Dillo Dirt

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This article is part of the Food Rights Network, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy. Find out more here.

Dillo Dirt is an Austin, TX product sold as fertilizer but made from sewage sludge by the City of Austin Water Utility.[1] Hundreds of communities across the U.S. sell toxic sludge products that are typically renamed biosolids and sold or given away as "fertilizer" or "compost" (and often even labeled or marketed as "natural" or "organic").

According to one website:[2]

"The city of Austin, Texas composts biosolids with wood chips, yard wastes, and sawdust. The resulting product is called Dillo Dirt. Dillo Dirt is sold to vendors under contract with the city. The vendors include topsoil companies, nurseries, garden suppliers, landscapers, and a turf farm. The demand for Dillo Dirt far exceeds the available supply."

In July 2011, the city announced that it would double production of Dillo Dirt from 40,000 to 80,000 cubic feet to "keep pace with Austin's growing population." According the the Austin American-Statesman, "The city is using a $31.8 million federal stimulus grant to expand the facility, a project that includes a new 15-acre composting pad intended for 'Dillo Dirt production."[3][4]

Dillo Dirt - Sea of Toxic Mud


Dillo Dirt SludgeMudRollers.jpg

Several people complained about rashes from Dillo Dirt, compost made from treated sewage sludge, after the Austin City Limits (ACL) festival. According to the Austin American-Statesman, "Kathy Carr, 38, of Austin said she had a rash on her leg, face and eye and suspects the Dillo Dirt that oozed from the rain-soaked grounds at Zilker Park. Laura Ramirez, 25, also of Austin, said she developed a rash near a series of mosquito bites she received several days earlier. She said her doctor thought the rash looked like poison ivy."

“'I’m not upset,' Carr said. 'We loved the festival, we loved the mud.'
"Four of her five children, who range in age from 1 to 12, rolled around in the mud and were fine, as was her husband, Jeff Carr, 41. But Kathy Carr went to the doctor last week and would have gotten a steroid shot if she weren’t nursing her 1-year-old. Her eye is 'still a little crusty,' she said."[5]

Austin Health Department spokeswoman Carole Barasch advises people who think they became ill from Dillo Dirt to call the health department’s disease surveillance branch.[5]

Pictures of Kathy Carr's rash are on her blog here.[6] One of her children "had so much mud covering him that even his teeth were brown. Ick."[7]

Kathy Okon and others on "Twitter, Facebook and the Internet" had similar complaints about rashes after the festival, according to KVUE TV.[8]

Dillo Dirt Mud Dancers.jpg

According to a July 2011 follow-article in Austin Cut, "Samuel, a Dallas man who attended ACL for the previous consecutive years, woke up after the fest with what he described as an itch on either his legs or his balls. By the end of that day, the itch spread across half of his body and to his face. The next morning his right eye was swollen completely shut and the “itch” turned into a rash covering a large part of his body, face, and neck. Photos showed his eye looking like a small slit lost in a mass of blackened, inflamed tissue.

"He went to the emergency room. They told him that it was probably poison ivy and gave him a cortisone shot and an expensive bill. He wasn’t satisfied, so he called the Travis County Health Department, trying to figure out what he might have come in contact with. They told him they didn’t know and couldn’t help him. Shortly after that, a city claims adjuster called and informed Samuel that the City assumed no responsibility for what happened. Samuel asked to speak with a supervisor and was referred to a city attorney who gave Samuel a similar speech.
"Thinking back, Samuel believed he got his infection after he had to leave the crowd during the Arctic Monkeys’ set. He said the smell of 'raw sewage' was overwhelming. So he looked around for the only green patch he could find and laid down for a while.
"Samuel . . . considered a lawsuit, but the only lawyers serious about it needed more victims to make it worthwhile. Eventually, Samuel gave up on trying to get the City to pay for even his emergency room bills and tried to move on with things."[9]

"Tenacious Virus"

