Every day, the state of New York sends 3,700 million gallons of liquid down its drains and toilets. It is ridden with dirt, grime, grease, blood, excrement, mucus, bile, urine, and other liquids both artificial and organic. Though much of it is water, to simply call it “water” is an insult to even the dirtiest water.
And so, we call it “wastewater.” That wastewater flows to one of the state’s 586 treatment facilities, where it is processed within an inch of its life. The treated, water-adjacent liquid is then deposited into a nearby body of water, where it enters the ecosystem anew. The semi-solid substance that remains is known as “biosolids,” or, less charitably, “sludge.” It is made up of minerals, undigested food residue, chemicals, and anything else left over after water contaminated with human piss and shit is ridden of as much moisture as possible, and New York State produces a thousand tons of it per day.
Some of it is returned to the environment, used as fertilizer or to fill up abandoned mineshafts, while a small amount of it is incinerated. Approximately 520 tons of the stuff, however, is sent to fester in landfills. Only 51 percent remains in the state of New York, while the other 265.2-ish tons of biosolids aka sludge aka processed shit travels to other states to seek its fortune, taking up landfill space in whichever state will host it.
But where does all of the sludge go, and how does it get there? This is the question that people should have been asking when it was reported that a train carrying 5,000 tons (or nearly 19 days’ worth) of industrial-strength shit from New York and New Jersey was sitting for two months at a railyard in the town of Parrish, Alabama. The processed poop had been bound for a landfill in nearby Jefferson County, but the county’s managers blocked the shipment by arguing that its own railyard wasn’t zoned to accept such cargo. And so, the least fun train in the universe sat, unloved and unwanted, in Parrish, where a mild February turned to a much hotter April and the shit began to smell. Badly.
As of Wednesday, April 18, the poop has moved from Parrish onto greener pastures. But its stench — metaphorically, though possibly literally — remains.
I attempted to track down an official explanation as to how the poop train got sent down to Alabama. I called the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, where a spokesperson told me he would pass a message onto the New York City Department of Environmental Police (D.E.P.) on my behalf. When I asked him to provide me with a phone number for someone at the D.E.P., he sent me a link to a D.E.P. web page that instructed me to call 311. After calling 311 and speaking to an increasingly alarmed series of customer service representatives, none of whom seemed to want to tell me how a train full of New York City’s fetid, semi-dry shit ended up sitting in an Alabama town for two months, I was given an email address and told to direct my questions there. My message was not returned.
While biosolids can be used as fertilizer, they’re only as healthy as the diets of the people who poop them out, which means a load of biosolids can contain, as the New York Times wrote, “pharmaceuticals, steroids, flame-retardants, metals, hormones, and human pathogens.” And though the Environmental Protection Agency claims that biosolids are perfectly safe, there’s a wealth of scientific research stating that those unnatural substances that run through our bodies do, in fact, make biosolids dangerous and bad for you. In 2010, New York saw a downturn in the amount of biosolids being reused and instead began sending more and more of the stuff to landfills. Which, 🙁.
Turns out, we’ve been trying to figure out what the fuck to do with sludge as long as we’ve been producing it. “New York City used to take it out in barges and dump it into the abysmal depths of the ocean,” says Conner Bailey, Professor Emeritus of Rural Sociology at Auburn University in Alabama. But even still, he says, “This major shipment of sludge [to Parrish] really surprised me. I’m unaware of any precedent of anything of that kind of scale. Moving things thousands of miles is not a cheap prospect.”
For decades, Bailey has been looking at the impact the waste management industry has on his state. After a regulatory change in the early 90s caused a wave of massive landfills to be built in economically disadvantaged rural Alabama communities, Bailey and his colleagues spent time documenting the struggles of local activists against Big Waste. In a 1997 paper in the Journal of Rural Social Sciences documenting their findings, Bailey and his co-authors noted that of particular concern to Alabama residents was the fact that these mega-landfills would host refuse from other states. “This sense of injustice was especially strong when [landfill] opponents realized that being rural and poor influenced facility site decisions,” they wrote.
“Nothing’s really changed in my view,” Bailey tells me. The waste management industry, he says, makes money by finding “the least costly place of disposal, which often translates to the most politically marginal, where you’ve got politicians willing to make a deal.” And when richer states are willing to pay to foist their garbage off on someone else, Alabama has historically been more than open to taking it. He describes the attitude of government at the state and municipal levels as, “We’re poor. We need jobs. Bring it.” He adds, “We’re much more interested in making money, whatever the long-term consequences are.”
Meanwhile, he tells me, Alabama’s Environmental Protection Agency is a relatively weak one. “Its budget has been cut and cut and cut, and it’s never been refunded. I think people can get away with a lot of stuff.”
This creates a cycle of poor, rural Alabama cities making deals to take hazardous out-of-state waste, often to the detriment of local residents. Perry County, a majority-black Alabama county with a high rate of poverty, became the dumping ground for carcinogenic coal ash from a massive coal ash spill at a Tennessee power plant. And Emelle, a small town in the majority-black Sumter County, where nearly one-third of the population lives below the poverty line, has long been home to the largest hazardous waste site in the nation.
“That [Emelle landfill] has been there since 1978,” says Kelly Alley, a colleague of Bailey’s at Auburn who teaches in the Anthropology department. “That was the result of a deal that was done between the city’s managers and Chemical Waste Management, Inc. The residents didn’t find out about it until they saw the trucks coming into town.”
Alley has spent years studying wastewater management in India, and tells me that the question of what to do with the stuff we flush down the toilet is a universally vexing one. “You flush your toilet, it goes away somewhere, it’s nasty, and people don’t want to think about where it goes.” And, she says, “In big urban centers, there’s nowhere to put this stuff. They’re going to be shipping it out.”
“I did notice for this poo sludge, [New York] sends it to several states — it’s not just Alabama,” she says.
But even though New York is kind enough to spread its shit across the nation, that doesn’t alter the heart of the issue. Unless we find a way to deal with our shit more sustainably, the things we flush down the toilet will never really disappear — they’ll just become someone else’s problem.