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Environmental advocates plan to sue EPA, could lead to 'Sludgement Day' on Cape Cod

The Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center, located on Cape Cod.
The Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center (MASSTC), located on Cape Cod. MASSTC officials are looking at ways to remove harmful chemicals from sludge.

Environmental advocates are planning to sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for not regulating sludge.

Sludge is the solid material that’s left over at the end of the wastewater treatment process.

Treated sludge, (biosolids), is used as a fertilizer, but it contains the harmful ‘forever chemicals’ PFAS, which don't break down and have been linked with cancer.

In their recent Notice of Intent to Sue, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) claim the EPA have failed to protect groundwater and food supplies by not regulating biosolids.

The legal development could lead to EPA regulation of sludge, meaning more towns will be trying to get rid of theirs.

This is a problem Cape Cod is already dealing with, according to Barnstable County’s Wastewater Division Director Brian Baumgaertel.

Most of the Cape’s sludge is incinerated at a facility in Rhode Island, but Baumgaertel said the site is already oversubscribed.

Now, some of the region’s new wastewater treatment plants are looking as far away as New York for their sludge disposal.

“So obviously as we create more and more sludge on Cape Cod through wastewater treatment plants, et cetera, we’re going to have to continue to look further and further away unfortunately, until we figure out this PFAS problem, for locations for us to dispose of sludge.”

If federal rules on sludge eventually materialize, Baumgaertel’s team at the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center (MASSTC) has a name for this scenario: Sludgement Day.

He said when the day comes, towns will be left dealing with the costs.

“Now, they’re going to have to figure out what to do with their sludge material, and it’ll get obviously more expensive the further away you have to bring it, unless we have more facilities set up to be able to handle it.”

He said MASSTC is looking to work with a local company that’s developed technology to destroy PFAS in soil, and see if they can apply it to sludge. However, that research still needs funding.

Increased exposure to PFAS has been linked with several health issues, including a heightened risk of some cancers.

Brian Engles is an author, a Cape Cod local, and a producer for Morning Edition.