EPA flayed over sludge policy, bullying of citizens

Published May 1, 2000

Angered by revelations that a top EPA official used death threats to silence agency critics, several members of the House Science Committee have demanded that the Environmental Protection Agency apologize for what one lawmaker called “indefensible and unprofessional behavior.”

The fireworks erupted March 22 at a Science Committee hearing on the agency’s policy of allowing sewage sludge to be used as a fertilizer. Witnesses revealed that EPA officials have:

  • sent hostile letters to private citizens who spoke against sludge at public meetings;
  • sent unsolicited e-mails to and made unsolicited phone calls to these private citizens at home;
  • attempted to discredit scientists outside EPA who have published papers questioning the agency’s sludge policy; and
  • filed unfounded ethics violations against, denied promotions to, and attempted to discredit its own scientists who raised questions about sludge.

Jane Beswick, a California dairy farmer, presented copies of threatening letters she received from EPA scientist Alan Rubin, who oversees the agency’s sludge program. Beswick is a member of the Coalition for Sludge Education and the National Sludge Alliance, two activist groups opposed to putting sludge on farmlands. She told the panel she received ten unsolicited letters from Rubin, one of which included a signed, hand-written note saying, “Jane, Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee!” Carolyn Richards, an attorney for the California Farm Bureau, received the same threat.

Farmers objecting to the use of sludge are not the only ones facing intimidation by EPA, the panel was told. Two career EPA scientists who raised questions about the advisability of allowing pathogen-laden sludge to be applied to croplands have also felt the agency’s wrath.

Attorney Stephen Kohn, chairman of the National Whistleblowers Center, told the panel how the careers of David Lewis and William Markus were nearly wrecked by trumped-up charges of ethics violations and other acts of retaliation designed to destroy their scientific credibility. Both scientists sued the agency, which was forced to settle with each for well over $100,000.

Scientist-critics outside the agency fared no better. Ellen Harrison, director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute, has been researching the land application of sewage sludge for many years. When she and her colleagues at Cornell attempted to work with EPA on scientific problems associated with sludge, EPA and the Department of Agriculture “attempted to discredit our science and to ignore the issues we have raised.” Harrison told the Science Committee that EPA’s attitude was particularly disturbing in light of Cornell’s finding that “groundwater leaching of sludge-borne contaminants may be greater than previously believed.”

Lawmakers seemed bewildered over why EPA would go to such extraordinary lengths to snuff out opposition to its so-called 503 Sludge Rule. The answer may simply be fear on the part of agency officials who worry they’ve blundered into a fiasco of unforeseeable proportions.

Two days before the Science Committee hearing, EPA’s own Inspector General released a report saying, “EPA does not have an effective program for assuring compliance with land application of Part 503. Accordingly, while EPA promotes land application, EPA cannot assure the public that current land application practices are protective of human health and the environment.”

Launched in 1993, the agency’s 503 Sludge Rule allows so-called Class B municipal sludge, consisting mostly of human waste, to be applied to farmlands and national forests, and to be used for such purposes as mine reclamation. The rule was promulgated after Congress banned dumping sludge in the ocean.

Lewis, Markus, and others have warned that the complex mixture of pathogens and chemical pollutants is fraught with many unknown dangers. The Science Committee was presented with the sworn testimony of Joe Cocalis of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who said EPA’s sludge policy was “indefensible from a public health standpoint.” According to Cocalis, “exposure to sludge containing pathogens can result in illness” and “life-threatening” diseases clearly could result from sludge dumped on farmland.

Charles Fox, EPA assistant administrator for water, made no effort to defend or deny Rubin’s actions, saying only that the matter is under investigation. He did say the agency used the “best available science” in implementing the 503 Sludge Rule. Fox, however, came under withering attack from several committee members when it was revealed that Rubin was one of two people who drafted his written testimony for the committee.

Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) was one of several lawmakers who noted the uncanny similarity between EPA’s treatment of sludge and its handling of the gasoline additive, MTBE. In both cases, EPA ignored the warnings of its scientists, and sludge may be following in the footsteps of MTBE as yet another example of EPA polluting the environment.

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.