War Within the War: Sludge vs. Biosolids (vs. BS)
Jan. 29, 2006
- LOGOMACHY, n. A war in which the weapons are words and the wounds
punctures in the swim-bladder of self-esteem -- a kind of contest in
which, the vanquished being unconscious of defeat, the victor is
denied the reward of success.
Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
US author & satirist (1842 - 1914)
"It's not toxic, and we're launching a campaign to get people to stop
calling it sludge. We call it 'biosolids,' " Nancy Blatt,
Director of Information, WEF
King of the hill
This website includes (at no extra cost) a draft of
an indemnity agreement that
farmers might consider before signing onto the sludgers'
"free-fertilizer" program. In that agreement I referred to
sludge as "biosolids." This was not a slip; it was
intentional, because it's the word the farmers who use the stuff
know. But it drew a prompt response from a hypersensitive sludge warrior who complained that the word
"biosolids" should never be used.
This got me thinking about this second-level sludge war over what is
the "proper" term for this stuff. This war over the semantics
reminds me of playing "king of the hill" as a kid, where the
whole objective was to push everybody else off the hill. Just dominating
the hill was the whole thing -- there wasn't anything to do up there if
you pushed all the others off and they went home and watched The Mickey
Mouse Club. The hill itself had no significance. It's like, what's the point? And as a newcomer to the
sludge wars, that's my first impression of this semantic squabbling --
about as productive as king of the hill and about as substantial as Mickey
But a lot of people are very serious about the semantics. You can
tell how emotionally involved someone is in the biosolids, I mean sludge,
issue by their reaction to the word "biosolids" – never mind
the actual smelly, toxic stuff itself. Some people
just totally wonk-out at the sight or sound of the word
"biosolids." It is a huge red-flag waved in their face; an
enormous hot-button planted right between their eyes. What is going on
The real issue -- below the surface of the semantics?
Well, I think basically what is going on is not what appears on the
surface of the squabble. It's not just about word-choices. I
think the reason many sludge-warriors get upset with "biosolids"
is not that the word is an intrinsically poor word to use to distinguish
treated from un-treated sludge. What is going on is that these people see
the word as a symbol of the EPA’s sludge land application PR program,
which a less generous person might refer to as the EPA’s
"brain-washing pogrom." "Biosolids" is the flag-ship
of the EPA’s branding strategy for selling the whole bureaucratic idiocy
of land-application, much like "weapons of mass destruction" was
Bush’s brand for selling the Iraq War. And the EPA paid a lot of
money for "biosolids." Instead of putting hundreds
of thousands of dollars into, for instance, David Lewis’ proposed
research project to track sludge pathogens through DNA fingerprinting in
DeSoto County, Fla., the EPA channeled that money through the WEP into
Washington PR firm
Powell/Tate to clean up sludge’s bad name -- and up popped
"biosolids." And there is something about the government
branding, or selling, or doing PR work to promote idiot programs that just
pisses people off. Except, of course, the people who actually buy
the program -- or make their living from it.
But what really pushes the buttons of people who hate the word
"biosolids" is the fact that the EPA’s PR strategy is working
so well. I mean just the fact that there is any issue at all over what to
call sludge is proof that the strategy has been successful. Fifteen years
ago, the word "biosolids" didn’t exist. Now it’s pretty
solidly entrenched in the environmentalists’ lexicon, and before too
long it will be a household word, like so many other newly synthesized
words in our language. Merriam-Webster already defines it. Apparently, the EPA lobbied
include "biosolids" in its dictionary
in order to make it a "real" word.
Check out this Random House site for Webster’s Dictionary http://www.randomhouse.com/words/newwords/
to see how each decade the language expands with terms that soon become
1940's -- "Bikini," "fax,"
1950's -- "hash browns,"
"weirdo," "junk mail";
1960's -- "hippie,"
And so on. Which raises
the question: How far back does "sludge" go? My hard-copy
Webster’s says back to 1649. How about
"biosolids?" About 1990.
In an attempt to get some sort of quantitative idea of who's winning the
"biosolids" v. "sludge" battle is going, I did some
Googling (another word that Webster now counts as OK). The table
below gives the results as of today. Recall that words inside
" " are searched as that phrase, not individually.
|sludge "part 503"
|biosolids "part 503"
|sludge biosolids "part 503"
The last three rows in the table are probably the most telling.
They say that almost as many articles referring to "part 503"
(the federal sludge regulations) use "biosolids" as
"sludge." They also say that almost 4 times as many
articles referring to "part 503" use only "sludge" as
use only "biosolids." [16,200 (38,400 - 22,200) v. 4,200
(26,400 - 22,200)] On the other hand, of 771,000 Internet articles
using "biosolids," 497,000 (771,000 - 274,000) don't use
"sludge." This could be taken to indicate that biosolids
is gaining solid footing as a self-evident term that doesn't require an
explanatory "also known as sludge."
