Critics Cry Racism over Baltimore Sludge Federal regulators say sludge, or treated sewage, is safe for use as a fertilizer and helps remove lead from soil. But its use on the yards of nine poor families has the Baltimore NAACP calling for an investigation.
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Critics Cry Racism over Baltimore Sludge

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Critics Cry Racism over Baltimore Sludge

Critics Cry Racism over Baltimore Sludge

Critics Cry Racism over Baltimore Sludge

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Federal regulators say sludge, or treated sewage, is safe for use as a fertilizer and helps remove lead from soil. But its use on the yards of nine poor families has the Baltimore NAACP calling for an investigation.


For some reason, when the federal government decided to give some inner-city Baltimore communities a gift, no one said thank you. Maybe because it was a gift of sludge. Sludge is treated wastewater and sewage. The Environmental Protection Agency has maintained for decades that, once properly treated, sludge is a valuable and safe fertilizer.

In fact, it could counteract the possibility of lead poisoning. But others, including the EPA inspector general, say, actually, we don't know a lot about sludge. There hasn't been much research on the health effects of sludge, and putting it into the real world may not have been the smartest idea.

John Heilprin of the AP has been breaking news on this sludge story, and John, what's the latest? Were people there in Baltimore upset when they found out that sludge was in their neighborhood?

Mr. JOHN HEILPRIN (Journalist, Associated Press): They were. The Baltimore NAACP called for an investigation, and the Senate Environment Committee said that they were going to hold a hearing, and there's been calls for similar action in the House.

PESCA: So, where is the sludge exactly, as far as we know?

Mr. HEILPRIN: Where is it...?

PESCA: Where in the communities? Which communities is it in? And how did they decide where to put it?

Mr. HEILPRIN: Well, it went into some of the poor, black neighborhoods in Baltimore, east Baltimore. We cruised around Baltimore looking for some of them, unsuccessfully. Nobody would identify the participants, and additionally, there's a similar study in East St. Louis, Illinois.

PESCA: And whose idea was it in the first place to give this untested sludge, based on the idea that it maybe could help with lead poisoning?

Mr. HEILPRIN: Well, the theory - their theory is that the sludge will coat the lead in the soil, and make it pass safely through a child's body. That's a theory that's been around for a little while. The government, in various forms, has been testing this, and lately with sludge. They've also tested it using contaminated soil from a Superfund site.

You know, the problem is that it sort of takes for granted, I guess you could say, that the sludge that's coating the lead is safe, and probably they do that because the EPA itself assures people that it's safe.

PESCA: So, is the question, then, not that - is, basically, the finding that it does actually counteract the lead, and then the question is, yeah, but what about the sludge itself? Or is the question more like, it might not even do anything with the lead?

Mr. HEILPRIN: Well, actually, you're right on both counts. There are questions about whether it actually will continue to bind the lead once it's in the stomach. The stomach acids could break it down. And number two, there's concern about the sludge itself from some of the sludge critics and some other researchers that have looked at this.

PESCA: And why has the sludge only been put in poor areas?

Mr. HEILPRIN: Good question. I mean, some of the people we've talked to say that, you know, perhaps people there will ask less questions about it. I mean, there's a lot of - a lot of people don't really know what it is exactly, that it's pollution from a wastewater-treatment plant, and you know, it's treated to different levels. The proponents to the research say it's perfectly safe.

This is Class-A fertilizer that's sold in stores. The question, you know - but there have been recent studies showing that even the Class-A - the higher-treated fertilizer that we're talking about has all kinds of contaminants in it. There was a study in 2006, backed by the U.S. Geological Survey, found pharmaceuticals, disinfectants, fire retardants, other chemicals in samples of Class-A sludge from seven states.

PESCA: Did anyone in the communities - or the communities themselves - did anyone have any input? Or was this just a federal program where they didn't ask for anyone else's advice?

Mr. HEILPRIN: Well, actually, as the supporters of the research have pointed out, they did have support from the community. Community organizers were behind this. They were simply told that it would remediate the lead problem, that the participants would get free lawns.

Additionally the participants were given food coupons. There was no mention about, really, that there was any hazard involved whatsoever. Nobody went into the specifics of sludge, and what's in this stuff.

PESCA: When did they first start doing scientific testing to determine that there might be a hazard?

