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Out of State, Out of Mind

New York makes its waste Pennsylvania’s problem
A white toilet against a black backdrop.

They were up there grinning, cradling trophies, covered head to toe in human shit. I was in the West End of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, for an off-road race. Nothing but homemade trucks and bragging rights, the track woven through vast abandoned strip mines off I-81. We were told that just a week before, the land had been coated in processed sewage coming out of New York. The event host, Rausch Creek Offroad, does this for mine reclamation. Some riders discussed this indignity in angry whispers because most people were trying hard not to think about it. It was the first I’d ever seen something like that, but being born and raised twenty miles away, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Famously, New York has a waste problem. The anthracite coal region, just two and a half hours away, has cheap land and a history of anything-goes development. But it’s more than trash that binds the two places. The coal region fueled the furnaces of the industrial revolution; today it’s where the distribution centers feed consumer goods onto the highway to New York. Retreating along the same path are the numerous people driven out of the city, in search of cheap rent and established community. In short, the region is where the New York Metro area solves its problems.

“It’s the smell, we don’t know what they’re bringing in. The odor is horrendous. There’s days you can’t even open your window,” Tammy Saltzman of Good Spring explains. She’s talking about the Natural Soil Products (NSP) site, a mile and a half down the stretch of minelands that separate towns. There, they import sewer sludge, which the industry euphemistically calls “biosolids.” There, it’s mixed with wood chips and composted. The resulting mix is called fertilizer and is spread on farms as well as used for mineland remediation (where it’s often a top coat over a layer of ash from power plants). So, sludge only prettier. NSP isn’t the only place doing this, but it’s the one that can’t be ignored.

Processing sewage from New York shows what the center of global power thinks of a bunch of hicks as it permeates your living room.

Tammy and her neighbors in Good Spring have been fighting this NSP site for three years now. They go to all the township meetings and file complaints with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Environmental Protect Agency (EPA). The former fined NSP $50,000 over the issue in March, but residents still feel like they are getting nowhere. According to Tammy, “$50,000 don’t mean nothing to a company like this.” NSP is owned by Tully Environmental, whose website says it is “one of the largest privately held waste hauling companies in the country with sales approaching $80 million annually.” The new Komptech compost-turner at NSP cost over half a million dollars alone.

Smell is the most pressing issue, but residents are also worried about the land, air, and especially the water. Remember, anything sent down the drain is in sewage. Drano, medication, those chemicals you didn’t know what to do with. Sewage treatment plants remove inorganics like wet wipes, and from there primarily focus on pasteurization: killing pathogens. This still leaves tons of stuff.

According to the EPA, “More than seven hundred pollutants have been found to occur in biosolids (in at least one instance) since EPA began tracking their occurrence in 1993.” That’s a wide range of possibilities. So-called biosolids contain heavy metals, and the EPA monitors for concentrations of nine of them. Other common pollutants include plastics, hormones, pharmaceuticals, hydrocarbons, and flame retardants. The big one that has people worried—in Schuylkill and worldwide—is PFAS. Otherwise known as “forever chemicals,” they are found in the blood of 99 percent of Americans. They are toxic and don’t break down.

Informal citizen groups like Tammy’s are common wherever destructive environmental schemes take root. Mining communities have resisted strip mining since strip mining began. Often these fights revolve around one issue. Plans to burn contaminated soil? Build a landfill taller than the Statue of Liberty? Fill old mines with river dredgings? Groups form when their homes are threatened but tend to dissolve once the issue is won or lost. This is not the West End’s first rodeo.

The anthracite region has long been a “sacrifice zone.” That is, a place to be destroyed in order for the economy to prosper. Out of state, out of mind. This attitude is owed, in part, to the business-before-people priorities of generations of local politicians. Schuylkill County has the second-highest cancer rate in the state, although proving a link to any one industry isn’t in the cards (isolating causes while controlling for everything else is so costly and time consuming, it couldn’t happen without overwhelming political will). The region is open to endless land-based money-making schemes. Or as Tammy puts it, “At this end of the county, it’s been like the Wild West of businesses. You want to put something in? Yeah, put it in here.”

There’s something insulting about processing sewage from New York. As in, it shows what the center of global power thinks of a bunch of hicks. But it isn’t a New York City problem alone. City folk don’t flush the toilet any more than coal country residents. It’s just a more concentrated problem. Good Spring homes have septic tanks that need emptying every few years because all that sewage also has to go somewhere. The same goes for towns large enough to have sewer systems. All sewage in the state is destined for one of three places: landfill, compost, or a mine site or farm field—which is how it winds up on the faces of four-wheel drive enthusiasts.

The majority of Pennsylvania sewage currently goes to the landfills. If composted, it’s spread on one of at least thirty-seven farms, per the DEP. Some is packaged and sold as fertilizer at places like Home Depot and Lowes, usually labeled as “eco” or “organic.” It’s a bizarre industry, greenwashed on both ends (another facility near Good Spring is run by “WeCare Compost”).

