Human waste used on San Joaquin crops causes stir

By KILEY RUSSELL The Associated Press
Wednesday November 08, 2000

FRESNO — If it weren’t for the constant shipments of human waste from Southern California’s cities, Kern County farmer Shaen Magen says his farm would dry up and blow away. 

Magen grows barley, wheat and milo for animal feed on 7,000 acres he describes as “highly alkaline and really very marginal” — so marginal, in fact, that without regular truckloads of treated sewer sludge to be used as fertilizer, the land would be useless, he said. 

Magen is paid roughly $25 a ton to dump the sludge on his land. 

“The only reason we survive here is that we get a fee for removing the sludge and incorporating it on our farm. We also make our money out of the crop we grow because we get it subsidized by free fertilizer,” Magen said. 

The growing use of urban sewage as fertilizer on industrial farms, however, is unpopular in the San Joaquin Valley. Over the past two years, several county governments have waged legal and political battles against a few local farmers and Southern California sanitation districts over where and how the stuff is used. 

Kern, Fresno, Tulare and Kings counties have all either enacted or are drafting ordinances intended to ban the practice or tighten regulations. 

The counties, which account for roughly a third of the state’s $28.4 billion annual agricultural output, fear a consumer backlash if word gets out that effluent from Southern California is being used to grow their crops. 

“Folks are concerned that the perception would be that Kern County crops (intended for humans) were poisoned with sewage sludge. We know that isn’t true, but that is the concern people have,” said David Price, who as chief of the Kern County Resource Management Agency helped draft the new rules. 

Since 1994, federal and state regulations have allowed the use of sludge, also called biosolids, to grow animal feed or fiber crops, such as alfalfa or cotton. Regulations govern how often and how much sludge can be used, to what extent it can be contaminated with heavy metals and other industrial waste, and what levels of pathogens are acceptable. 

The sludge is filtered from urban sewers and siphoned into vats where it’s cooked to kill most of the viruses and bacteria. The result is a thick black muckish sludge that’s loaded into trucks and driven to composting sites, landfills or Central Valley farms. 

In an effort to fight the “sewage farm” perception, Kern County enacted an ordinance to ban all but the most highly treated, cleanest sludge by 2003. Any sludge used in the county after that will have to be composted with so-called green waste such as tree trimmings or lawn clippings. 

But composting adds costs and reduces the sludge’s usefulness as a soil treatment or fertilizer. 

To protect their sludge program, Orange and Los Angeles counties, the city of Los Angeles, the California Association of Sanitation Agencies and a handful of farmers who dump the sludge sued Kern County. 

“We don’t like being in fights with other county agencies. We only did it as a last resort,” said Bob Horvath, chief of technical service at Los Angeles County Sanitation District No. 2. “It’s a difficult situation if one county after another wants to set up a whole new set of rules or adopt bans.” 

In response, Kern County and a group of farmers filed a countersuit claiming the county should have the right to make its own land-use decisions without undue influence by outside agencies or governments. 

“There’s a number of scientists who don’t believe it’s safe, who don’t believe the current rules are adequate to protect the land, water or air,” said Jeff Green, a lawyer for the organically operated Grimway Farms, one of the nation’s largest carrot growers and a plaintiff in the countersuit. 

“If you’re not sure if it’s safe, it’s best to be conservative,” Green said. 

Kern County takes more sludge than any other county — about 30 percent of the sludge generated statewide, or roughly 250,000 tons a year, Price said. 

Some of the remaining sludge is sent to farmland in Kings County, some is composted and sold to the home gardening crowd and some is simply buried in landfill sites around the state. 

Fresno County, where no sludge is currently being dumped, is considering a ban similar to Kern’s; Kings County wants to tighten regulations; and Tulare County’s application process is so complicated that farmers say it keeps people from even trying to dump sludge there. 

All of the counties are anxiously awaiting the results of the legal battle over Kern’s ordinance. A preliminary ruling issued by a Tulare County judge upholds the Kern rules. A final decision is expected within the next few weeks. 

If the ordinance is allowed to stand, Southern California officials despair of finding another location for what they see as an efficient waste recycling program. 

“There’s an integrated relationship here — food comes from the valley to L.A., it gets converted back into sewage and there you go, there’s perfect recycling. It gets sent back to the farms were it originated,” Horvath said. 

As far as the health and safety issue goes, farmer Magen is confident the sludge isn’t going to hurt anyone. 

“There are many regulations right now that stop you from putting on biosolids where the water table would be contaminated. It’s a very safe product — I’ve been fussing with it for 15 years and I’ve never seen anyone get sick,” Magen said.