Mr. HEILPRIN: Well, there were some studies going back - I mean, I've seen studies maybe going back - well, at least more than a decade into this kind of thing, but the bit with the sludge itself, with the lead remediation, I mean, this has been going on since, I guess, the late '90s, at least. This particular study in Baltimore was in 2000, 2001.

PESCA: OK, I understand there are a lot of concerns. You just hear, hey, there's sludge in the neighborhood, and you know, there are some studies showing different things. It could be very troubling.

And of course, you know, people don't want to have an unknown substance injected into their environment without having assurances. But is there evidence that anyone's actually been hurt? Or even that anyone has actually been helped by the program?

Mr. HEILPRIN: There's evidence of neither, and you know, of course, what they did was they tilled the sludge into the soil. They didn't actually test it on the children. However, the whole idea was that if the children ate the soil, they would be better off eating it, and being protected from lead.

PESCA: You mean they'd be better off than eating untreated soil, without the sludge?

Mr. HEILPRIN: Exactly.

PESCA: Soil that could have lead in it.

Mr. HEILPRIN: Exactly.

PESCA: Right. But then the latest finding is, hey, let's look at what happens inside a stomach. Let's look at the acidity of the stomach. That might actually break down the sludge, or be harmful.

Mr. HEILPRIN: Right, and nobody has actually done that, and of course, what we were interested in taking a look at was actually the bigger picture. Just the idea that the government believes that the sludge flowing into the nation's 16,500 treatment plants, which contains potentially tens of thousands of organic pollutants, could be turned into something harmless, even if swallowed.

PESCA: Yeah. Now, I - you said that you've drove around neighborhoods, and you tried to find where the sludge is. Is it unknown where it is? Do the - let's put it this way. I'm - is it the case where I could be living in a house, I could have sludge in my lawn and I wouldn't know it?

Mr. HEILPRIN: Oh, no, this was just a limited study done in Baltimore. It was also tilled into the lawn next to an elementary school of all black kids in East St. Louis, Illinois. You know, I suppose there might be some more studies going on that we don't know about, but this is a limited case study.

PESCA: Right, so have you talked to the people who have sludge on their lawns?

Mr. HEILPRIN: No, we were unable to track them down. We had to submit a Freedom-of-Information-Act request to HUD to try to get additional information. You know, we made all kinds of calls, talked to community organizers, et cetera. One guy drove us around, but you know, we couldn't track them down.

PESCA: Do you have any evidence of the people with the sludge lawns are happy or upset with the program?

Mr. HEILPRIN: We do not, no. Like I said, we could not track them down.

PESCA: And what about that elementary school in East St. Louis? Do you know what school that is? Have you talked to any of those people?

Mr. HEILPRIN: That's the A.M. Jackson Elementary School - I think that's the name - in East St. Louis, Illinois. And no, again, we did not have evidence of anybody being harmed or helped by the project.

PESCA: So then why is the NAACP - I mean, it's good to be skeptical and raise issues, but do they any facts to go on, or just concerns?

Mr. HEILPRIN: Well, again, I think their concern is just simply is, why were these areas being tested? And then again, the notion that this material that is really unknown, that, as you said in your opening remarks, there's been numerous panels, scientific panels, watchdog agency within EPA concluding that the science behind this isn't complete, that nobody can assure them that it's safe. You know, what's up with this material? Why should we be sure that it is safe?

PESCA: So, is anyone...

Mr. HEILPRIN: That's what their concern is.

PESCA: Is anyone looking at it beyond your stories in the AP?

Mr. HEILPRIN: Yeah. Well, like I said, I think the Maryland State Attorney General's office was going to look into the NAACP concerns. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, I think, was going to take a look at it, the Senate Environment Committee, and then also there were some questions submitted to the secretary of HUD.

PESCA: And do you know if your stories have prompted any further investigations?

Mr. HEILPRIN: Well, that's what they've prompted so far, and...

PESCA: Oh, so all this is a reaction of the AP's reporting, and the reporting of others?

Mr. HEILPRIN: Exactly, yeah.

PESCA: Interesting. Well, stay on the story, John. Thanks very much.

Mr. HEILPRIN: Thank you.

PESCA: John Heilprin is a reporter for the Associated Press.

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