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 or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.