An un-set­tling sum­mer ex­pe­ri­ence

Sherbrooke Record - - EDITORIAL - By Nick Fonda

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

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