The Alliance For A Clean Environment
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2 mothers, 2 deaths, too many questions

John Tuohy, Jul 13, 2000
USA Today

A federal health agency is urging stricter standards for the processing of sludge, human waste that is treated and converted to fertilizer. Scientists with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that the most widely used type of sludge, called Class B, could contain dangerous levels of bacteria and viruses. Class B is treated with a method that removes most, but not all, pathogens. CDC scientists would like to see the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which runs the sludge (or biosolids) program, require all sludge to be treated to the higher standard, Class A, in which all pathogens are killed. Nobody needs to convince Brenda Robertson and Joanne Marshall, two mothers from the Northeast, that sludge can be harmful. Both claim that sludge killed their sons. USA TODAY's John Tuohy tells their stories.

Sickness was in the air, but officials wouldn't blame sludge

"Nobody's ever died from it, nobody's gotten sick."

For 4 years that mantra was uttered by government officials in response to Joanne Marshall's inquiries about whether sludge -- sewage that is treated, then used as fertilizer -- could have killed her son Shayne Conner, 26, on Thanksgiving Eve in 1995.

Marshall thinks that when sludge was spread by the truckload on a field 100 yards from her Greenfield, N.H., home for a month straight, her son inhaled some type of fatal bacteria in the mixture and was infected.

"Everybody in the family got nauseous, nosebleeds, headaches, stomach cramps, fatigue," Marshall says. "We had to hold our breath when we went out of the house. I am sure that is what killed my son."

The official cause of Shayne's death is still listed as undetermined. Two years ago Marshall sued the waste treatment plant that made the sludge, the hauler that transported it and the grower who persuaded a landowner to use it. A trial has been scheduled for April, says Marshall's attorney, Finis Williams.

Marshall says her home was downwind of the sludge, and the "stench was so bad, it made me sick to my stomach."

Three days before Shayne died, he came down with a severe case of laryngitis. On Thanksgiving Eve, Marshall's other son woke her at 4 a.m. and said Shayne was having trouble breathing. Paramedics were called, but Shayne was dead when he arrived at the hospital.

At the same time, everyone in the family was feeling ill, and they wondered whether their lives were in danger, Marshall says.

"We could barely grieve for him because the rest of the family was sick," she says.

Mark Weidman, the president of Bio Gro of Millersville, Md., the company that transported the sludge, says there is "no scientific basis" to Marshall's allegations.

Investigations by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services and the medical examiner's office concluded that sludge was not linked to the death, Weidman says.

He adds that sludge has to meet strict requirements and has been used safely in the USA for decades.

Marshall says she feels that the government has stonewalled her search for an answer to Shayne's death. The lawsuit, she says, is her only recourse.

"I wanted to work with them," says Marshall, who once worked at the Department of State. "Activists approached me and wanted me to join with them, and I said no because I thought the government would help me get to the bottom of this."

She says she suspects the Environmental Protection Agency made a mistake with its sludge program and doesn't know how to back away without admitting culpability.

"Sometimes people make mistakes and don't realize it until years later," she says. "Maybe at the time they thought it was all right and it wasn't going to hurt anybody. I think there were people who wanted to help, but their hands were tied."

State probe wrongly followed path of bike ride to a bee sting

For Tony Behun's mother, death wont leave.

It has lingered in Brenda Robertson's head in various forms of guilt, doubt, shock, anger, surprise and skepticism for 5 1/2 years.

In that time, government and medical explanations of what killed Tony have changed four times. Robertson is beginning to doubt whether she will ever get a satisfactory answer.

"I am upset. It is frustrating, and all I am trying to do is get some answers," Robertson says. "I think there are people who don't want to admit they made a mistake."

Tony, 11, died less than a week after riding a dirt motorbike through sludge on a hillside half a mile from his Osceola Mills, Pa., home on a Saturday in October 1994. The sludge plastered his clothes and skin.

"He was all covered in dirt and grime" when he got home, Robertson says. She immediately made Tony change his clothes while she hosed off his dirt bike.

Two days later Tony had a sore throat and headache. When a boil formed on his left arm, Tony was taken to a doctor, who said he had the flu and prescribed antibiotics.

But the next day Tony had trouble breathing and was flown by helicopter to a hospital in Pittsburgh. He was dead by Friday morning.

Doctors said Tony died of a bacterial infection. They asked Robertson whether her son had eaten something bad or been bitten by an animal or played in poisonous plants.

"We couldn't think of any dangerous activity like that," Robertson says. "I sat around for months wondering what had happened. Did something happen that I should have spotted? Had I done something wrong? How could I have prevented it?"

The mystery lingered until March 1999. Then it got murkier.

Based on a rumor they heard about an 11-year-old boy who died near a sludge site, officials at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection conducted an investigation. Three months later the DEP reported its findings: The boy had died of a bee sting, not sludge. In fact, investigators said sludge had not been applied to the hillside at the time the boy rode his bike there.

Robertson was shocked when she read the results of the investigation in the local newspaper. Obviously, the 11-year-old in question was her son, though the DEP never identified him, and she knew full well that he didn't die of a bee sting.

"It was a complete lie, and yet people walked up to me and said, 'We didn't know Tony died of a bee sting. Why didn't you ever tell us?'" Robertson says. "It made me look like an idiot."

The DEP did another probe after admitting the first one was flawed. It concluded that Tony didn't die of a bee sting. Instead, it determined that sludge had been applied to the field, but that his death was caused by exposure to a pathogen called Staphylococcus aureus, which "is not known to be found in bio-solids."

But Martin discovered that the Environmental Protection Agency lists Staphylococcus aureus as a pathogen in sludge, along with 11 others, though the agency says it is of "minor concern."

EPA scientist and whistle-blower David Lewis says he believes that the lime used to disinfect sludge could have opened a lesion on Tony's arm. The staph infection then could have crept into in his blood stream through the abrasion. If the strain of staph had been an especially tough one, originating in hospital waste, for example, it could have been fatal, Lewis says.

DEP director James Seif sent Robertson a letter May 10 to apologize for the botched bee-sting investigation. In the letter he says, "Our investigation and the conclusions cannot offer you an explanation of the cause of your son's tragic death."

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