A recent study of the impact of sewage sludge on the local marine environment confirmed what many of us have long suspected — sewage is unquestionably harming the health of our oceans, and subsequently threatening human health as well. So why would it be any safer to dump it on our farms or forests?
Today, the Capital Regional District will consider overturning a ban on the land application of biosolids in the CRD, with a staff report recommending so-called “beneficial” uses, such as converting this concentrated sludge of heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons into “fertilizer” to dump on our agricultural land and the region’s forests.
When it comes to public and environmental health, it’s imperative to be truthful with local residents; we deserve the facts. The simple truth is that the CRD isn’t proposing this to improve food crops or grow bigger trees, any more than we’re currently dumping it into our oceans to grow bigger clams.
These represent just one measurable outcome of our failed experiments in bio-engineering: other impacts include contaminated lands, oceans, and surface and groundwater; disruption of the ecological balance of our ecosystems, and irreversible consequences on plant, animal and human health.
While we can’t expect all sides of this debate to agree with every study either for or against the land application of biosolids, there are a few things that we do know and can all agree on:
1. No one can claim that this is a safe practice. In fact, three Stantec reports have found at least some level of risk in all parameters they examined. There is simply no existing research stating that the land application of biosolids is without risk to human and animal life or the environment.
2. There is no commercial market for animals grazed on land where biosolids have been applied, or produce fertilized with biosolids. Food producers such as Campbell’s, Del Monte and Gerber all refuse to buy products fertilized with biosolids, and most major grocery store chains have policies not to stock or sell products tainted by sewage sludge, including Thrifty Foods, one of the largest employers on the Island and the largest buyer and distributor of Island-grown produce.
3. The Dogwood Initiative, the Sierra Club of B.C., the Island Organic Producers Association, the Island Chefs Collaborative and the Farmlands Trust Society all support the CRD ban. There is no public support for the land application of biosolids, and in fact there is very significant public opposition.
4. The land application of biosolids is the flashpoint of a huge controversy throughout Canada and around the world. A University of Victoria Environmental Law Society review found that this practice has resulted in lawsuits and bans on land application in Quebec and Ontario municipalities. If the current ban is overturned, there’s no reason to believe the CRD or the region’s farmers will be insulated from legal liability and associated lawsuits.
So what are our options?
1. We can make the biosolids safer by putting in technologies to remove heavy metals, PAHs, and pharmaceuticals, but the CRD has found this to be too expensive.
2. We can turn biosolids into energy through proven technologies such as gasification.
3. We can contain these dangerous pollutants by storing waste in our landfill until either option 1 or 2 becomes viable, which is our current practice with sludge from Saltspring Island and the Saanich Peninsula.
The third option is by far the most affordable and environmentally friendly. It would reaffirm the CRD’s commitment to protect agricultural lands, the local environment and public health, while eliminating the inevitable legal liability and public backlash associated with the land application of biosolids.
CRD directors have the opportunity to live up to their responsibility to act as environmental stewards, for the sake of our farmers, the health of our residents and local environment, and the legacy we leave to our children.
Philippe Lucas is a PhD student at UVic and a former Victoria city councillor and CRD director. He is the founder of Biosolid Free B.C. and chairman of the Victoria Downtown Public Market Society.