An un-settling summer experience
Several years ago, Pascal Goux, an aerospace engineer by training and a consultant with the Department of National Defence in Ottawa, retired to a ten-acre plot of land in Cleveland where he and his partner intended to grow vegetables, tend chickens, and quietly strive for greater self-sufficiency.
The last thing he expected was to be suddenly poisoned in the verdant environment he had chosen as an alternative to urban living.
“The property already had a house and outbuildings,” Pascal says. “There’s a small stream, a pond, and lots of woods. We have a big vegetable garden, an orchard of apple and pear trees, and a good number of fruit-bearing bushes. We keep a few hens, so we have our own supply of eggs.
Life was idyllic, or close to it, until the end of May when a large black pile appeared in the middle of a hay field that borders their property behind a screen of trees—land leased out by an absentee landlord.
“At first,” says Pascal, “we thought it was black earth and my wife wondered if we could get a truckload for our own garden.”
When two more truckloads were dumped under cover of darkness, any such thought was immediately forgotten. The arrival of the new piles was accompanied by a vile, overpowering stench. Whatever the piles were, they definitely were not black earth, and definitely not anything that they would want on their land—or near it.
Referring to notes scribbled on a kitchen calendar, Pascal traces the summer’s events: trips to hospital emergencies and medical clinics, moving out of the house to try to alleviate his symptoms, attempts to contact an alphabet soup of federal and provincial agencies, calls to the municipality, and the sudden changes to the flora and fauna in his immediate environment.
It’s significant that the trucks that came during the day were always unmarked, bearing no more than an RBQ number
“On June 5,” he continues, “I began feeling stomach cramps and experiencing diarrhoea. After 36 hours I started to wonder if I was suffering some sort of poisoning.”
At the Department of National Defence, Pascal worked as an electromagnetic environmental effects engineer. His job was to “keep the troops safe from radiation hazards.” As well, his mother had been a microbiologist. His worry that he’d suffered some sort of poisoning stemmed from a wellinformed scientific background.
Over the next few days, a number of events served to confirm his concern. “My wife wasn’t as sick as I was, but she started experiencing headaches and stomach aches. We have over 50 species of birds that frequent our property. All of a sudden all but four species disappeared, as did the flying insects we were accustomed to seeing. We noticed our hens were sneezing, and hens are not known to sneeze. One of them mysteriously became inert, simply stopped moving. The others started laying deformed eggs with wrinkled shells, or eggs with no shells at all. We found dead sparrows. Our dog started foaming at the mouth and scratching himself incessantly. He almost stopped eating and drinking, and had digestive problems.i remember picking a handful of raspberries, but as I brought them towards my mouth, I realized that they had a revolting stench and I threw them away.”
One day, when another unmarked transport truck arrived, Pascal walked over to speak to the driver. He was told that the black piles were sludge from the settling ponds in Repentigny.
Until then he hadn’t made the link between the piles, the symptoms he was feeling and the changes in his immediate environment.
Most settling ponds in Quebec are part of a municipal water filtration system, but some are part of the water filtration system of industrial complexes such as paper mills.
Although there are still a few municipalities that pour their sewage directly into a stream or river (or do so temporarily to repair damaged sewage pipes), almost all towns and cities now have water treatment facilities. The major component of a water treatment plant is the settling pond where fecal and other matter flushed down our toilets eventually end up. Even if settling ponds can be the size of Olympic swimming pools, the sludge that accumulates at the bottom needs to be cleaned out periodically.
This is a regular maintenance procedure. By way of example, Richmond, like most municipalities, hires the work out to contractors with specialized vehicles and machinery. Last year, at least two different companies put in bids to deal with Richmond’s sludge, and the town allotted $28 000 in its 2020 budget to cover the cost of the work. This amounts to about $8.75 for each of the town’s 3200 inhabitants.
The sludge from the settling ponds is analyzed by provincial officials, allowed to dry, and then analyzed again a year later. At that point, depending on how benign or toxic the batch is, it may be used to fertilize agricultural land or interred in undisclosed locations, out of sight.
