Chatham’s Farms a Resource to be Protected

In my last column you’d have read that I believe farmers are the most important people in the world. Never will I back off that statement. I also mentioned that, for the sake of food security, protection of Chatham County farmlands should be our number one priority. 

In my first column I spoke about the dead zones growing in Chatham’s rivers and lakes because of fertilizer run off and under-treated sewage. This is a continuing enumeration of the serious threats to our local life support system. 

Chatham County farmers, like farmers across the nation, are desperate for some way to maintain productivity and profitability. Out of that desperation they have become the unwitting victims of the Synagro Corporation’s plan to sell them sewage sludge that is supposed to nourish their soil for healthier crops. Corporate producers call it “bio-solids.” But it’s better known as sludge. 

The Harper-Collins Dictionary of Environmental Science describes sewage sludge as “A viscous, semisolid mixture of bacteria and virus-laden organic matter, toxic metals, synthetic organic chemicals, and settled solids removed from domestic and industrial waste water at sewage treatment plants.” 

Among the substances found in sludge are antibiotics, hormones like steroids and Viagra, metals like lead, cadmium and arsenic, concentrations of deadly e. coli, fire retardant, and the ubiquitous disinfectant, triclosan which can be found in anti-bacterial soaps, cosmetics and products for your baby. Triclosan when exposed to sunlight becomes dioxin. 

Then there’s the problem of what happens when thousands of other undetected compounds and disease causing bacteria are concentrated together in sludge. The synergistic affects of that mixture may well be leading to antibiotic strains of deadly e. coli. 

Remember last fall? E. coli bacterial contamination of spinach and lettuce killed people, and prompted a nationwide recall of those products. Those fields were irrigated with water discharged from sewage treatment plants. 

Also, food crops take up heavy metals and concentrate them. Livestock fed silage contaminated by sewage sludge can pass this toxic burden on to humans as we dine on the flesh of these animals. 

Fish populations in our area are already contaminated by fertilizer runoff, and several chemicals in sludge have an estrogen-like affect on fish, causing males to exhibit female sexual characteristics. 

There are approximately 52 farmland sludge dumping sites in the Rocky River watershed in Chatham County above Siler City and Sanford. Sludge applied to these sites is very likely running off into the creeks and Rocky River. Set backs from water courses are supposed to be observed, but there is no monitoring to ensure compliance. Furthermore, little to no testing of the Rocky River has been done below these sites to check for contaminants. 

In 2006, more five million gallons of sludge were spread on farmlands in Chatham County (Ed Hardee, Aquifer Protection Section, North Carolina Division of Water Quality, 2008). Cities that have permits to land apply sewage sludge in Chatham County include public utilities in Siler City, Burlington, Sanford, Cary, Apex, OWASA, Holly Springs, and Pittsboro (Ed Hardee, 4/17/08). 

According to maps provided by Synagro, a number of fields receiving sludge are located extremely close to bodies of water These maps state that 1-inch equals 660 ft. If these maps are to scale, the majority of these permitted fields do not meet the regulatory requirement of a minimum distance of 100 ft. to surface water (Blue Ridge Environmental Defense Fund). 

A study conducted by Eastern Washington University and the USGS concluded that a range of compounds are “incompletely removed during wastewater treatment and sequestered in biosolids [a.k.a., sewage sludge] that are subsequently land applied.” The potential concerns surrounding the presence of these compounds in the environment include adverse psychological effects, increased cancer, reproductive impairment in humans and other animals, and antibiotic resistance among pathogenic bacteria. 

This ever mounting evidence bolsters an opinion I’ve held for years: some of the greatest crimes are perfectly legal. Intentionally spreading pollution may be legal, but it’s a crime against nature and humanity. Chatham County is being used like a Third World toxic waste dump. 

But there may be a glimmer of hope shining in this story. 

Senator Barbara Boxer has called for Senate hearings to investigate the risks of pharmaceuticals in drinking water and the risks to water, food and health from sewage sludge used for fertilizer on farmlands. 

As comforting as that might sound, I wouldn’t house all my hope in that prospect. Calling for hearings is one thing, actually defending our local farmlands is another. Any politician, national or local is going to need a lot of help to get the job done. Chemical companies and sludge traffickers like Synagro are not going to roll over and play dead. They have well-paid mercenaries of their own, in and out of government. 

