Minnesota Farmers Use Human Waste
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
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
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
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that found EPA regulation of sludge is based on "outdated
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