The sludge from a municipality’s settling pond will be primarily fecal matter from human waste. But, given our 21st century lifestyles, the sludge will contain much else, including traces of a long list of pharmaceuticals— the aspirins, anti-depressants and antiinflammatories that many of us take— as well as all the household chemicals and other incidentals that we might, but shouldn’t, flush down the toilet. If the municipality has any factories, the settling pond will have an entire other set of organic and inorganic chemical compounds present.
The Townshippers who, four or five generations ago, had to worry about cleaning out the cess pits underneath their privies at the back of the yard had much less to worry about when their sludge was spread at the far end of the garden.
Once a government inspector has analysed a pile of year-old sludge and has found it acceptable for agricultural use, the sludge is offered to farmers to spread on their fields.
Phillip Boersen who, with his brother Paul, owns and operates a farm in nearby Melbourne Township, is one person who has been offered sludge.
“We know it’s good stuff, that it’s been analysed and certified and thoroughly documented,” he says, “but we have a dairy farm. We’re producing milk that’s going to be consumed by people, and we just don’t want to take a chance.”
“It’s tempting,” he goes on, “because sludge doesn’t cost a penny. Fertilizer on the other hand can be expensive. Our soil is analyzed every year. With an agronomist, we work out the needs of the land. Phosphorus is an example of one thing that we’re regularly spreading on our fields. We have manure, but never enough. Depending on the field and the crop,we can find ourselves buying 30 tons or more at $600 to $800 a ton, and those costs add up pretty fast.”
Phillip’s reluctance to accept sludge is also the result of experience.
“Some 15 years ago, we did get sludge from a paper mill,” he recalls. “There were several truckloads, and not all from the same place. Some of it was dry and easy to work with, but some was wet, sticky and smelly. According to the paperwork, it was all the same stuff, but just by the smell you could tell it wasn’t. The foul smell lingered all summer and was especially noticeable after a rain. However, it was great for the field and gave us bumper crops for the next three years. Still, we never repeated the experience. The spot in the field where it had been dumped remained barren for two or three years.”
Michel Brien is Vice President of the Estrie UPA (Union des producteurs agricoles).he points out that the UPA has never encouraged its members to put sludge on their fields.
“We know of cases,” he says, “that resulted in animals getting sick, and the last thing a dairy farmer needs is sick cows. We understand the attraction of MRFS (matières résiduelles fertilisantes, or sludge). It’s hard to blame the man who’s tempted to fertilise his fields for free.”
“Most often, it’s people growing cash crops, people with 500 or 1000 acres of land growing corn or soya, who end up using it,” he explains. “MRFS are potent fertilisers, but the potential side effects make them a high-risk strategy. It would make more sense to use the sludge in silviculture, on reforestation projects.”
“Moreover,” he continues, “the economics of the MRF trade are ‘unusual’. I’ve heard of situations in which$10 worth of work was billed at $100.”
Referring to his calendar, Pascal notes that his calls to the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency), to the MSSS (Ministère de la santé et des services sociaux), to the MAPAQ (Ministère de l’agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’alimentation du Québec), to the MELCC (Ministère de l’environnement et de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques), to the SQ (Sûreté du Québec), and to the Municipality of Cleveland eventually bore fruit.
“On July 4,” he says, “the pile started being removed.”
Despite ongoing problems with his digestion, lungs and kidneys, and despite losing a tenth of his body mass, he was repeatedly told by medical professionals that, aside from stress, he was fine.
Now, going onto four months after the first pile of sludge was dumped, Pascal Goux is slowly recovering. He underwent a lithotripsy on August 18 to deal with kidney stones, and he is slowly regaining the weight he lost.
“Better still,” he says, “we hear birds again, and see flying insects.”
Still, he would feel far better if any one of the many authorities he contacted would accept responsibility,tell him what exactly went wrong and assure him that the same mistake will not happen again.
An unmarked truck dumping the mysterious pile just beyond Pascal Goux’s back field