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Great Lakes Article:

Minnesota Farmers Use Human Waste Fertilizer
Associated Press
10/12/03


DULUTH, Minn. - Farmers in northeast Minnesota are using a fertilizer rich in phosphorus, nitrogen and organic matter that can boost crop yields by 80 percent. Best of all, it's free.

The problem, for some, is that it's made of treated human waste, which opponents say is environmentally unsafe and unhealthy for animals and other people.

"It's disgusting to think that everything we pour down our drains and flush down our toilets, in our homes and hospitals and paper mills, is ending up on our local farms," said Inese Holte, an area resident and longtime opponent. "What we're doing to our rural neighbors is awful. The farmers will take it because they are hurting and it's free. But we shouldn't be giving it to them at all."

But proponents say it's the ultimate in recycling.

"We're giving nutrients back to the land that we took out of it," said Lauri Walters, environmental program coordinator for the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District.

Using human waste as fertilizer is nothing new. Asian cultures have done it for centuries. In Milwaukee, sludge has been treated, dried, bagged and sold to Midwest gardeners for more than 60 years.

In Minnesota, all but one of the state's 250 municipal treatment plants that produce sludge at least some of it to the land. The only exception is Grand Rapids, which landfills all its sludge because it's mostly paper mill waste too fibrous to spread.

Jorja Dufresne, who oversees the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's sludge-regulation program, says about one-third of all sludge created in the state ends up on fields.

Since 1992, when Congress banned the dumping of treated sludge in oceans, land application has skyrocketed past incineration and landfilling, the other two approved options for sludge disposal.

The EPA promotes spreading it as fertilizer, calling it the preferred disposal option. Incineration is less favored because it requires the consumption of fuels that contribute to air pollution. And burying the stuff takes up space in hard-to-permit landfills.

Sludge opponents aren't convinced the substance is safe. They point to a 2002 National Academies of Science report that found EPA regulation of sludge is based on "outdated science."

Tom Richards, who owns land in Blackhoof Township in Carlton County, says the sludge smells bad, especially when it's not turned into the soil immediately. He believes there are too many questions about what's in the sludge to allow continued spreading on fields.

"Nobody likes sewage sludge, just as nobody likes pollution," Richards added. "It's just that some people are unjustly profiting from it at the expense of everyone and everything else, especially our soils and waters."

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