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Dirty Business

Soil Conference Brings Top Minds to Halifax.

by Miles Howe

Dumping N-Viro Soil on snow and saturated land is not just a bad idea. It is against the law.
Dumping N-Viro Soil on snow and saturated land is not just a bad idea. It is against the law.

The first annual Nova Scotia Soil Conference, held this past March 13th, shone the spotlight of the world on Halifax's waste management practices. Attended by upwards of two hundred, the conference included impassioned speeches by scientists, representatives from industry, and concerned citizens' groups. Paying deference to the Mi'kmaq Nation, upon whose traditional territory the conference was held, Mi'kmaw elders led off the day with a smudge ceremony, and later sang a traditional drum song.

At the eye of the sludge-storm is the current practice of taking Greater Halifax's sewage waste and shipping it to the 'N-Viro' plant in Aerotech park, about forty kilometres outside of town. There the waste is 'treated' with cement kiln dust and is eventually re-sold across Nova Scotia as a fertilizer.

In an attempt to assure an increasingly wary public that their product is indeed safe for soil application, N-Viro argues that their product is a Canadian Food Inspection Agency-approved fertilizer, a 'Class A' biosolid fertilizer no less.

“There's quite a difference between Class A and Class B, and non-treated (sewage sludge).” says Lise LeBlanc, of LP Consulting, speaking on behalf of N-Viro. “When people talk about it, they group everything the same, and they're not even close to being the same in terms of metal content, substances of concern content, pathogen levels, those sorts of things. They're very different from each other.”

The difference is only in the semantics, says Dr. David Lewis, one of the key speakers at the Soil Conference. Lewis is a microbiologist whose thirty-plus year career at the US Environmental Protection Agency was terminated after he published findings linking the application of Class B biosolids to severe illness and death. This put him into direct conflict with the EPA's 'Sludge Rule 503', developed by his boss at the time.

“The technical distinction between Class A and Class B rests solely on the levels of certain 'indicator' bacteria, such as E-coli and salmonella.” says Lewis. “The distinction has nothing to do with metal concentrations or the concentrations of organic chemical groups, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, etcetera.”

“I liken it to cooking a turkey.” Lewis continues. “When you take a turkey home from the store...it is contaminated with various bacteria. You cook it, and as soon as you take it out of the oven, you start to eat it. But if you let it set around for a number of hours, outside...and then eat it, you're very likely to get sick. The same applies with sewage sludge. There's a reason why...pathogenic bacteria are present in raw sewage. It's because the nutrients are there that they grow on. If you were to treat the sludge with...the processes that N-Viro uses for Class A, as soon as that sludge is processed, and tested...it is safer, at that moment in time. But like that turkey taken out of the oven, give it a few days and those pathogens are going to regrow back to their original levels. So...what was Class A at some moment in time, if you retest it, it would be back to Class B.”

The HRM, which has imposed a moratorium on applying biosolids to municipal land, pending the results of a third-party study (which has not even begun yet), finds itself in a unique position. A study with negative results could provide the proverbial 'foot in the door', that might make the ban permanent, and municipality-wide. And as goes the HRM, so might go the rest of Nova Scotia.

But while outside spring has indeed sprung, the city's response remains locked in hibernation. Since the ban was imposed on November 16th of 2010, the city of Halifax has not even selected the third-party to undertake the study. Marilyn Cameron, chair of the Biosolids Caucus of the Nova Scotia Environmental Network, and evidently tired of waiting, shipped off a sample of N-Viro Soil to Dr. Robert Hale, at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Dr. Hale is recognized as a world leader in biosolids testing.

Sample studies of this nature can be prohibitively expensive, but even on a shoestring budget Dr. Hale's study found that Cameron's N-Viro Soil sample contained:

"Substantial concentrations of brominated flame retardants, especially BDE209...BTPTE (1,2- bis(2,4,6-tribromophenoxy)ethane) and TBPH (bis(2-ethylhexyl) tetrabromophthalate)...polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), likely derived from petroleum products...Nonylphenols (from commercial detergents)...(and) methytriclosan."

Hale notes that an in-depth study could quite possibly have even more negative findings.