If Chatham County is going to grow a living, local economy free of legal, corporate pollution then I recommend that we engage our farmers directly and share our concerns with them. If farmers understand the risks of alienating their markets, they’ll have to think twice about hosting toxic sludge on their lands. 

Tim Keim, a Pittsboro resident, is a writer and the recipient of many awards for his radio news and documentary work. His column appears in this space every other Saturday. Readers can contact Keim at chh@heraldsun.com or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.

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Sludge


In my last column you’d have read that I believe farmers are the most important people in the world. Never will I back off that statement. I also mentioned that, for the sake of food security, protection of Chatham County farmlands should be our number one priority. In my first column I spoke about the dead zones growing in Chatham’s rivers and lakes because of fertilizer run off and under treated sewage. This is a continuing enumeration of the serious threats to our local life support system.

Chatham County farmers, like farmers across the nation, are desperate for some way to maintain productivity and profitability. Out of that desperation they have become the unwitting victims of the Synagro Corporation’s plan to sell them sewage sludge that is supposed to nourish their soil for healthier crops. Corporate producers call it “bio-solids.” But it’s better known as sludge.

The Harper-Collins Dictionary of Environmental Science describes sewage sludge as “A viscous, semisolid mixture of bacteria and virus-laden organic matter, toxic metals, synthetic organic chemicals, and settled solids removed from domestic and industrial waste water at sewage treatment plants.”

Among the substances found in sludge are antibiotics, hormones like steroids and Viagra, metals like lead, cadmium and arsenic, concentrations of deadly e. coli, fire retardant, and the ubiquitous disinfectant, triclosan which can be found in anti-bacterial soaps, cosmetics and products for your baby. Triclosan, when exposed to sunlight becomes dioxin.

Then there’s the problem of what happens when thousands of other undetected compounds and disease causing bacteria are concentrated together in sludge. The synergistic affects of that mixture may well be leading to antibiotic strains of deadly e. coli.. Remember last fall? E. coli bacterial contamination of spinach and lettuce killed people, and prompted a nation wide recall of those products. Those fields were irrigated with water discharged from sewage treatment plants.

Also, food crops take up heavy metals and concentrate them. Livestock fed silage contaminated by sewage sludge can pass this toxic burden on to humans as we dine on the flesh of these animals.

Fish populations in our area are already contaminated by fertilizer runoff, and several chemicals in sludge have an estrogen-like affect on fish, causing males to exhibit female sexual characteristics.

There are approximately 52 farmland sludge dumping sites in the Rocky River watershed in Chatham County above Siler City and Sanford. Sludge applied to these sites is very likely running off into the creeks and Rocky River. Set backs from water courses are supposed to be observed, but there is no monitoring to ensure compliance. Furthermore, little to no testing of the Rocky River has been done below these sites to check for contaminants. In 2006, over 5 million gallons of sludge were spread on farmlands in Chatham County (Ed Hardee, Aquifer Protection Section, North Carolina Division of Water Quality, 2008). Cities that have permits to land apply sewage sludge in Chatham County include public utilities in Siler City, Burlington, Sanford, Cary, Apex, OWASA, Holly Springs, and Pittsboro (Ed Hardee, 4/17/08). According to maps provided by Synagro, a number of fields receiving sludge are located extremely close to bodies of water These maps state that 1-inch equals 660 ft. If these maps are to scale, the majority of these permitted fields do not meet the regulatory requirement of a minimum distance of 100 ft. to surface water(Blue Ridge Environmental Defense Fund).

A study conducted by Eastern Washington University and the USGS concluded that a range of compounds are “incompletely removed during wastewater treatment and sequestered in biosolids [a.k.a., sewage sludge] that are subsequently land applied.” The potential concerns surrounding the presence of these compounds in the environment include adverse psychological effects, increased cancer, reproductive impairment in humans and other animals, and antibiotic resistance among pathogenic bacteria.

This ever mounting evidence bolsters an opinion I’ve held for years: some of the greatest crimes are perfectly legal. Intentionally spreading pollution may be legal, but it’s a crime against nature and humanity. Chatham County is being used like a Third World toxic waste dump.

But there may be a glimmer of hope shining in this story.

Senator Barbara Boxer has called for Senate hearings to investigate the risks of pharmaceuticals in drinking water and the risks to water, food and health from sewage sludge used for fertilizer on farmlands.

As comforting as that might sound, I wouldn’t house all my hope in that prospect. Calling for hearings is one thing, actually defending our local farmlands is another. Any politician, national or local is going to need a lot of help to get the job done. Chemical companies and sludge traffickers like Synagro are not going to roll over and play dead. They have well-paid mercenaries of their own, in and out of government.

