Public Justice Joins Lawsuit against Synagro in Pennsylvania

A “huge loophole” in environmental regulations and inadequate enforcement has left 37 Pennsylvania residents exposed to dangerous sewage sludge from neighboring farm fields in York County, said an attorney for Public Justice, which recently joined two lawsuits on behalf of the residents.

The suits were filed in July 2008 against Synagro Central LLC and Synagro Mid-Atlantic, Inc., which supplied the sludge, and the two owners of the Hilltop Farm, where the sludge was applied. Houston-based Synagro is the nation’s largest sludge hauler.

“Public Justice is joining this case because the land application of sewage sludge is an issue of national importance,” said Jim Hecker, Public Justice’s environmental enforcement director. “States and EPA have created a huge loophole allowing sludge to be applied close to homes with inadequate safeguards to protect public health. This case is intended to compensate the victims of this dangerous practice and create a financial incentive for corporations and sewage treatment plants to use safer disposal methods.”

Sewage sludge, or “biosolids,” is the viscous brown chemical byproduct of municipal wastewater treatment systems. According to Public Justice, it contains bacteria, viruses, pathogens, heavy metals, prescription drugs, and toxic chemicals from both domestic and industrial wastes. The U.S. generates over seven million tons of sludge per year, mostly from plants in heavily urbanized areas, and about half of that is dumped on land as fertilizer.

People breathing the fouled air near these dumping grounds are complaining of terrible odors and health problems, consistent with a 2007 study that found “an increased risk for certain respiratory, gastrointestinal, and other diseases among residents living near farm fields on which the use of biosolids was permitted.”

The Pennsylvania plaintiffs in Gilbert v. Synagro and Jasinski v. Synagro allege that the defendants’ sludge-related activities have been conducted negligently and have interfered with the use and enjoyment of their property. Many of the 37 residents complain that they have experienced sore throats, irritated eyes, skin rashes, nausea and difficulty breathing. They are seeking an order to prevent the dumping and an award of compensatory and punitive damages.

In October 2009, the York County Court of Common Pleas denied Synagro’s preliminary objections to the complaint. As a result, the plaintiffs will continue discovery in the case and preparation for trial.

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