City wants to bury federal sludge claim

Originally created 10/22/99

By Staff Writer

Claims that sewage sludge used as fertilizer was actually hazardous waste emerged too late to be considered in two pending federal lawsuits, a lawyer representing the city of Augusta argued Thursday.

Jim Ellison, who is defending Augusta against lawsuits by two farms claiming sludge poisoned their land and cattle, asked that portions of an Aug. 12 report by plaintiffs' consultant William Hall be suppressed.

"We do not object to opinions the sludge may be toxic, hazardous or dangerous to cattle," Mr. Ellison told U.S. Magistrate W. Leon Barfield. "What we are objecting to is his new opinion that sewage sludge applied to these farms meets the (federal) definition of hazardous waste."

The plaintiffs -- R.A. McElmurray & Sons of Hephzibah and Boyceland Dairy of Keysville, Ga. -- sued in the fall of 1998 claiming the 93 million gallons of sludge applied to their land as free fertilizer contained toxic metals.

The sludge -- a byproduct of sewage treatment at the city's Messerly Wastewater Plant -- has been trucked to dozens of farms in Richmond, Burke and Jefferson counties more than 20 years.

Ed Hallman, a lawyer representing the family dairies, claimed in a Sept. 14 letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that Augusta violated federal law in disposal of its sludge.

"Our experts have concluded that the applications of sewage sludge by the city on farmlands owned or leased by the Boyce and McElmurray families constitute illegal disposals of hazardous waste," he wrote.

Therefore, Mr. Hallman continued, Augusta was obligated under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act to report those releases and dispose of the material in hazardous waste landfills. Instead, he claims, the city represented that the material was "safe and appropriately applied" to farmers' crops.

Mr. Ellison said the allegation that Augusta's sludge meets the federal definition of hazardous waste -- and therefore fell under federal disposal guidelines -- was "sprung on us at the last minute."

Mr. Hallman indicated documents used by consultants to draw those new conclusions were obtained June 4 with a host of other previously unavailable records acquired under Georgia's Open Records Act.

"We don't believe that's true," Mr. Ellison said, adding that city officials gave the dairy families access to all records more than a year ago.

"One thing we have no control over is what they copied," he said. "All we can do is make them available."

In a related matter, the city and the plaintiffs want to know more about a document acquired by The Augusta Chronicle from Georgia's Environmental Protection Division in which an inspector recommended halting Augusta's sludge program.

"The land application program should be shut down immediately and should remain down until the pretreatment program has been brought up to speed," the inspector wrote, adding that all sludge should be taken to landfills.

Augusta officials, however, say they never saw the document and are continuing -- under guidance now from private contractors -- to dispose of 9,000 tons of sludge a year on about 30 private farms in the region.

Although state field inspectors wrote that Augusta's sludge program should be shut down -- and that land applications should cease -- the Georgia Environmental Protection Division never followed through with orders to close the program.

Jeff Larson, EPD's permitting, compliance and enforcement manager, said he could not discuss the details of why the agency did not follow its inspectors' recommendations because those discussions are tied to the agency's legal negotiations with the city.

"At this point, because of those negotiations, I'm not sure I can comment on what was, or wasn't, included and why," he said.

The recommendations were part of an unofficial internal document, Mr. Larson said.

"Some of the inspectors, obviously, in this case wrote up their synopsis and recommendations. But it wasn't necessarily a final, official audit," he said.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.