Council Members Hope Sludge Concerns Can Be 'Put to Rest'

Environmental specialist David Crohn addresses Menifee City Council members before a large crowd a...

Environmental specialist David Crohn addresses Menifee City Council members before a large crowd at Tuesday's biosolids workshop.
After listening to three hours of testimony from county and environmental experts, Menifee City Council members Tuesday expressed satisfaction that the community does not face health dangers from any presence of biosolids -- commonly referred to as sludge -- in the city.

A professor of environmental science at UC Riverside, the director of the Riverside County Environmental Health Department and an EPA consultant all reported that there is no evidence of contaminated soil that would pose a health risk to residents. All this was part of a city council workshop intended to address concerns posed by some citizens in recent years.

Many of those concerned citizens were among the 16 residents who addressed the council during the meeting, which took place in the packed city council chambers prior to the council's regular meeting. If their comments are an indication, this controversy is not going away.

"I believe you've surrounded yourself with wonderful speakers who have made this seem like fairy dust," said Susan Rood, a resident of the Mapleton development south of Scott Road and a cancer survivor who believes her disease is the result of the dumping of sludge on local farm lands as fertilizer -- a legal practice in the area until 2001, when the use of Class B (virtually untreated) sludge was banned.

"I feel like you're trying to brush this away. It looks like you went to a lot of work to make this situation looks good; it's not."

Rood disputed a map displayed by city staff members and provided by county officials, showing a very limited number of areas that were ever the site of the application of sludge -- treated human waste that was once used by some farmers to fertilize crops. She said she has witnessed the dumping of what she believes is toxic waste onto Menifee soil.
Resident Marc Miller expresses his concern about
what he believes is contaminated soil in Menifee.

None of those who expressed concerns provided photos or documentation proving their claims, however. While thanking those residents for their concern, council members said they believed the expert testimony was convincing evidence that there is no health hazard present.

"I am a cancer survivor," said deputy mayor Wallace Edgerton. "You'd better believe I've done some research on whether I should stay in Menifee. I want to thank the people who continue to ask questions, but fear can be a factor that can hurt you. We have to make sure people don't have an unwarranted fear."

Said council member John Denver: "I hope this is over and we can move on to the next issue."

David Crohn, an associate professor of environmental science at UCR, emphasized that proper land application of Class A (highly treated) sludge is not "dumping." He said that pathogens in Menifee soil from any previous land application for farm fertilizing would not pose a health risk.

Pete Bouris, whose family farmed about 10,000 acres in Menifee Valley for decades, said sludge was never used as fertilizer for crops on their land. Instead, he said, they used cow manure. Even though the application of sludge through county permit was legal at the time, he said they never used that substance.

"We made the decision we didn't want to use sludge because we didn't want to deal with complaints about the smell," he said. "Sometimes the cow manure comes to the field wet, and it does smell. Those smells can be mistaken for sludge."

Menifee resident Susan Rood, a cancer survivor, details her concerns about possible soil contamination.
According to a presentation by Interim City Manager Rob Johnson, no permitted dumping has occurred since 2004, when restrictions were tightened on the use of Class A sludge. John Watkins of the Riverside County Environmental Health Department said "there is no verification of biosolids being applied to any of those fields."

Even if illegal dumping had taken place, as some believe, experts said there would be no lingering health effects to those who live in housing developments located on lands that were previously farm fields.

"Any pathogens in Menifee soil would be dead by now," Crohn said. "It's highly unlikely you would have a dangerous concentration after all these years."

Sue Kristjansson, former Menifee City Council member, spoke of the damage she believes the ongoing rumors of soil contamination are doing to the city's potential for economic development.

"After many years of this discussion and the enormity of the information presented today, I'm hoping we can put this to rest," she said. "I'm working to bring and Boys and Girls Club here; we need it. I need to be able to go to benefactors when asking for money and assure them this area is safe. If we continue to portray our city as some sort of toxic waste dump, it's going to hinder our progress."

Menifee resident Katie Minear agreed with Rood that the map showing limited application of sludge as farm fertilizer in past years is not accurate. She also disputed Watkins' assertion that pathogens dissipate over time, and she accused county officials of destroying old documents showing evidence of dangerous levels of toxins in Menifee soil.

"Who gave the orders to destroy those records?" she asked Watkins. "And the pathogens do not dissipate, as your experts like to say. I think you people are uncaring and heartless."

A representative of the Menifee Police Department said there have been no reports of sludge being applied to local land in the five years he has been here. He urged residents to report any suspected dumping to police. Battalion Chief Jorge Rodriguez of CALFIRE said he has worked in the area since the 1980s and that the department has never responded to a "sludge call."

Resident Marc Miller said there are three houses in the Salt Creek and La Ladera areas that have been red-tagged for sludge. City Manager Johnson said the staff has no evidence of any red tagging done by the city or county. Miller said he would provide addresses to be checked out.

City council member Greg August said he sees no justification for further testing of soil that has previously been deemed safe for habitation through county studies prior to the city's incorporation.

"The city can't go around looking for needles in a haystack," he said. "It's too costly for us and it's not within the city's purveyance to monitor this."

Marnie Palmerin told council members she is among the residents who are convinced there is no threat to the community.

"I've been involved with this project the last five years," she said about efforts to research any potential problems. "I know way too much to be concerned. I have two grandkids out there, playing football in the fields. I feel confident we are safe. I hope this brings to the community the knowledge they need."

"I thank those who have expressed these concerns," resident Earl McGee said. "I wouldn't have known about this subject without them. But realistically, there is no reason to continue this debate. This should not become dueling scientists.

"Baseless and unproven claims of contamination can only hurt our city."