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Septage Happens 

Local Matters

Published March 31, 2004 at 5:58 p.m.

Lloyd Farnham and his family live next door to a field full of tampons, condoms and raw sewage, but the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) sees nothing wrong with that. In fact, the DEC encourages the dumping of septic-tank waste, or "septage," on Vermont farmlands, a practice euphemistically referred to as "bio-solid land application." No wonder Farnham and some other Plainfield residents are in a stink.

"Basically, it's an open-air landfill," says Farnham, one of about 150 local residents who signed a petition recently asking the state to deny the landowner a five-year permit renewal. Farnham has lived on Middle Road in Plainfield his whole life and worries what effect the neighboring septage fields are having on his health and that of his wife and four children.

The property is owned by Ed Fowler of Fowler Septic Service, who has been spreading septage on his fields for the last decade. Barring any unforeseen complications, he will likely get the permit, says Ernie Kelley, an environmental analyst with the DEC's wastewater-management division. "I have no legal basis to make a decision based on the fact that [the neighbors] don't want it there," Kelley says. "They would need to show that [Fowler] does not comply with the rules."

Fowler -- whose property is one of five or six such sites remaining in the state -- didn't respond to phone messages left at his business. But according to Kelley, septage-field operators are allowed to accept residential sewage only, not commercial or industrial waste. Machines are used to separate out nonbiodegradable solids. Also, the land cannot be used to raise crops for human consumption, although Fowler grows hay and corn there for animal feed. Raw septage is treated in a process known as "lime stabilization" for at least two hours in order to significantly reduce its pathogen levels.

Septage is a little different from "sludge," the toxic ooze created by municipal wastewater treatment plants, which can contain high levels of heavy metals, dioxins, PCBs and other nastiness. But as opponents of all bio-solid land application explain, septage still contains anything a homeowner flushes down the drain: household cleaners, pharmaceuticals, paints, solvents, pesticides, whatever. And since it's economically impractical to test every load of septage before it's spread, the state relies on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to estimate what's ending up in the ground.

In an ideal world, all septage would be processed at a wastewater treatment plant, Kelley explains. The problem, he says, is that each year, Vermont produces 5 to 6 million more gallons of septage than local wastewater plants can handle. Municipal-ities have little incentive to accept extra waste because, as their facilities reach capacity, their communities' potential for future growth becomes more limited.

But environmental groups like VPIRG and Toxics Action Center say that the state hasn't done enough to proactively address this growing problem. Septage may not be as toxic as sludge, which has been blamed for serious illnesses around the country and even a few deaths. But septage can still pose a health hazard in drier weather if path-ogen-laden dust blows off the site and accumulates on nearby property. Septic dust can be a problem for anyone nearby with a compromised immune system or respiratory problem -- like Farnham's son, who suffers from asthma.

Groundwater contamination is another concern, though Kelley says that hasn't shown up yet in recent tests. For the time being, the Farnhams are sticking to bottled water. "Twenty years ago maybe this kind of thing was acceptable," Farnham says of the dumping. "But in this day and age, we're trying to leave things better for our kids."


On the subject of spreading excrement, snowboarders in Vermont and around the country are holding their noses over a homophobic banner that was posted by Ride snowboards at industry trade shows in Montreal and Las Vegas last month. Ride, which is owned by sporting goods manufacturer K2, ridiculed its Burlington-based competitor, Burton Snowboards, with signs and stickers that read, "The worst thing about riding a Burton is telling your friend you're gay."

The shred hit the fan after news of the offending sign appeared in The New York Post and later on, a gay-friendly sports website, prompting a flurry of angry emails to the company and threats of a boycott. Fearing an exodus of gay dollars, Ride posted an apology on its home page days later from company President Robert Markovitch under the ambiguously titled link, "Ride apologizes for unauthorized actions."

"It has recently come to the attention of management at Ride Snowboards that a very inappropriate and insensitive statement was posted at our recent industry trade-show booth," Markovitch writes. "At the outset, we must be clear that our company and its employees in no way condone or otherwise support this type of activity or message. We are very disturbed by its occurrence."

The apology goes on for another five paragraphs and includes the requisite self-flagellation, corporate assurances about zero tolerance for discrimination, suspension -- though not dismissal -- of the offending employees, and promises of sensitivity training for the entire Ride staff. Just another sign of the times.

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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