Dillo Dirt Mud Dancers Panoramic.png

Two months later, in December 2009, ACL festival goer Crystal Nolan from Puyallup, Washington, wrote a special editorial for the Austin American-Statesman about the "tenacious virus" she believes she picked up at the festival. "[M]aybe the virus was borne on the unseasonal heavy rains, which caused treated waste material called 'Dillo Dirt' to percolate through the 40 or so acres of the freshly fertilized lawn at Zilker Park," the editorial suggests. Here's how she described the virus:[10]

"After arriving home from Austin on Oct. 6, the weekend found me bedridden with a sore throat, low-grade temperature and lethargy. I overcame the sore throat after a few days. Then a fine rash broke out on my upper extremities but disappeared within 24 hours. The fatigue lingered for a couple more weeks.
"After slowly regaining some strength, I resumed working out and walking. Imagine my horror, then, when I discovered the repulsive, flame-red eruptions reaching as far as my upper thighs over the course of a couple days and climbing to my forearms and elbows after a week. A sea of red papules eventually coalesced into large blotches. . . .
"[M]y primary care physician . . . was stymied and worried by what she observed. Lab work was ordered and all came back normal, except for one test: I had 'clumped' platelets. While waiting for an appointment with the infectious disease specialist to whom she referred me, I began to search the internet for 'clumped' platelets. . . .
"The infectious disease specialist prescribed a regimen of the powerful anti-inflammatory drug prednisone, which, though it helped calm the rash, left me frazzled . . .
"He was confident the rash would be gone in one week, but the obstinate bug did not cooperate.
"I am now on my third specialist, a dermatologist, who hopes the virus will simply die out over time. A biopsy confirmed that I have a text-book case of vasculitis, which according to him, will not go 'gently into that good night;' it will take time to release its hold on me."[10]

According to Austin Cut, "Nolan contacted city health officials and C3 Presents, the group responsible for ACL. She was given the runaround from everyone. C3, when pressed for answers about why they didn’t warn concert-goers that the mud they were rolling in was actually Dillo Dirt, a treated sewage sludge product, argued:

"'The re-sodding of Zilker Park was a project of the City of Austin. Other than contributing to the cost of it, C3 was not involved in the project.' They referred Nolan to the City.
"A Department of Health official told Nolan that the exact location where she contracted the bacterial infection on the Zilker grounds would have to be established. She considered a lawsuit, but it would have been costly and a long-term commitment. Luckily, she was able to keep her leg with a seven month regimen of steroids. She still has some very visible scars, two years later."[9]

How Dillo Dirt is Made, and What's In It

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According to Austin Cut, "Dillo Dirt is compost made from curbside collected yard trimmings and whatever the city’s wastewater treatment plants pump over to the Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant. Or in normal-person terms: human shit, industrial chemical pollutants, and everything between. . . . The process of turning wastewater into Dillo Dirt, according to the city’s website, is as follows: Wastewater (the shit you and I and every industry flush down the toilet) is pumped to Hornsby Bend. There, they remove the water using several techniques. (The Hornsby Bend project managers described it as turning from a liquid, to a jello, to a mud.) The 'solids' are sent into digestion tanks and are composted. This process is similar to what happens inside that compost pile that may have been sitting in your backyard at some point. Then the composted sludge is laid out on concrete pads ('cured'). The final product is bagged and marketed as 'Dillo DirtTM – a quality soil amendment.' . . .

"In 2003, the City collected two samples of sewage sludge. Then two years after the samples were collected, the City did a test for 142 industrial pollutants and toxic pesticides. The lab they chose to carry out the test was inadequate and some of the pollutants couldn’t effectively be tested for.
"Of the two samples, one of them contained a range of cancer-causing PAHs (petroleum byproducts), pesticides (including DDE, a DDT derivative), and DEHP (a toxic carcinogen linked to a range of adverse health effects including small penis size, cardiac problems, and obesity).
Dillo Dirt Constituents 2008.png
"Although the level of each pollutant was below its PCL level, that doesn’t say a whole lot about the safety of growing food in the mix of these chemicals.[11]
"No further testing was carried out as was recommended in the conclusion of the City’s memo on this test. . . .
"Currently, Austin is in the middle of a research project with the USDA, the USGS, and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. From what has been explained to me, the study’s goal is to figure out what trace contaminants are in sewage sludge. From there, they will try and figure out what the effects of these contaminants might be, since they are beginning to show up in our environment.
"But this study is still underway, and it is unclear when we could expect results. We will probably continue to be kept in the dark as to what exactly is in any of these wastes, and it is unlikely that much will change in the near future."[9]

