Andy McElmurray was a farmer who testified before Congress that contaminated fertilizer from a waste water treatment plant killed off his cattle and the cattle of a neighboring farm. The cattle deaths were traced to high levels of chemicals like molybdenum and cadmium in the sludge applied to his land. Another sludge chemical, thallium, a rat poison also showed up in the cows milk, including milk pulled from nearby grocery store shelves. McElmurray and his family became sick from working near sludge as well. When McElmurray's case came to light, the EPA fabricated the sewage plant's numbers to make a case that the sludge was, in fact, safe. However, in a U.S. District court, the judge examined the EPA's numbers and called them "incomplete," "unreliable," "fudged," "fabricated," and "invented."
Read Federal Court Decisions Against Sewage Sludge on Google Scholar
The Federal District Court judge in Georgia in the McElmurray case ruled that "the administrative record contains evidence that senior EPA officials took extraordinary steps to quash scientific dissent, and any questioning of the EPA's biosolids program." In that federal case, in which over 300 cows had died of poisoning, milk sold was also contaminated by the use of sewage sludge on the farm. The farm family was awarded compensation from the United States Department of Agriculture for the destruction of their farmland and livestock by sewage sludge. This federal ruling also has never been appealed or overturned. You can read it here: McElmurray v. US Dept. of Agriculture, 535 F. Supp. 2d 1318 - Dist. Court, SD Georgia 2008. 
Numerous scientific papers and all Federal Court decisions concerning "land application" of sewage sludge have documented its hazards. Federal Judges have ruled that the promoters of growing food on sludge -- EPA and the sewage sludge industry -- have harassed scientists, media firms, journalists and citizens who have exposed the hazardous nature of sewage sludge. In the most famous Federal Court case on sewage sludge, a company hauling and dumping New York city sludge onto land in an impoverished Hispanic county in Texas sued filmmaker Michael Moore, TriStar, and others for a 1994 national NBC television report exposing this situation. The Fifth Circuit Court, the most conservative Federal Appellate Court in the United States, threw out the case. The Federal Judges unanimously ruled that "land application" of sewage sludge is "controversial," and that despite the claims of the sludge industry and the EPA, "experts have yet to establish a consensus on the safety of land application of sludge." This ruling has never been appealed or overturned: Peter Scalamandre & Sons, Inc. v. Kaufman, 113 F. 3d 556 - Court of Appeals, 5th Circuit 1997. 
The City of Augusta invited him to apply their sewage sludge on his fields, where he grew forage crops to feed his cows, and assured him it was safe. He applied sewage sludge to his fields from 1979 until 1990. So did Bill Boyce, the dairy farmer next door to McElmurray.
What the two farmers didn't know was that the City of Augusta's treatment plant allowed elevated levels of the nine EPA-regulated heavy metals in its sewage sludge and fudged its numbers to appear to follow the laws. In addition to these heavy metals, the treatment plant received waste from a nearby Nutrasweet plant that disposed of thallium, a rat poison toxic to humans in very small doses.
Over the years, both the McElmurray family and the Boyce family noticed their soil became more and more acidic. The increase in acidity was likely due to the sludge, as McElmurray later testified before Congress that "The pH of the City's "fertilizer" was so low that it dissolved metal fences and parts of the building where lab tests were performed." After many years of applying sludge, both the McElmurray and Boyce farms applied lime to raise the pH of the soil
The Cows Get Sick
After the farmers applied lime to their soil, they noticed the cows on both farms "developed an odd reddish tinge to their fading coats, a symptom of molybdenum poisoning." The molybdenum had accumulated in the soil for years, and the lime made it bioavailable to the forage crops - and to the cows. According to McElmurray's testimony: "Milk production from both of our dairies plummeted. Within months, many cows looked emaciated and, on our farm, developed Salmonella infections. Many of the cattle on both farms developed various infections and looked as if they were suffering through the last stages of AIDS."
Molybdenum attacks the liver and kidneys. While the cows were sickened from sludge that did not meet federal regulations, scientists calculated that, had the City of Augusta had followed them to the letter of the law, the cows still would have been poisoned. Veterinarians and other experts tested the soil, the crops, and the cows' liver and kidney tissues. Upon discovering high levels of cadmium and other sludge-related contaminants, they switched the cows' feed to forage not grown with sewage sludge. The cows slowly recovered, but not before both the McElmurray and Boyce dairy businesses were destroyed.
Once experts realized the source of the contamination, they collected milk samples from the farms as well as nearby grocery stores. In the milk, they found levels heavy metals and other sludge contaminants that exceeded the EPA's safe drinking water standards. Among those chemicals was thallium, which is not one of the regulated chemicals in sludge. In other words, even if the Augusta treatment plant had followed the law with regard to its sludge, the same consequences would have occurred.
McElmurray Gets Sick
A scientist named Dr. David Lewis found that people living near where sewage sludge is applied often breath sewage sludge dusts blowing from the fields and, according to McElmurray's testimony before Congress "suffered from chemical irritation of the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract... [which] lead to a variety of infections." While the cows were getting sick, McElmurray and his father also found that they too were suffering from "the same symptoms described in Dr. Lewis' research articles." McElmurray's father nearly died and "still suffers serious medical problems from having worked in the sludge-amended fields and from getting steroid treatments [to treat his sludge-induced infections]."
Articles and resources
Related SourceWatch articles
- Jill Richardson, Cattle Deaths, Milk Contamination, La Vida Locavore, June 5, 2010.
- John Heilprin and Kevin S. Vineys, "Sewage-Based Fertilizer Safety Doubted," Associated Press Online, March 7, 2008.