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Tempest in a Toilet
By Wendy Priesnitz

So-called “soil conditioner” made from paper mill sludge, which has been sold to the public for home garden use and delivered for free to farms, may be contaminated with human waste and could cause health problems.

Officials at Domtar Fine Paper in Cornwall, Ontario have apparently been providing the Ministry of the Environment with incorrect information about the contents of the sludge from the paper mill’s wastewater system.

The sludge from the wastewater system is dewatered and labeled as “Domtar Soil Conditioner”. It has been sold to Cornwall and area residents for home garden use for the last five years and is used as fertilizer by local farmers.

Last year it was revealed that the sludge contains extremely high levels of fecal coliforms and fecal streptococcus, which may indicate the presence of organisms that may cause health problems in humans or animals.

Domtar was adamant that the e coli and fecal coli could not come from human feces because no human excrement enters the mill process. However, the company has recently notified the Ontario Ministry of the Environment that some toilets and urinals at the mill connect with the mill’s waste water treatment process, rather than with the city’s sanitary sewers.

Domtar admitted that toilets were flowing into the sludge clarifier following a visit by the Ministry of Environment. In addition to some of Domtar’s toilets and urinals being connected to this system, the stormwater system – which may contribute animal feces to the mix – also empties into the sludge generating system.

The controversy about the safety of Domtar’s sludge-based “Soil Conditioner” began last year, when the company was ordered by the Ministry of Environment to review sources of potential pathogens or disease-causing agents in the product as part of review of the Cornwall Horticultural Society’s “Bag Day” where residents buy the sludge as an organic fertilizer. The use of the product on strawberry beds was subsequently stopped.

Although the Ministry of Health was called upon to review the situation, Domtar provided documents to the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Health, AgriFood Canada, and to the local Medical Officer of Health maintaining that there was no human fecal matter entering the sludge lagoons.

Then Toronto environmental researcher Maureen Reilly received a tip that some toilets at the plant empty into the sludge tanks. The information she received also suggests that the company has had blue prints altered to look like compliance with government regulations and had a local plumbing contractor work over a weekend to reroute the plumbing. She confronted both the Ministry of the Environment and Domtar.

“I am glad that the mill admitted the problem,” she says. “There needs to be a scrupulous examination of industrial waste disposal programs. The public needs to know much more about what wastes are going into Domtar sludge. Just renaming it ‘Soil Conditioner’ doesn’t make it any cleaner.”

Reilly continues, “If the mill can publish inaccurate documents to regulators and to the public for nearly a year that their toilets don’t connect to sludge, what other research did they get wrong?” She says a number of other pulp mills run toilets into waste water treatment facilities.

She is also concerned that even if human fecal matter were not in the sludge, the high microbial counts exceed the provincial Biosolids Utilization Committee’s guidelines for land application. In addition, paper mill sludge also typically contains other toxins such as dioxins and furans, heavy metals and chemicals.

The Domtar mill in Cornwall generates hundreds of thousands of tonnes of sludge. It comes from short paper fibres, chemical residues, and the thickened polymer soup at the bottom of their waste water treatment plant. Normally, these wastes are permitted only in landfills or on farms that have a Certificate of Approval from the Ministry of the Environment as Organic Waste Disposal Sites.

Reilly says there are dioxins in the air emissions from the mill. “In the past, people who live near the...mill have been told not to eat vegetables grown in their gardens. ”

Recently, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has informed both the Cornwall Horticultural Society and Domtar that the sludge residues are not permitted for sale to the public under the Federal Fertilizer Act.

In spite of these problems, Domtar has received the Recycling Council of Ontario’s (RCO) Waste Minimization Award for its land application of sludge, which it prefers to call “bio-solids”.  Responding to Reilly’s questioning of the award, the RCO’s John Hanson said he wasn’t aware of the problems and noted that government and industry funding cuts have left the RCO without the resources to audit nominees.

Reilly is particularly worried because she says the pulp and paper industry has approached Health Canada about setting up parameters for paper mill sludge that the industry can reasonably meet. Their intention is to promote the product as an alternative to manure for farm use.

This is similar to the way industry and government worked together in the United States to reclassify sludge as “beneficial biosolids” and permit its use as fertilizer. However, the U.S. Inspector General has just come out with a stinging critique of that country’s sludge management programs.

The recently released report concludes that “the EPA does not have an effective program for ensuring compliance with the land application requirements [for sludge]. Accordingly, while EPA promotes land application, EPA cannot assure the public that current land application practices are protective of human health and the environment.”

Maureen Reilly says she will continue to be a thorn in the side of those who want to improve the optics of sludge in this country.

Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with 25 years of experience. She is has also authored nine books and is a popular keynote speaker at conferences across North America.

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