A Google search for “ACL 2009” brings up images of people completely coated in a creamy, muddy slop. Before the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2009, the City redid the Zilker turf, adding a city-made fertilizing product called Dillo Dirt. At the start of the fest, Zilker Park was looking like a pristine golf course. But heavy rains and tens of thousands of human feet turned that course into a gigantic mud pit and hundreds of people were gleefully flopping in it.
What is Dillo Dirt? According to the City, it’s compost made from recycled materials: safe and environmentally green. But really, it’s one of the end points for human shit and industrial pollutants that get flushed into Austin’s sewage system.
A month after ACL, the Statesman ran a call for anyone who contracted a rash after attending the festival to contact the Health Department. The short column listed a few cases of rashes and inflammations. It also quoted various city health officials disputing the rumors that Dillo Dirt caused infections:
“ ‘The thing is, one of the people who called us, it turned out to be poison ivy,’ [health department spokeswoman Carole Barasch] said. ‘Another person, it turned out to be conjunctivitis (pink eye).’ ”
Despite the rumors, the fest was over and everyone had gone home. But for some, what happened there wasn’t the end of it. Crystal Nolan is a health professional who flew out from Washington State for the festival. She woke up the following days, in her own words, “bedridden with a sore throat, low-grade temperature, and lethargy.” (During the course of my research, I found that this was a common complaint from people who attended.) She spent the next couple weeks recovering and eventually she was up and feeling a little better.
Her short piece for the Austin American-Statesman, published Nov. 30th, 2009, says best what happened next:
“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.”
Her condition worsened, and her “blotches” turned into leg ulcers, which started to decay. The infection was spreading and worsening.
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.
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 also 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.
A “Dillo Kid” and a million footprints in the ACL 2009 Zilker sludge (courtesy of Amy Gizienski)
Austin’s White Lies About Dillo Dirt
The City hosts a website dedicated to “Dillo DirtTM” (yes, Austin trademarked the name)assuring its viewers the product is “a quality soil amendment made from recycled materials.” It goes on to urge how it “easily meets all Texas and EPA requirements for ‘unrestricted’ use, which even includes vegetable gardens, if you desire.”
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.
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.
Fertilizer? Well, almost anything high in moisture and nitrogen will make plants grow. And sewage is RICH in those things.
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.
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.”
The Short List Of Rules For Dillo Dirt
As more cities began to “land apply” their waste, the need to regulate this practice grew. So in 1984 the EPA, the agency tasked with regulating sludge land application, developed and formalized its policy for promoting the “beneficial use” of land application. In reality, “beneficial use” meant dumping the waste not in the ocean, but on land and then growing stuff in it, all with the EPA’s seal of approval.
Some sludge treatment operators were having difficulty getting people okay with the idea of spreading this waste on farms. So in 1991, the “Name Change Task Force,” a sub-group of what essentially is the “Federation of Sewage Works Association,” gathered suggestions for a cleaner sounding name for sewage sludge. (Like a lot of things related to biosolids, the Federation underwent many name changes and it currently operates as the green-tinted “Water Environment Federation.” This is the main PR and lobbying organization of the sludge industry.) The result of the Task Force was the term “biosolids,” a term for sewage sludge that is used by the EPA and by virtually every state and local government.
Before the EPA could regulate sludge, they needed to figure out what was in it. So in 1990 they conducted their National Sewage Sludge Survey. With an enormous list of toxins, hormones, and industrial pollutants, the EPA shaved off most of them and decided to regulate only ten.
They assessed the risk of pollutant levels, pathogen content, and management practices using science from the 80s. The result was 1993’s EPA Part 503 Biosolids Rule. (Colloquially, this is called many things including “The 503 Rule,” “Part 503,” “The Biosolids Rule,” and on and on.)
These ten pollutants were required to be monitored for and kept below their allowable limits. The contaminants were Arsenic, Cadmium, Chromium, Copper, Lead, Mercury, Molybdenum, Nickel, Selenium, and Zinc.
In addition to the poisonous and cancer-causing contaminants listed above, sewage sludge is rich in dangerous human pathogens. The incredible volume and variety of disease causing agents present in sewage sludge makes it time consuming and expensive to test for every possible microorganism. So the EPA chose indicator organisms to test for. The presence of these indicator organisms suggests the presence of others. Sludge is divided into two classes based on final estimated pathogen content: Class A and B.
Basically, sludge can be treated in two ways: more or less. 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. For all anyone cares, you could roll in the stuff. But we at the Austin Cut wouldn’t recommend it. (Take note, ACL concertgoers.)
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.
