THE SLUDGE HITS THE FAN
Kiowa County residents, deciding that they've had it up to here with New York City's sewage sludge, are telling the company that brings it in to either leave nicely or be forced out. And the company realizes that when you've got to go, you've got to go.
Since April 1992, Kiowa and Prowers counties on the southeastern plains have been getting an average of 25 tons of Big Apple sludge--treated human sewage--every day. It's free fertilizer for local farmers and a convenient solution for New York. While Prowers County residents gratefully accepted the gift, Kiowa County is in an uproar. In less than two days' time, six anti-sludge people have collected signatures from 43 percent of the county's registered voters on a petition to stop the foul-smelling shipments from New York City, according to the county commissioners' office.
The situation blew up two months ago when employees of Bio Gro Systems--the Maryland subsidiary of garbage-giant Waste Management Inc. that's responsible for bringing New York sewage to rural Colorado--tried to spread sludge on a field in a southern part of the county. But 65-mile-per-hour winds scattered their precious cargo all over the place.
"We saw one of their trucks and followed it off the highway," says County Commissioner Dutch Eikenberg. "I said, `Surely they wouldn't be out spreading today,' but sure enough...you could see sludge flying everywhere."
Following that incident, residents found out that Bio Gro admitted several months earlier to spreading sludge on an unapproved field. While the Colorado Department of Health pledged to look into the matter--and is expected to issue an opinion by the end of February--such reassurances did not calm Kiowa County residents. More than thirty people crowded the next county commissioners' meeting demanding action.
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After that meeting, Bio Gro announced a self-imposed moratorium in Kiowa County. "If they don't want us, we'd rather not be banned," says Bio Gro project manager Don Feldman. "We'll just come out of there."
In January, residents, led by John and Ann Kreutzer, gave commissioners the petition signed by nearly 500 people. The Kreutzers, a Haswell wheat-farming couple, got involved in the issue when Ann read a couple of negative articles about sludge in national farm journals. Last August, the Kreutzers heard that the county was considering applying sludge on gravel pits a few miles from their land. When they started investigating the project, they discovered that, among other things, state tests showed consistently high levels of copper, that a local soil scientist was warning of possible groundwater contamination at a nearby reclamation project, and that prior to last fall, none of the New York sludge was tested for pathogens.
"This stuff appeared to be hazardous," says Ann Kreutzer. "I couldn't figure out why, with all this evidence, no one was doing anything about it."
The Kreutzers also are upset that they weren't notified of the sludge program before it was approved. "By the time we heard about it, it was a done deal," Ann Kreutzer says.
Not quite, much to the exasperation of federal, state and Bio Gro officials, who contend that the controversy is over nothing. Bob Brobst of the Environmental Protection Agency, Phil Hegeman of the Colorado Department of Health and Bio Gro representatives all say Kiowa County residents had plenty of opportunities to learn about the program--announcements were made in the Prowers County newspaper and on radio stations, Denver and Pueblo media carried the news, and two public meetings were held in Prowers County. "They must not watch TV or listen to the radio," says Brobst, EPA Biosolids program manager. "The information got out--if they didn't come [to the meetings], they chose not to come."
Hegeman says the state chose the Lamar media in Prowers County to notify residents because it is the largest town in the area. He points to an attendance list from one of the meetings--with names of people who live farther away than the Kreutzers--as proof that the word was out.
"We were interviewed on local radio, we had a call-in show, we set up a second public meeting in Holly on the east end of Prowers County," Hegeman says.
But anyone getting their news solely from the Kiowa County Press was left out--no notices were placed in that paper. Hegeman says there were no meetings held in Kiowa County, on the assumption that anyone who was interested had heard about and attended the other meetings.
He says practically no one has opposed the spreading of nearly 85 percent of Colorado's homegrown sludge on farm land--including a one-time application in Kiowa County four or five years ago.
"There's a couple of factors," Hegeman says. "I'm sure when you first heard about sludge, the first reaction that came to mind is `what a horrible thing to do,' when it's actually as safe as any other recycling program.
"The other problem is that the sludge is from New York. If it were from Colorado, we might still get some opposition, but I'm sure it would not be nearly as vehement."
While Ann Kreutzer points out that New York is likely to get more industrial waste in its sewage, she thinks that people would be just as upset with local sludge. "I don't think people trust the health department," she says.
Commissioner Cardon Berry says that, because the county allowed Bio Gro to come in initially, Kiowa County would be open to a lawsuit if it didn't negotiate a withdrawal. He says he can't discuss the details of the negotiations, but he denies that the county will pay Bio Gro to leave. The goal, he says, is to give Bio Gro a way to leave gracefully.
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