We’re talking about waste in a wasteland. In the anthracite region, both old and new mines occupy much of the land. Deep tunnels release acid mine drainage, dyeing streams the color of turmeric for nearly two centuries. The conglomerates who owned the old mines are long gone, leaving no one responsible to clean it up. The Good Spring Mine, for instance, closed in 1929 and was followed by a long, chaotic period of bootleg mining by the unemployed. It wasn’t until the 1960s that mining companies in the anthracite region became liable for reclaiming streams and pits, but this came long after the industry’s peak. Federal funds, though inadequate, have since helped build water remediation sites, bringing aquatic life back into some parts of the region. Still, one-third of all abandoned mines in the United States are in Pennsylvania, and they won’t be cleaned up anytime soon.

A strip mine operator started the current NSP compost site in the 1990s. Paid a small sum to take in New York yard waste (and the plastic that came with it), the company composted and resold it. Seeing there was money to be made, others followed suit. Operations branched out into other waste products. Fly ash is the big one—the microscopic stuff filtered out of the smoke from modern coal-fired power plants. It’s essentially a concentrate of the impurities found in coal, containing many toxic elements. American power plants create 140 million tons of the stuff annually, generating constant pressure to find more places to put it.

Other nearby composting sites, like Stavola, take in sludge from paper and textile mills. By spreading a combination of these things (and stretching the meaning of the word compost), mine sites can be considered “remediated.” Nasty stuff, but that’s the cost of new printer paper and clothing. NSP started on sewage in 1999, but it wasn’t until a 2019 expansion that it began to haunt surrounding towns.

The residents of Good Spring aren’t alone. They draw hope from the success of the “Save Carbon County” citizens group, just to the East. There, the Synagro company offers farmers free fertilizers (sludge) to spread on fields. Though a dozen or so farmers have accepted it, more oppose it. The county and municipalities can’t enforce ordinances against it due to the “Right to Farm” Act, but nineteen of twenty-three municipalities have signed a resolution asking the state to grant them that power. Meanwhile, Save Carbon County has gone to Bethlehem City Council—the source of the sewage—to ask them to stop doing business with Synagro. (Not coincidentally, another Synagro plant was defeated nearby in 2020. A quick search shows campaigns against the company in three other states, and that a Synagro biosolid plant literally exploded in Baltimore earlier this year.)

Jim Madenford is another Good Spring resident opposed to the NSP plant. He worked for the company in the 1990s, back when it was only taking in yard waste, and was quite proud of their compost. When asked what should be done with the sewage if not sent to NSP, Jim looks at it from an industrial perspective.

I’m not saying that it wouldn’t be okay to grow corn for ethanol [on land fertilized by the sewage]. But with that being said it should be done only in smaller sections away from communities and stuff like that. Not right next to water or streams . . . which around there is some abandoned strip mine pits that they’re spreading this stuff real close to, and they’re full of water. They actually had fish in them, they had snapper turtles in them, you know, your deer, and now all your animals are drinking from this stuff . . . Well, stuff can be incinerated, ’cause they’re doing it in other countries. I think they’re even doing it in either Massachusetts or Connecticut. This stuff could be actually mixed in with coal refuge. Once it’s burned, I’m not saying you don’t get some air pollution. But you got to look at the big picture.

That picture is a choice between waste concentrated in his backyard or diluted through the sky. In Jim’s view, that of a former independent miner, there’s going to be pollution no matter what we do.

Incineration was what the United States did through the early 1990s. Over three hundred different plants were burning it. There are still quite a few plants, but they are heavy air polluters and require extensive equipment to scrub the fumes. The waste also must be processed before it can be burnt. In other words, it’s expensive. The United States is also phasing out landfilling, another “solution,” due to groundwater contamination and the sheer volume of waste.

Composting might be the best solution we have. In our recklessly disposable society, natural cycles are obliterated. We pull nutrients and calories from the soil, process them, eat them, and then petrify them in landfills rather than return them to the soil. It’s a one-way system that creates waste and depletion. Relinking those—literally re-cycling— is our only hope as residents of planet Earth, which can’t handle being robbed for much longer. The question today is where? Who’s got to live with it? Who gets to pretend the problem doesn’t exist?

Another problem with re-cycling is the shit inside the shit—the pollutants. Crops that draw impurities from the soil carry them on through the cycle, where more are picked up. Each cycle increases the concentration, as is already happening with forever chemicals. Removing them from sewage would create a vast amount of toxic waste—between the extracted pollutants and the chemicals needed to remove them.

Earth itself has become a sacrifice zone; places like the Hamptons are just able to ignore it longer than the rest.

The solution, then, is to keep these things out of the food supply and sewage in the first place. Even the waste industry is on board with that, so long as the responsibility is on the industries that create it. There could be some progress, as the EPA may soon target PFAS much the way they did aerosols and DDT. But all the seven hundred-plus pollutants found in sewage? Cutting back petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, plastics, hormones, etc. at the point of manufacture means cutting back production across swaths of industries when all those industries desire is more growth. Schuylkill County ain’t the only place putting business before people. Infinite economic growth is incompatible with decontamination; capitalism requires sacrifice zones. Need proof of that? Look around the anthracite coal region. Coal companies of yore only made money because the mess it created wasn’t their responsibility. Coal production requires a sacrifice zone, and so does any industry operating on a global scale.

Dig deep enough and that’s what most environmental issues run up against. If we don’t deal with our shit, literal and figurative, sacrifice zones will continue to be a necessity that will always move to the next poorest, least organized place. Earth itself has become a sacrifice zone; places like Manhattan are just able to ignore it longer than the rest.