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Tracy Totton-Martin loves rescuing horses that have been dealt a bum hand.
That's why seven years ago she bought 20 acres of land southwest of Bakersfield, where she established Bit-O-Heaven Ranch. She lives on the ranch, where she and a foreman run a nonprofit organization caring for 36 diseased, abused or otherwise abandoned horses.
Instead of heaven, though, it's turned out to be more like Bit-O-Stinking-Pile-O-Shit Ranch.
Without knowing, Totton-Martin had set up shop a quarter mile west of a farm where an average of 23 trucks per day deliver 500-plus tons of a treated, dry form of what you flushed down your toilet roughly three weeks ago.
At the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation's vast Hyperion Treatment Plant, sitting on the shoreline near El Segundo, a brew of human and industrial waste is heavily treated and turned into a reeking, fertilizerlike substance. Trucks carry the so-called biosolids on a 121-mile trip north on the 5 freeway to Kern County, where the human fertilizer is applied to 4,688 acres of land — about 16 miles from Bakersfield — once used to dump Kern County's treated sewage water.
"The smell is god-awful, especially in the summer," Totton-Martin says. "We have flies. That's a given on a horse farm, but there are almost twice as many as on any other horse ranch I've ever had."
She changes out 15 fly traps weekly. Each one can capture 10,000 of the small, black pests.
With so much sludge tilled into the soil close to her farm, she worries about the quality of her water. She gets it from the well dug when she moved in seven years ago.
The unusual neighbor Totton-Martin is worried about is called Green Acres Farm — and the City of Los Angeles has owned it since 2000.
The city started trucking most of its biosolids to Kern County in the 1990s. At the time, using treated sewage sludge as compost on farmland was a much-celebrated alternative to piping it into Santa Monica Bay, whose kelp beds, sea life and overall health had been devastated by sewage and toxins.
A federal crackdown in the 1980s forced Los Angeles city and county to begin treating the sewage pouring into the Pacific Ocean. Also, a 1989 state law required local governments to recycle the black sludge removed during that treatment.
Today, more than 90 percent of the cleaned water is pumped five miles out into the much-recovered Santa Monica Bay — a big improvement from the 1980s. The vast majority of solid stuff extracted is trucked to Green Acres Farm.
There, tens of thousands of tons of wheat, corn and some grasses are harvested by a contractor for the city. The City of Los Angeles sells the crops to dairy farms for animal feed.
Sanitation officials cringe when people confuse sewage sludge with shit. The federal Clean Water Act prompted L.A. to put raw sewage through rigorous physical, chemical and biological treatments. For nearly three weeks, it sits in huge "digesters" at Hyperion, which operate at more than 128 degrees Fahrenheit and kill pathogens. The EPA regulates the amounts of various chemicals that can remain in biosolids used to fertilize crops, and the EPA says the city's "product" earns its top Class A rating.
But today there are antisludge activists.
They, and neighbors of Green Acres, are not convinced the science is settled. A 2009 EPA study found trace amounts of heavy metals, steroids, hormones, pharmaceuticals and flame retardants in the vast majority of samples taken from 74 sewage-treatment facilities nationwide.
L.A.'s black sludge isn't just from Angelenos' personal toilets, showers, sinks and washing machines. A river of commercial and industrial "effluent" also is part of the 44 million cubic feet of sewage that flows to Hyperion each day.
"Land-applying sludge is not recycling," says Caroline Snyder, an environmental science professor emerita at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who runs Citizens for Sludge-Free Land. "It's pollution transfer from large, industrialized urban centers to rural urban farmlands."
What especially worries Kern County–based critics is that the better Hyperion gets at removing bad elements from raw sewage, the more nasty stuff stays with the biosolids.
In 2006, skepticism over scientific claims that sewer sludge is good fertilizer for crops drove more than 83 percent of voters in Kern County to approve a ban on land application of biosolids.
Kern County chief deputy counsel Mark Nations says: "They insist the stuff is safe. There's an emerging body of literature that's questioning that. ... Once it's there, it doesn't go away. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube."
After Kern County's Measure E passed, Los Angeles considered alternative dumping sites, such as the deserts of Arizona. But the shipping costs would be high, and the city and several other municipal sanitation bureaus instead sued Kern County over its ban.
A war of words and science has ensued.
L.A.'s sanitation chief Enrique Zaldivar says the year before the vote, L.A. officials tried to persuade Kern County residents that the city was responding to their concerns. Zaldivar says his team has been "extra, extra respectful," especially because it "looks like the big city is trying to impose its will on rural Kern County. That's far from the truth. We've been very diligent in trying to follow all the federal and state regulations to protect public health and groundwater."