With these rules in place, the large scale production and distribution of “biosolids” began. Since then, the biosolids rules haven’t changed much, except for two lawsuits, which loosened restrictions. In 1996 the EPA deleted Chromium from regulation, due to a lawsuit on by the Leather Industries of America. Regulations for Molybdenum were weakened in a different lawsuit.
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.
These are the standards that the City of Austin uses to cheerfully call Dillo Dirt suitable for “unrestricted use.”
Bags of Dillo Dirt sitting at Home Depot
Ignore Any Flaws In the Rules
After the 503 Rule, biosolids were given a very low priority in the EPA budget. As far as the EPA cared, the sludge producers could regulate themselves. Here in Texas, aside from minimal State oversight and funding, regulating themselves is exactly what they’re doing. In the words of Caroline Snyder, Ph.D., Founder and President of Citizens for Sludge-Free Land, “It’s a policy based on trust … that people who profit from this are also going to do the right thing.” Who really knows if they are doing the right thing? Especially since they’re really only required to test for less than a dozen of the tens of thousands of pollutants found in sewage sludge.
Since 1993, the National Research Council (NRC) has reassessed the biosolids rule and has published reports on their findings. 2002’s “Committee on Toxicants and Pathogens in Biosolids Applied to Land,” a document over 200 pages long, called into question basically every aspect of biosolids regulation, risk assessment, and management.
One huge problem with the 503 Rule is the possibility for pathogen regrowth. Microorganisms are tough, resilient things, and there have been peer-reviewed studies that suggest the very real possibility of their regrowth after biosolids treatment. This type of event has been shown to become much more likely after a heavy rain, like the ones during ACL in 2009.
The Council also recommended that the EPA do studies on populations exposed to biosolids and look into strange reports of disease epidemics near land application sites. While there are a ton of stories about infection, disease, and death caused by sewage sludge, there are no governing bodies who effectively investigate such events. ACL 2009 would fall into this category, too.
The NRC heavily questioned the EPA’s “risk assessment,” the complex set of equations that are supposed to help us turn the possibility of health hazards into a number. There has been much progress in this field since the early 90s, yet the EPA has been slow to catch up.
These concerns have been mainly ignored by the EPA, who still doesn’t want to believe that biosolids present much of a risk at all. Even with all of these fundamental problems, the City of Austin continues to hide behind the EPA’s Class A stamp of approval.
So What The Hell Is Actually In This Stuff?
The City is adamant that they go “above and beyond” when it comes to testing and that this is indeed a “quality” and “award winning” product.
Currently, Dillo Dirt is tested for the original ten heavy metals on a regular basis. All of the regulated toxins are consistently found in Dillo Dirt.
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).
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.
No further testing was carried out as was recommended in the conclusion of the City’s memo on this test.
Flushing Your Pills Down The Toilet
Everything that gets flushed down a toilet, rinsed down a drain, or otherwise dumped into the sewer, could potentially be an ingredient in Dillo Dirt. Wastewater treatment facilities can’t do anything to the huge amount of pharmaceuticals, hormones, antibiotics, and other drugs that have been found in sewage sludge across the nation. It is safe to assume that these things do end up in Dillo Dirt.
The amount of different industrial chemicals in use must give wastewater managers a headache. Especially when you consider that new and “improved” chemicals are being developed all the time. Besides things like fats, oils, and greases (FOG), pH, and a comparatively short list of heavy metals and chemicals, the Austin wastewater system can’t control what goes into the system very well.
The 2009 Targeted National Sewage Sludge Survey confirmed that sewage sludge contains a staggering mix of petroleum byproducts, flame retardants, plasticizers, insect repellants, fragrances, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, detergents, disinfectants, pharmaceuticals, hormones, and all categories of industrial byproducts, ingredients, and waste. Yet, the City insists Dillo Dirt is safe.
Advances in the understanding of chemicals and their effects show that just like recreational drugs, toxic pollutants also interact with each other. One example of this toxic synergy is Gulf War Syndrome, where soldiers, who were exposed to a combination of nerve gas antidotes, pesticides, vaccines, and other chemicals, developed sometimes devastating neurological problems.
When the topic of radioactivity came up in discussion and e-mail, and it did often, the response was generally resounding: we do not test for radioactivity. The EPA doesn’t require testing and the states generally don’t either. The possibility of radioactive material entering the wastewater system is likely due to hospitals and related industries. However, as I discussed with one city engineer, testing is difficult and even if radioactive waste were flushed into the sewage system, it would be diluted with millions upon millions of gallons of water. (Note: This discussion was in reference to wastewater effluent. In sludge, the radioactivity would be concentrated.) Also, the environment has natural levels of background radioactivity, which makes testing and analysis more difficult.
