Remembering activist Maureen Reilly

It was with shock and sadness last week that I learned of the death of environmental activist Maureen Reilly who died suddenly in Toronto on Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at age 58.
As the news release I put together states, Reilly was known to readers as a “sludge activist” who tirelessly campaigned for higher treatment standards and better oversight of the disposal of municipal biosolids on farm lands, sometimes called “beneficial use.”
Some of Reilly’s investigations into lax practices found their way into the pages of this magazine, either directly from her own commentary or via ideas suggested to editorial staff (namely me).
For 13 years she was administrator of SludgeWatch, which included a list serv and advocacy service for people and communities struggling with issues related to contamination from wastewater, sludge, and other industrial residuals.
I first encountered Maureen Reilly many years ago when she called me up to draw my attention to local practices with respect to the land application of biosolids, which she claimed was being done with poor oversight. It seemed that the rules sounded good on paper, but in the real world the practice fell between the cracks of rural municipalities with no power to regulate or control the practice, and an overburdened provincial environment ministry with too few inspectors.
And this was before Walkerton and the famous sickness and deaths of people from contaminated water.
I once wrote a long expose at Reilly’s behest for which I found myself criss-crossing rural roads and farmlands meeting with beleaguered homeowners made sick from sludge being sprayed all around them, their water wells contaminated from the material being applied too close. It was a fun assignment and opened my eyes to the difference between what the “experts” thought was going on in their offices, and what was taking place out on the farms. Other articles and editorials followed.
I recall meeting Reilly for the first time and being a bit startled. She was not a small woman, yet she but had a very soft, almost child-like voice that reminded me of Marilyn Monroe when she sang Happy Birthday Mr. President for JFK. In fact, my wife at the time gave me a piercing look me after she picked up the phone one day and passed it to me, thinking she’d interrupted an affair with some twenty-something model.
That first time we met I recall ordering some very nice red wine at a restaurant near Yorkville in Toronto, and Reilly appreciating it, and then telling me the story of how she got into this area of activism after inheriting a rural house and finding herself one day surrounded with sludged fields.
We had both read the hilarious (and ironically titled) book Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry by intrepid journalists John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton — a book I continue to recommend for anyone interested in these issues, no matter which side of the sludge debate they stand on (or sink in).
You can find it here:
Anyway, here’s an article that Ellen Moorhouse wrote for the Toronto Star that appeared on March 2, 2012, about Maureen Reilly and her work. I think it’s a fair summary of what Reilly was all about. It was Moorhouse who contacted me and alerted me to Reilly’s death, and all I can add is that she will be missed. Our society needs these kinds of relentless gadflies poking about, and I don’t know who will take her place.
Sewage sludge is a problem we all need to think about
March 02, 2012
Ellen Moorhouse
Special to the Star
Trash Talk delves into some nasty stuff occasionally, but Toronto resident Maureen Reilly has been doing just that almost daily for 15 years. Her subject: sewage and sewage sludge.
We spoke to her over a year ago and thought it timely to check back to find out what’s happening with the waste we all help generate. Indeed, just 120 kilometres northwest of Toronto, Dundalk residents are challenging plans to build a facility that will take sludge, some from Toronto, mix it with septage and industrial waste, turn it into a liquidy fertilizer product for spreading on farmers’ land.
Reilly has immersed herself in disposal issues ever since she fought (successfully) to keep industrial paper sludge off pasture surrounding her country house near Cannington. Her experience with regulatory authorities, politicians and waste haulers changed her life.
Reilly has made it her mission to cull the media for information about sewage treatment technologies, sludge controversies, industry misbehaviour and failures, scientific studies, environmental contaminants, hygiene and health issues. She sends these reports, with critical commentary, to subscribers of her Sludge Watch email service in a dozen countries. (To join, Google Sludge Watch.)
She and many others believe spreading urban sewage sludge on agricultural land is a grave mistake given the contaminants and pathogens that end up in sewers because of our chemicalized and medicated lifestyles and effluents from hospitals and industry. The impacts of these substances on soils, health and ecosystems are not understood, and as Reilly says, “Of the 10 of thousands of toxic compounds that could be in sewage, the sludge is tested for less than 12.”
On the other side of the fence are other environmentalists who believe nutrients in sewage should be restored to the land. Embracing that view is a posse of companies, scientists, consultants and haulers in the waste water industry, municipalities with sludge on their hands, and some farmers, who are usually paid to take the stuff and have benefited.
So what trends are of particular concern for Reilly as we flush or pull the plug?
 • Antibiotic resistance: This is a growing worry in hospitals but consider this: sewage plants, which collect both pathogens and pharmaceuticals from hospitals and homes, are a breeding ground for multi-resistant superbugs, studies have shown. Despite treatment, the bacteria can survive in sludges. “Putting sewer wastes on farms is not consistent with clean, safe food,” is Reilly’s view.
 • A question of prions: Scientists are starting to explore a possible connection to Alzheimer’s disease of these misfolded proteins, already linked to mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob in humans. Even more alarming, a recent study in mice suggests, is that Alzheimer’s could be infectious. Prions have been shown to survive in sludges after conventional sewage treatment. “We have more and more exotic diseases that would call for greater sanitation of our sewage waste,” Reilly says.
 • Canada-wide policy? The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, which addresses environmental issues of national scope, has produced a draft policy suggesting all sewage sludge be identified euphemistically as “biosolids” and be directed for use in agriculture or as fuel without defining any quality standards. Reilly says the document, to be completed this year, was circulated to an undisclosed list of individuals and organizations and not released for public review.
 • Mining the public purse: How do you make stinky sludges acceptable? More processing — pelletizing, composting or converting to fertilizer using often troublesome technology — as well as trucking it further afield. “There’s more and more treatment required, which runs into $100 to $200 a tonne,” she says. “What we’re seeing is a stubborn persistence of the land application agenda at enormous public cost and without any public debate.”
 • Deregulating sludge? As with so many other issues in Canada, federal and provincial jurisdictions overlap. “My concern in Canada is they’re moving materials into the less and less regulated area,” Reilly says. For example, if sludge is designated a fertilizer (as in the Dundalk proposal), then it comes under federal law, Reilly says, and the feds are mainly concerned with accurate nutrient designation and do not regulate land application.
So what’s Reilly’s solution? Tap sewage for energy. Europe does it. Munich is a prime example with a two-step process of methane production followed by combustion in what’s called a fluidized bed incinerator. Half the plant’s cost goes into the stack and its emission control system, Reilly says, and energy is captured for district heating.
Ironically, Peel Region operates the largest example of a fluidized bed incinerator in the world at its Lakeview Waste Water Treatment Plant.
According to a 2008 report in Canadian Consulting Engineer: “After considering 11 alternative approaches to biosolids management, it was found that incineration is the most environmentally friendly and cost-effective solution, and it produces the least odours.”
Reilly would agree.
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