The city of Halifax, for its part, appears sadly confused by the entire issue. Their web-site claims that:

“N-Viro Soil is also not used in the production of food crops in Nova Scotia.”

The very next sentence, however, reads:

“The latest provincial guidelines only allow for the highest quality biosolids on agricultural lands. Agricultural Land is described in the provincial guidelines as land on which food, feed, or fibre crops are grown. This includes range land and/or land used as pasture.”

Whether or not Halifax knows where N-Viro Soil goes, Cameron has been crisscrossing the province, speaking to farmers, and in the process has gathered a rough picture of who's buying it, and who's not. She has created a network of friendly farmers, who have made the promise not to purchase N-Viro Soil. At the Soil Conference, one farming friendly approached her with an interesting piece of news. Cameron recounts the story here:

“In early March the industry likely needed to move overflowing product from their facility and some farmers in the municipality of Colchester obliged them. Some of the neighbours noticed that there were big piles of it here and there on a lot of snow. And somebody reported that to me.”

That somebody also took a few damning photos of massive piles of N-Viro Soil sitting on snow, and saturated ground. This puts N-Viro in direct violation with “Approval #2010-070726”, issued by the Department of Environment, signed between N-Viro and the Halifax Regional Water Commission.

Section 7.2 of the Guidelines of N-Viro's approval reads:

Land application of municipal biosolids must not occur when the ground is frozen, snow covered or saturated……nor applied to land during or immediately following heavy rains or when heavy rains are forecasted…..to protect adversely affecting the environment via surface run off….

Section 8.0 of the Guidelines reads:

Stock piling at the site prior to application is considered temporary if it is less than 1 week (and if greater than 20% solids) …….otherwise, other arrangements (cover, storage building, etc.) will be required.

Section 5 (viii) reads:

Exceptional Quality biosolids (Class A) shall not be land applied when the ground is frozen, snow covered, or saturated. The Department of Environment requires that Tracking information be retained by the Approval holder. ie. Location of farm, trucking carrier, tonnage shipped, product label, MSDS, date of pick up and delivery signature of driver, signature of farmer.

It would appear that N-Viro is in non-compliance with its approval guidelines, which is illegal, and which should, according to the approval, result “in a cancellation or suspension of the Approval.” Cameron notes that all MLAs in Nova Scotia have been alerted to this issue, but none has acted as of yet.

For her part, Cameron has a legal opinion on file that has concluded that it is well-within a municipality's rights to initiate a complete ban on N-Viro Soil from it's jurisdiction. Whether or not the Province continues on a path of inaction, the municipal realm need not follow suit.  

Dr. David Lewis sums up the danger of remaining idle on the issue:

"Sewage sludge contains thousands of compounds (that are) going to be around throughout our lifetime, our children's lifetime, our grandchildren's lifetime...The idea that you can put sewage sludge which is a mixture of all of the industrial waste generated in that area wherever it's generated...the idea that you could put it somewhere and it's not going to go everywhere else in the world is untrue."

" It will move everywhere else, and many of these compounds accumulate, even thought they are in very low concentrations, say in soil or water. When you check human fat tissue, or breast milk in women who are nursing children, you'll find that these compounds do magnify and accumulate in certain tissues. They magnify up the food chains. So they may be in very low concentrations when they get spread out in our environment, but they do tend to accumulate in certain food chain crops, and tissues in the body, so for that reason, sewage sludge, which is a mixture of every single industrial waste byproduct generated today, needs to be looked at in terms of how we look at DDT and how we look at other very persistent compounds."

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1438 words


Interesting stuff

Interesting stuff....I think environmentalists are split on the issue of biosolid use (myself included). On the one hand biosolid use could be a main way to close (or significantly help to close) the nutrient cycle; all of the nutrients that go down the drain are lost at present, and we have to constantly find new sources of the nutrients (mining, the Haber Bosch process of producing synthetic nitrogen, etc). These processes use energy, non-renewable fossil fuels, mining has an obvious footprint etc.

On the other hand is the potential impact on people's health of eating foods grown from polluted soils. Everything and anything goes down the toilet - paint, medical leftovers, cleaners - and people are obviously and justifiably wary having their food come in contact with that.

