Facing Facts: A Critique of Legacy Wastewater Treatment Systems

Hearings in the Vermont House of Representatives earlier this month give a penetrating and carefully documented look into the issues we are researching at PHLUSH. House Bill 375, sponsored by Representative Teo Zagar seeks to expand and incentivize the use of ecological toilets and greywater systems. Now that much of the extensive testimony organized by Vermonters Against Toxic Sludge is on the record, we can all learn from it. Much of the testimony is available on video, including the initial offering on “Legacy Water Treatment Systems.”

The group’s Founder, Kai Mikkel Førlie, starts off the testimony before the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources with a look at the challenges we face from the wastewater treatment systems we’re already using. Referring to 40 CFR Part 503 – Standards for the Use and Disposal of Sewage Sludge, otherwise known as the “503 Rule,” Førlie notes that there is a lot of confusion surrounding whether or not owners of ecological toilets are ever obligated to follow the waste management practices and procedures that are mandated by the 503 Rule and, in particular, the associated pathogen testing component. This confusion stems from several overlapping issues:

  • States like Vermont that permit contradictory practices like simple burial of the byproducts of an ecological toilet without pathogen testing.
  • Operators of eco-toilets located in the backcountry that are permitted by individual states to spread the byproducts on the forest floor without pathogen testing (again contradictory to the 503 Rule)
  • The EPA itself,  which declares on the one hand that individual states, not the EPA, are responsible for the management of the contents of an ecological toilet and on the other that as long as the material is not referred to as “fertilizer” then the federal rules don’t apply and
  • The language in the 503 Rule itself which, when subjected to a critical reading, appears to only refer to the byproducts of toilets that rely on the use of water or chemicals (neither of which is utilized by dry toilets).”

The takeaway lies in the key phrase “dispose of”. People looking to “dispose of” (rather than “make-use of”) the contents of their eco-toilet are fully exempt under the 503 Rule. This much is clear.  He emphasizes that he does not want to repeat the period of the 1970s and 80s when developers and the general public engaged in irresponsible and often clandestine waterless toilet construction. Instead the thrust of the entire three plus hours of testimony is how to do it right.

Vermonters Against Toxic Sludge Founder Kai Mikkel Førlie (Photo by Sheila Poettgen)

Vermonters Against Toxic Sludge Founder Kai Mikkel Førlie (Photo by Sheila Poettgen)

Førlie points out that wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) were designed to prevent the direct release of nutrient-laden effluent into nearby waterways. The reality, however, is that local governments have spent lavishly on WWTPs that try to remove nutrients from the water only to have these same nutrients isolated in sludge, trucked back upstream and applied to land where they return to bodies of waters in the form of farm runoff.

Along with the nutrients, post-treatment sludge contains a vast variety pharmaceuticals and industrial toxics, all of which go into an attractively bagged “fertilizer” that is sold to Vermonters. There are very few reliable studies on these contaminants; about 1,000 new ones appear every year and only a handful are independently tested. Even wastewater treatment plants with stellar testing programs, do not test and control for the great majority of chemicals. What’s more, 85,000 industrial chemicals are not tested for synergistic effects when they combine with other substances.

Especially illuminating is the Vermont Materials Management Plan, which is a new name for the State Solid Waste Plan. These regulations require biosolids marketing programs by WWTPs and other governmental and private entities engaged in conventional treatment. No alternative technologies like eco-toilets are mentioned! Local authorities are asked to “work with interested parties to examine and evaluate innovative and alternative uses for wastewater biosolids” and “continue to look for opportunities to educate and inform the commercial sector about the beneficial uses and the opportunities for residual materials.”

“We can hardly afford the technologies we have now much less enhance them to deal with every more powerful contaminants,” says Førlie. Existing systems are breaking the budgets of the states now that federal funding that came with the EPA is greatly reduced. WWTPs are simply inappropriate for a low energy, low carbon future.

Moreover, WWTP energy demands are excessive, often the single largest consumer of electricity in a municipal portfolio. In addition, they are massive consumers of water, with drinking water the standard input into private and municipal water systems. Now, in direct response to water scarcity, New England has several desalination plants and even a fresh water pipeline.

Førlie concludes: Most of the wastewater treatment systems that we rely on today have been with us for decades and some for as much as a century. These treatment systems themselves mostly date from the Clean Water Act – the early 70s – and most are in need of upgrades. I’ve already outlined that these systems need massive public investment with long payoff periods so what I am wary of, and what I think you should be wary as well, of is paying into and relying solely on these systems for the next 30 or 40 years. I don’t think we can afford it, and I don’t think the planet can either… We now know much better and much less expensive ways of tackling the problems that these systems have helped to create or come to neglect.

Note: We are grateful to Kai for posting a series of testimonies in conjunction with Vermont H.375 in the PHLUSH Facebook group. We encourage readers to join this open group and the ongoing discussion there as well as to comment here.

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