Those of you who
are a lot quicker than the ole' Gutter Grunt are going to point out that
if "sludge" goes back to 1649 and "biosolids" only
goes back to 1990 or so, then most of the difference between 6,210,000 hits for
"sludge" and a measly "771,000" hits for biosolids is
due to "sludge's" 250 year head start in the vernacular.
You may be right.
"Sludge" used with "part 503" and
"biosolids" used with "part 503" are fairly even, and
this limits the search period to years since "part 503" came
into use -- what, about 1991? So in recent Internet articles talking
about the sludge regulations, there isn't much spread between
"sludge" and "biosolids."
I agree, we can't read too much into
these Google hits. But the point of the table is more to use it as a
baseline so we can track the relative "strengths" of the two
words over the coming years.
One observation you may find interesting about these words is their use by the
courts. When reading a judge's opinion on a sludge case, one can
pretty well tell who will win by reading just the first paragraph.
If the judge refers to sludge as "sludge" then the farmers and
sludge-haulers are in trouble. But if he refers to
"biosolids," get your clothes pin out, sludge is coming to town. Here are a couple
of examples from Virginia:
"The plaintiffs are farmers who would like to spread sewage sludge
on their land located in Rappahannock County." Welch v
Rappahannock County, 888 F.Supp. 753 (WD Va, 1995) -- Judge Michael
ruled that the county has right to ban sludge under the federal Clean Water Act.
"The plaintiff's business includes the application of biosolids
as fertilizer and soil amendment on farm and forest land in
Virginia." Synagro-WWT v. Louisa County, unpublished
opinion (WD Va. 2001) -- Judge Michael (same judge) now ignores the Clean
Water Act and applies Dillon's Rule and to rule for Synagro 110%,
concluding ". . . compatibility of local ordinances with the state constitution
outweighs any health concerns regarding the application of biosolids."
The BS solution.
"Sludge" is a solid word, in my opinion. It is
monosyllabic, so even those who spread it on their own land should be able to say it. And
it slides off the tongue just like, well . . . sludge would. Its
primary defect is lack of precision. Webster's 9th Collegiate has 6
definitions for "sludge," including "new ice forming in
thin detached crystals." Even just within the waste treatment
vernacular "sludge" lacks precision because it fails to distinguish between
treated and untreated material. Perhaps the term "pretreated
sewage sludge" (PSS) should be used by sludge-warriors to avoid any
allegations that by using just "sludge" we are trying to hide
the fact that the stuff is treated. Where the sludge is derived from
biological aeration, then "biologically aerated derived sludge"
(BADS) would be very precise. Or, where the treatment is lime,
"alkaline-stabilized sludge" (ASS) might work. And
if both types of treatment are used, then how could we not use
"biologically aerated derived alkali stabilized sludge" (BADASS)?
"Biosolids" is much prettier than "sludge." of course; after all, that was
the whole point of coining it. It has the disadvantage of having at two
or three more syllables than "sludge," depending on whether you see
"bio" as one or two syllables. But it's primary advantage
is that it is a more precise term because it
is defined as treated sludge.
I don't want to shock the consciences of my die-hard sludge-warrior colleagues,
but I'm not sure we
shouldn't just give the sludgers this one. I mean, the tactic would
essentially be: Screw it, let's go watch Mickey Mouse. There
are more productive issues to take on.
Besides, the EPA really left us an opening when they chose
"biosolids." Did you ever notice that you can abbreviate
it to "BS?" Why don't we just fill the sludge literature
with "BS?" End the discussion by turning
"biosolids" into the same dirty word it is!!! The
allegation that the EPA is shoving BS down our throats then becomes true on both the
literal and the figurative level. Point, game, set, and
match. Spin and Marty, here we come. . .
Of course, the EPA might not want to play this game. For some
reason I have not yet figured out or heard explained, the EPA itself generally
doesn't use "biosolids." The EPA's own official glossary
of environmental terms excludes "biosolids."
Part 503 is not about BS, it's about "sewage sludge." EPA
documents in the Federal Register rarely use BS. Here's a
link to a 1995 EPA notice at 60 FR 54763 on Standards for Use or
Disposal of Sewage Sludge. And here's a link to the 2003 EPA
response to the National Research Council's recommendations, which refers to "sludge."
The Clean Water Act uses "sludge." (33 USC 1345).
Why would they spend all that money to get a propaganda word they don't
use themselves? If you know the answer, don't keep me in the dark.