A spreadsheet of industrial sewage discharge violators in Austin 2009-2010 obtained by the Austin Cut shows industrial discharges of phosphates, lead and other contaminants by a Coca-Cola bottling plant, metal finisher, metal cleaning and powder coating shops, plastics molding, a medical implant device manufacturer, a pharmaceutical service provider, a large volume semiconductor manufacturer, and a semiconductor wafer bumping facility. These are just violators of the Texas Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (TPDES) permits, not those who operate within permit requirements by making permitted discharges.[12]

The Austin Cut also obtained a spread sheet of very limited heavy metal and basic fertilizer element (N,P,K) test results for Dillo Dirt from 2008 (image at left). These results show that the Dillo Dirt was tested for hardly any of the many common sludge contaminants.[13]

Elevated Levels of Ammonia in Groundwater Around Dillo Dirt Processing Site

"Dillo Dirt is People," October 2010, Source: Bob Blakley via Flickr

In May 2011, it was discovered that elevated levels of ammonia of around 18 parts per million had been picked up in groundwater monitoring wells around the City of Austin's Hornsy Bend sewage treatment facilities, where Dillo Dirt is created, since 2005, when monitoring began, but that, "[b]ecause there are no drinking water standards for ammonia . . . , the data were never flagged, and came to light only this year as the city prepared to overhaul sewage treatment facilities at Hornsby Bend."[14]

"That's 'a big number,' said Barbara Mahler, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Ammonia can be toxic for fish and wildlife. The National Academy of Science recommends, and many European nations have adopted, a drinking water standard of 0.5 parts per million for ammonia."[14]

The Hornsby Bend facilities are adjacent to the Colorado River.

"The primary function of the 1,200-acre Hornsby Bend site is the handling of Austin's excrement. Ammonia, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen, is found in fertilizers and urine. And when most Austin toilets flush, the contents are piped to one of the city's wastewater treatment plants, which filter out most of the water, purify it and discharge it into the Colorado River just beyond Lady Bird Lake. The remaining sludge is sent on to Hornsby Bend.
"Water is squeezed out from the solids, and then impounded in several holding ponds before getting sprayed on several hundred acres of nearby fields."[14]

Local Vendor Drops Dillo Dirt Because of Herbicides, Other Unknown Contents

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In 2002, a vendor who had been selling Dillo Dirt, called The Natural Gardener, refused to continue selling it. According to the Austin American-Statesman, "Owner John Dromgoole has said his concerns began when the city's wastewater utility announced plans to pump an herbicide into sewers to kill tree roots that clog the system. The herbicide, Diquat dibromide, eliminates roots, but does not kill trees, and in tests was shown to be inert by the time it reached water treatment plants. Dromgoole also wondered what else might be in Dillo Dirt that could make it unsuitable for home use."[15]

"Dromgoole's concerns led him to request a full content analysis of Dillo Dirt. When it wasn't forthcoming, he decided he couldn't support the product, said Lyda Guz, his assistant.
"Jody Slagle, compost manager at the City of Austin's Hornsby Bend Treatment Plant, said the analysis Dromgoole sought didn't exist at the time. It does now, and the analysis is under review by the city's environmental toxicologist, said city spokeswoman Laurie Lentz. The toxicology report is expected in three to four weeks.
"'So far it's not setting off any red flags, and we don't think it will,' she said. 'But this is an ongoing process that will continue as the science around compost continues to move forward and as issues pop up in other states. We're not saying this is the final report on Dillo Dirt.'
"What is known is that the high heat of composting 'kills human disease organisms, and it also kills plant diseases,' Slagle said. Metal content from industrial waste is monitored and restricted before the discharge enters the wastewater system, he said.
"But those assurances aren't enough for some gardeners, who may remember when Dillo Dirt wasn't recommended for use in growing edibles."[15]