If the science showed that all metals and other potential pollutants were removed by the processes they are using to filter it, I'd be for biosolid use, but I'm not sure that's been shown yet. And then there's always the potential for mistakes to happen in the "cleaning" process.

I thinkĀ 'environmentalists'

I think 'environmentalists' need to realize two things right away.

1) Biosolids do not close any nutrient cycle, nor do any other commercial fertilizers. Most of the nitrogen and phosphorus in the fertilizer bag is locked up and is inaccessible to plants, no matter what the content on the label says. And I can put you in touch with experts who can tell you way more. Our current main-stream food production addiction to chemical fertilizers, whether derived from toxic sludge or what-have-you, is not a good thing. Saying that biosolids or any chemical fertilizer is a way to close the nutrient cycle is an industry position, and if you tote it, it is my opinion that you cannot call yourself an environmentalist. People have died from biosolids application Steve, whether or not you want to believe it.

I know...why don't we try to grow our own food, compost for ourselves, watch our diets and then pee and defecate on some woodchips, and then put that in our own gardens? Why not take more responsibility for our soil and our own health? Why don't we invest in technologies that focus on soil biology for long-term soil health, and reward farmers that are already producing local food without mainlining chemical fertilizer?  

2) Far from the science saying that biosolids are safe, non-industry-sponsored science repeatedly says that biosolids are not safe.

Did you read the article? One sample just came back with lots of pollutants in it, and that was a 2,000$ test. Biosolids activists are aching to have the city of Halifax do a proper test, a test that will cost tens of thousands of dollars, so that we can all have a real good look at what is actually in N-Viro Soil. They don't think the city will splurge for it, because they just wasted their last 400K on a botched concert promotion, but nobody's hiding from getting N-Viro Soil tested...no wait...there hasn't been a third party named yet for the independent test...I'm sure they'll get around to it though. 


What did I say? The understanding I have is that biosolids means sewage waste collected from households / residential areas, and all I said is that IF it could be proven safe by scientific study (non-biased, thorough, and accurate), with some better seperation methods or something, then I personally would not be against it's use, meaning I don't think the decision should be based on an ick factor...many people don't like the idea of human waste being used to grow foods just because it is human waste, the pollution issue aside. Maybe it is not realistic to expect that it could ever be made safe, and maybe it is an unpopular position, but I think the decision should be based on science. Like what you have here, which showed that there were harmful chemicals in the tested N-Viro biosolids.

Miles, it is not realistic or fair to say that anyone who debates or asks questions about biosolid use is taking an industry position. I know next to nothing about N-Viro or what they do other than what you've written here. We have 7 billion people on the planet, most food is produced for people to eat and if there was a way to reuse the nutrients that are lost then that would be good...given all the stuff that goes down the drain that is unlikely, but that's all I'm saying. Do you agree?


I went to the NSAC for 4

I went to the NSAC for 4 years where this issue was debated at least a little bit, and never heard the position before that nutrients in human waste are tied up or unavailable any more than those in animal manures are...is this true and are there any studies that show that?

I've worked in the environmental field for several years, but this is definitely not something I know a lot about, and I'd be the first to admit that, I'm not trying to pretend I'm an expert. I may well be naive in my position...I don't know a lot about other studies that have been done on biosolids.

Alrighty, So, first off,


So, first off, Steve, you're a good man, and I hope you haven't taken anything personal here.

A couple of things:

1) I didn't say that human waste locked up the nutrients and made them inaccessible to plants, I said that the process by which N-Viro Soil is made, and by which other chemical fertilizers are made, does this. Here's a conversation with Dr. Jason Hofman, local compost consultant with a PhD in plant physiology and biochemistry:

"The chemistry of the situation is (N-Viro) uses cement kiln dust as a highly alkaline product. It is calcium-based. And their intention with mixing the cement kiln dust, is for two things to happen. The temperature goes way up, and also the ph goes way up." 

"So the ph goes way up, and when you do that the intention is to essentially sterilize (the sewer sludge). It kills all the microbiology. At those high temperatures and those extremes of ph, most of the bacteria are just toast. But how complete that process is remains somewhat questionable."