If Chatham County is going to grow a living, local economy free of legal, corporate pollution then I recommend that we engage our farmers directly and share our concerns with them. If farmers understand the risks of alienating their markets, they’ll have to think twice about hosting toxic sludge on their lands.

Smart Growth

In many ways Chatham County’s future lies before us like a blank slate. The question is: how will we paint the picture? Will we settle for the trite paint by number conventions of the past or will we seize the chance to build a model of sustainability and self-sufficiency.

Growth is the major issue. The thoughtless strategy of sprawl has been duplicated so that the county finds itself an economically flaccid bedroom community to the greater triangle area. As subdivisions chew up broad swaths of farmland and beautiful natural areas we are losing the natural capital to create a quality of life that is essential to our very sustenance.

The first resource that Chatham County must protect is its farmland. Few Americans are working the land nowadays, so we’ve little connection to the people who grow our food. Farmers are the most important people in the world. Exaggeration? It’s a naked fact that if someone doesn’t have their hands in the dirt on our behalf, we will starve. You can’t eat your Ipod, and Steve Jobs can’t sustain your family on what he knows about coaxing miracles from the soil. Fortunately for Chatham County, we actually have an increasing number of farmers. That is a trend that we must protect like our lives depend on it—because they do.

If you’ve been keeping up on the news lately, you’ve seen accounts of food shortages all over the world. Though shortages have not struck here, per se, prices are up sharply, due in large part to the skyrocketing price of oil. This was the concern of the late Robert Rodale, publisher of Prevention and Organic Gardening magazines. Rodale saw how vulnerable our nation was because of dependence on foreign oil. Our dependence has grown by double digits since then. But it was the relationship between oil/gas and food production/distribution that prompted him to write “Empty Breadbasket?” in 1981. It was a study of the American food system and how vulnerable it is to the capricious conditions that govern the prices and availability of the oil that fuels our tractors, trucks and the manufacture of fertilizers from fossil energy. Presently, this insoluble conundrum literally has us over a barrel. Long story short, Rodale recommended that local communities raise more of their own food. The ideal is total food security. With our energy future so uncertain it is folly to continue to import staple foods from California much less lands across the oceans.

If Chatham County’s leaders have the wisdom, foresight and courage to promote our food security they must turn to the task of planning a sustainable way of life. And this doesn’t mean lying down for every rapacious development that comes down the pike. The basics of sustainability are food, affordable housing, transportation, employment and cultural amenities. Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Municipalities all over the country are imagineering the concept of Smart Growth. Part of the equation is planning for higher population density to create compact communities. Dallas, Texas provides one good example:

Opened in 2001, the ”live-work-and-play” complex, also adjacent to a bus terminal, includes 211 loft-style apartments, a movie theater, restaurants and 1,600 parking spaces, reports Dallas Morning News writer Michael Lindenberger, quoting its developer Ken Hughes, who said ”it represents what we believe works today” as mixed uses.

I don’t mean to herd all of us into an urban environment, but high density planning is just one arrow in the quiver of possibilities. Instead of land gobbling sprawl, farmers and nature will be able to flourish, and in so doing provide us with food security that will shield us from distant troubles that would threaten our peace and stability.

As communities get more compact and efficient, transportation planning gets easier. You can relax in a light rail train or bio-diesel (produced in Pittsboro) bus instead of fighting traffic and sucking up exhaust fumes. Imagine the time and money we’ll save as we build connected, walkable communities.

Well-planned communities also tend to attract top employers whose employees demand attractive locales with cultural and natural amenities. Soon it becomes a cycle of positive reenforcement.

Among the many other benefits of efficiently planned communities are stronger tax bases which will help us guard the quality of our air, land and soil. There are no substitutes for these god-given essentials. For example: Code Orange air quality alerts, so common in our area, make me furious. I love the warning that it’s only hazardous to sensitive groups. Yeah, anyone with a pair of lungs. It’s an intolerable insult; but like the sheep we so often are, we accept it.

If we will we can take a lesson from this ancient story.

Joseph, the youngest of Israel’s sons saw famine coming to Egypt where he ruled with Pharaoh. He built granaries and stock piled food for seven good years. When the seven lean years came, Egypt and the Hebrews ate of that bounty. Will we be so wise, or will we face the prospect of an empty breadbasket.