluded that all biosolids contain toxic materials. Sewage sludge, no matter the brand name, is toxic material if you recognize the current science on what it contains. It’s illegal to dump toxic waste on farmland. So it should be with sewage sludge.

Located in Mill Canyon is the Tolstoy Farm community. Many of its members make their living collectively in a certified organic produce business. They helped establish the Spokane Farmers’ Market, where people rely on local farmers for trusted healthy food. Many of them draw drinking water from my spring. They have experienced dust storms from the grain fields above. Although their irrigation source is not directly downstream of where the sludge is going, in 2014 a catastrophic flood brought topsoil from “up top” into their gardens and homes.

See the flood video and NRCS soil map on our website,

My neighbors fear drift of the contaminants in sludge through the air, soil and waterways of Mill Canyon, a tributary to the Spokane River. No farm exists in a bubble. The National Organic Program’s certification regulations invest in organic farmers the responsibility to prevent entry of all foreign materials to their fields.

Our fight against this permit resists “environmental classism,” the victimization of a community of low-income people. It is representative of how the sludge industry and its partner Ecology operate across Washington. Through our website, you can join our call to Gov. Jay Inslee and Ecology Director Maia Bellon for a statewide moratorium on all such permits until light is shed on this dark industry.

When hard data from current research displace the waste disposal industry’s flim-flam flack, the practice of sludge land application will be as outmoded and outlawed as that of dumping sewage in the ocean.

Morton Alexander is a retired state employee with a home and orchard in Mill Canyon. Chrys Ostrander is editor and publisher of Inland FoodWise Online.