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.
Ambrose 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 Mouse.

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 here?

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 Random-House to 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 universally recognized. 
1940's -- "Bikini," "fax," "goofball"; 
1950's -- "hash browns," "weirdo," "junk mail"; 
1960's -- "hippie," "pantsuit," "doofus". 
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.  

Word Hits
sludge 6,210,000
sewage sludge 1,570,000
"sewage sludge" 1,060,000
biosolids 771,000
biosolids sludge 274,000
sludge "part 503" 38,400
biosolids "part 503" 26,400
sludge biosolids "part 503" 22,200

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.


Copyright, 2005 - 2012, Denis O'Brien (aka The Gutter Grunt).  All rights reserved.