Testing is expensive. Even for the city. And when you consider that different pollutants are going to enter the sewage system at different times of the year, routine testing is the only way to figure out what we are spreading all over our city. Without knowing what is going into Dillo Dirt, it is impossible to know what its effects will be – long-term or short.
City employees and volunteers spreading piles of Dillo Dirt around the Polo Fields Picnic Area in Zilker Park
Polluting The Streams And Ranching With Waste
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. Ever wonder why they’re so green?
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.
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.)
While the EPA rules did take into account cattle eating biosolids, they assumed a grazing animal’s diet would be only 1.5% soil. Cattle are actually estimated to have a diet of between 1 and 18 percent pure soil. In this case, that “soil” could be Class B sewage sludge.
The rules don’t even consider all of the chemicals found in sludge. Many of these unregulated or under regulated pollutants present in sludge are fat-soluble and easily excreted in milk.
In a letter attached to a memorandum recording this particular Land Application Permit, one ranch owner wrote:
“The United States is heading toward a ‘green’ environment. What is more ‘green’ than natural organic fertilizer? I have had to use chemical fertilizer in the past but would prefer organic. It will benefit the soil in a safe natural way as God intended it to be … Not only will the organic fertilizer benefit us, as a cattle and farming industry, but the cities which need to dispose of their sludge.”
The Future Of Dillo Dirt And Land Application
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.
I recently attended a Solid Waste Advisory Committee meeting at City Hall with an agenda item of interest: “Discussion and clarification of the acceptable and approved use of ‘Dillo Dirt’ for fruits and vegetables for human consumption.” After hours of discussion, the topic never came up. I finally asked, “What about the acceptable and approved use on things for human consumption? Because the bag says not to do it.” The room fell silent for a second. Then who I assume was some sort of a City fact-checker told me the bag wasn’t the responsibility of the city. I pointed out how the warning label omitted one line that’s in the Spanish version: “TNRCC recommends that you don’t use [Dillo Dirt] to cultivate things for human consumption (on vegetable gardens).” Can you guess the response? Jody Slagle, Hornsby Bend’s Compost Manager and somewhat of a go-to guy for all things Dillo Dirt, gave me the textbook answer: “Dillo Dirt meets TCEQ and EPA regulatory requirements for ‘unrestricted use,’ which would even include vegetable gardens.” Via e-mail, Slagle assured me that “some vendors may be using some old language. We will look into this and make sure that all vendors’ bags are up to date in their language.” I think it’s a safe bet that by “their language” he meant Spanish, and that the sentence in question will disappear in the near future.
Every day millions of gallons of waste are being generated in Austin alone and it all needs to go somewhere. As Caroline Snyder noted, at least Austin is taking care of its own waste and not exporting it like other cities do. But by turning a waste product into a money-making product and the regulators into the promoters, we’ve created a bureaucratic nightmare that will prove difficult to fix.
Until then, Dillo Dirt and other toxic waste products will continue to be spread on Austin’s parks and schools, sprayed on our recreation areas, and injected underground. It’ll continue to be sold at huge retailers like Home Depot, it’ll run off into our water, and Texas’ cattle will continue to eat it. I’ll be the first to admit there are no easy answers when it comes to this waste, but can’t Austin do something other than pretend we’re sitting on a totally green, nutrient rich goldmine?
 Sludge is the collected and compacted “solids” found in wastewater
Warning from the back of the Dillo Dirt bag
Dillo Dirt and Sewage Sludge Resources
City of Austin’s “Hornsby Bend Memo”
The City’s toxicological evaluation of Dillo Dirt (2005)
Nitrate Concentrations and Potential Sources in the Barton Springs Segment of the Edwards Aquifer and Its Contributing Zone, Central Texas
Fact Sheet that strongly suggests Land Application as source of water pollution
Synagro’s Land Application Permit Memorandum
A good example of how the land application permitting process works, why some rules are bent, and the rancher’s letter
Annual Report Enforcement Data 2009-2010
This file was received through an open records request for information about industrial sewage discharge violators in Austin
Dillo Dirt Constituents 2008
This spreadsheet is from the City of Austin. It shows test results for heavy metals in Dillo Dirt
The Texas Risk Reduction Program’s Protective Contaminant/Concentration Levels (PCL) Tables
Although reading and making sense of the tables can be confusing, I put them here for reference purposes anyway
Citizens for Sludge-Free Land
Links to scientific studies and general information about Sludge
Sludge Groups and Further Information
Source Watch’s Biosolids Portal
Food Rights Network
The Sewage Sludge Action Network’s Spraying Sludge on Farmland