Applicable Regulations on Contaminants

The 1993 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Part 503 Biosolids Rule requires monitoring for ten pollutants -- Arsenic, Cadmium, Chromium, Copper, Lead, Mercury, Molybdenum, Nickel, Selenium, and Zinc -- and keeping them below allowable limits. The EPA also requires testing for certain pathogens as "indicator organisms" to "suggest . . . the presence of others." The Austin Cut explains:

"For sludge to reach Class A designation, it must be treated and be tested for fecal coliform, Salmonella, enteroviruses (a genus of viruses that includes the one responsible for polio and the common cold), and helminthes (parasitic worms). If the levels of these indicator organisms are low enough, the sludge can be sold or given away for “unrestricted use.” No further testing necessary. . . .
"Class B biosolids must only be treated to reduce pathogen content. “Site restrictions” are required in areas that Class B biosolids are sprayed. The possibility of infection from Class B sites is high. In the West Texas city Sierra Blanca, where New York’s Class B sludge was dumped several miles from the small town, people complained about a constant potent stench, unexplained blisters and rashes, and a general increase in sickness.
"Both Class A and B sewage sludge can be and are used to fertilize crops and grazing land in Texas. . . .
"At the state level, beyond the EPA regulated heavy metals, biosolids producers are required to keep the sludge product below 'Protective Contaminant Levels.' A PCL is a per-chemical limit (generally, mgs of pollutant per kg of biosolids) on how much of a pollutant can be present in the environment. If the environment exceeds a PCL level, the area is considered hazardous and an environmental cleanup must happen. (Something like the Gulf oil spill could fall into this category.) These levels are FAR less strict than the rules for something like drinking water. Also, the pollutants regulated under the Texas PCL tables (there are a little over 500 of them) are not regularly tested for."[9]

What Happens to the Rest of Austin's Sewage

According to Austin Cut, "Only a minority of what gets flushed ends up as Dillo Dirt. Much of Austin’s wastewater sewage, the stuff that doesn’t end up at Hornsby Band, is land applied almost as-is. (Usually it’s just chlorine treated to reduce pathogen levels.)

"This boils down to one of two situations: the wastewater is sprayed onto the land (sprinkler head) or it is 'dripped' via an underground pipe system (at least this reduces the risk of pathogen contaminated air). Most of Austin’s Municipal Golf Courses are sprayed with this treated sewage liquid. . . .
"As of November 2010, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) permitted up to 3.3 million gallons of this sewage 'effluent' (that’s their word for it) to be land applied within the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer, every day. This covers the southwest portion of Travis County and most of Hays County. A more realistic estimate of this sewage flow is roughly half of the permitted volume, so 1.65 million gallons per day of this pollutant laced liquid.
"In a study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) with the City of Austin, surface and ground water was routinely tested. The study found that as the number of permitted land application sites increased, so did the levels of nitrate and pollutants found in Austin’s surface water. Basically, land application is polluting our streams, springs, and groundwater.[16]
"One land application site in Travis County is a series of privately-owned cattle ranching pasturelands located off the Texas 71, just south of Richards Drive. Synagro, a Houston-based corporation that deals in biosolids, applied for a Texas Land Application Permit and got permission to spread Class B sewage sludge on several properties. The ranchers, facing a drought and a bleak economic future, welcomed the opportunity for this inexpensive, if not free, fertilizer.
"(Synagro, at the time of the permit, planned to get the biosolids from Austin. But the source of the waste isn’t required to be Austin, and could potentially change. Theoretically, this leaves the possibility open for other cities, such as New York or Los Angeles, to use Austin as a dumping ground for their sludge.)[17]"[9]


According to Austin Cut, "Roughly fifty years ago, cities and industries typically dumped this raw sewage wastewater into whatever body of water was convenient. Austin used to dump its 'treated' sewage and industrial waste into the lower Colorado River. Hornsby Bend began in 1956 as a wastewater 'stabilization' pond. (This means let the sewage sit in lagoons and hope nature removes the bad things.) After 'resting' in the lagoons, the waste was sent down the lower Colorado and into the Gulf.