"They claim that because of that high ph, the heavy metals form hydroxides, which are insoluble, as long as the ph is up. If you put it in soil, which tends to be acidic in this province, the ph comes down, and that effect is lost. So that's a temporary effect. In the bag its locked up. You put it in the soil, it starts unlocking."

"With phosphate. If you look at that CCME (check out the Sludge-Storm article for more info)study, they measured 'total phosphorus' and also 'ortho-phosphate'. Ortho-phosphate is actually the soluble form of phosphate, that is actually dissolved in the soil water, and that the plant's roots can actually take up as phosphorus. If you look at that its like .20 versus like 6000. The other stuff is locked up. It has formed calcium phosphate. Teeth are made of calcium phosphate. Bones are made of calcium phosphate. That's kind of an irreversible precipitation. Once you lock that phosphate up, unless you can get the ph down to below 4, which is going to be really bad for anything you're trying to grow in it, that phosphorus is going to be locked up."

"This is one of the biggest problems with all phosphate fertilizers, is that within a matter of weeks, the vast majority of it gets locked up. And you have to keep dumping it in, unless you get the biology right, because there are in fact specific species of bacteria that will mobilize phosphate."  

Nitrogen does its own weird thing when you add hot cement dust to it, but you get the drift.

2) In terms of safety, there are two things that the HRM clings to in claiming that N-Viro is safe. The first is Sludge-Rule 503, designed by the EPA. Sludge-Rule 503 is a document very much in doubt, and I recommend you check into it. The second is that N-Viro Soil is a Canadian Food Inspection Agency-approved fertilizer.

I'm waiting on a response from the CFIA, telling me that they don't test for Emerging Substances of Concern, they don't test for pharma, and they only test for some heavy metals, before they give their 'seal of approval' on a bag of fertilizer. I'm fairly sure this is what they will say, but they tell me they've been swamped with Nuclear meltdown-related requests.

If those are the two documents that are being held up saying that biosolids-derived fertilizers are safe for Halifax, then we're all in shit. My only problem with what you said is that environmentalists, yourself included, were split on this. That's sort of a grandiose statement, and to me comes off as you saying that you represent a large group of people who have done their research and come to the conclusion that biosolids may be fine. If that's what you meant, then I have to debate that. If you meant that you consider yourself an environmentalist and don't know enough about biosolids to yet form a strong opinion on them, then that's something else entirely and hopefully this article has got you started towards forming that strong opinion.

I am curious about your

I am curious about your stance on what we might call "normal" fertilizer. We know that there is a problem today with animals and the antibiotics and steroids they are on, and their general health I guess is also in question, some people have even chosen to stop eating such meat. Yet we spread their waste on our gardens and lawn and agricultural crops don't we?

Has this waste been sterilized? I do not know much about this issue or the science behind it, but this question came to mind when reading your article-if it can be made free of all these harmful things then what is the difference between our current animal maneur and human waste?

I believe it to be the

I believe it to be the opinion of smarter minds than mine that we should also be very careful about spreading the manure of animals who are fed a steady diet of hormones and drugs onto our land. I really don't have the answers to this problem, save the utopian ones, but on a personal note I would advise you to buy locally from farmers you trust, ask them about the fertilizers they use, grow way more of your own food, make your own compost, and consult compost experts until you too feel confident about what you're doing. If we could sterilize animal and human waste, then I imagine that there isn't much of a difference. That is an 'if' that I don't believe that we've accomplished, however, and I personally don't believe that attempts at sterilization are in fact the silver bullet we should be looking for.

future (im)perfect

I was there! @ the Soils Conference that is. Yes peeing in a bucket IS in our future friends! And on our gardens & flower-beds...discreetly, please. That is pretty much the only way to "close the cycle" and not cheat on sustainability, as another presenter made clear.

So, you entrepreneurial sorts, start collecting those french-fry oil plastic buckets & develop milk-delivery type house-to-apartment type routes that end at a farmer's field where heaps of...oh, oh, the sawdust seems to have all been shipped off to europe in pellets or burned in NSP-New Page or Abitibi-Bowater power generating systems...!! And Minas Basin P&P has a lock on most of the cardboard "waste". Timmy's cups & phone books? Help!

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