"The Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA) set some well needed regulations for using our nation’s rivers and lakes as septic systems. The consequences of this are still being dealt with today.
"After the CWA came the Ocean Disposal Ban Act of 1988. This was around the time of the 'Syringe Tide' of 1987-88, where large amounts of ocean-dumped medical waste (vials of blood, syringes, etc.) washed up on shores near New Jersey. People freaked out and tourism stopped.
"The result of the Ocean Ban forced cities to find other places to bury their waste. The options were landfill, incineration, or 'land application,' the term the EPA uses for spreading treated sewage on land as a cheap fertilizer. . . .
"Dillo Dirt began as a pilot program in 1987 and quickly turned into a full scale sewage sludge composting operation. Sales began two years later."[9]

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles

External Resources

External Articles


  1. Branded products containing sewage sludge, SludgeNews Website accessed June 3, 2010.
  2. Metropolitan Council - U.S. Biosolids Scene, Accessed November 12, 2010.
  3. Dillo Dirt Production, Austin American-Statesman, July 7, 2011 (subscription-only archive, on file with CMD)
  4. Jessica Brorman, Dillo Dirt expands its pad: 15-acre compost area will help make more compost, KXON, June 24, 2011
  5. 5.0 5.1 Mary Ann Roser, Dillo Dirt rash? Call health department at 972-5555, Austin American-Statesman, October 15, 2009
  6. Kathy Carr, ACL Mud Rash, Carrmumble blog, October 8, 2009, accessed December 29, 2011
  7. Kathy Carr, Almost Famous, Carrmumble blog, October 6, 2009, accessed December 29, 2011
  8. Woman claims ACL mud gave her rash, KVUE TV, October 7, 2009, linked by Sit, Ubu, Sit! blog, October 8, 2009, accessed December 29, 2011
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 Brandon Roberts, Austin's Dirty Secret: Dillo Dirt, Austin Cut, July 31, 2011
  10. 10.0 10.1 Crystal Nolan, Visit to Austin and ACL Fest has left its mark, Austin American-Statesman, November 30, 2009
  11. Janet Pichette, MS, CTR, Staff Toxicologist, Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, [RE: Toxicological Evaluation of Compost and Digested Sludge Samples from the Hornsby Bend Biosolids Processing Facility, March 10 and April, 2003], Internal Memorandum to Jody Slagle, PE, Compost and Biosolid Reuse Manager, Water and Wastewater Department, July 14, 2005
  12. City of Austin, Annual Report Enforcement Data 2009-2010, TPDES Pretreatment Program Annual Report Form for Enforcement Actions Taken, October 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010, obtained by open records request by the Austin Cut
  13. City of Austin, Dillo Dirt Constituents 2008, accessed December 29, 2011
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Asher Price, Elevated levels of ammonia found at Hornsby Bend monitoring wells, Austin American-Statesman, May 19, 2011 (subscription-only archive, on file with CMD)
  15. 15.0 15.1 Julie Bonnin, "City of Austin says Dillo Dirt is safe, but some have doubts," Austin American-Statesman, June 11, 2005 (on file with CMD)
  16. U.S. Geological Survey, Nitrate Concentrations and Potential Sources in the Barton Springs Segment of the Edwards Aquifer and Its Contributing Zone, Central Texas, government fact sheet, May 2011
  17. Joseph P. Gieselman, Executive Manager, Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources, RE: Synagro of Texas - CDR, Inc., Application N~118, memorandum to members of the Commissioner's Court, proposed motion "Receive Comments Regarding Variance Requests under Chapter 62 and Chapter 64 of the Travis County Code by Synagro of Texas - CDR. Inc. for a Proposed Sewage Sludge Beneficial Use Land Application Site," August 31, 2010