MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

October 25, 2012

Landowners win sludge suit

Jury finds one company at fault, orders damages of $228,000

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer

— Jurors rendered a $228,000 verdict against a local company that transports and disposes of sewer sludge generated at wastewater treatment plants in Muskogee and other municipalities.

The verdict against Sludge Technology Inc., which may be appealed, included awards totaling $148,000 in actual damages and punitive damages totaling $80,000. Punitive damages are assessed when jurors find that a defendant acted with reckless disregard for the rights of others or the conduct was intentional and malicious.

The lawsuit was filed in 2010 by Thomas and Faustina Greuel, Marvin and Teresa Holdridge, and Joe and Brenda Flusche, all of whom own property near a site where the sludge had been applied. Heavy rains that fell in September 2010 washed the regulated wastes from the application site across adjacent properties.

Sewer sludge is a byproduct of the wastewater treatment process, the disposal of which is regulated by permit. It consists of solids from which wastewater has been removed, treated and reintroduced into nature. A study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that biosolids from wastewater treatment contained metals, pharmaceuticals, semivolatile organic materials, antibiotics, hormones, steroids and other pollutants.

The defendants in the lawsuit included Sludge Technology, Tonto Construction, the officers of those companies and the city of Muskogee. Jurors found no liability with regard to Tonto Construction and the individual officers. City Attorney Roy Tucker said the city was dismissed Friday by directed verdict after plaintiffs completed the presentation of their evidence.

Jason Aamodt, a Tulsa lawyer who represented the property owners, said the management and handling of sewage sludge are highly regulated. Those regulations, he said, include “very particular rules that have to be followed.” Those rules, he said, weren’t followed.

“For our clients, this wasn’t about the money, it was about making sure these folks do it right in the future,” Aamodt said. “Sludge Technology is one of the largest companies in the state doing this, and they put the sludge down in a place where it could harm others.”

Steve Metcalf, one of two lawyers who represented Sludge Technology, Tonto Construction and their principals, said he believes there is no factual or legal basis for the jurors’ verdict. Metcalf said the “evidence was clear” that his clients were “doing everything right” and in accordance with the law.

“In terms of liability and damages, we don’t think the law supports the verdict,” Metcalf said, acknowledging that he is discussing post-judgment options, including an appeal. “Obviously, we have some options we have tossed around, but we are still in the evaluation stage of what those might be.”

Although the city’s experts contend biosolids “can be beneficially used as a soil amendment,” some advocacy groups have questioned the practice of land applications as a public health issue. The EPA conducted a study in 2008 to determine the chemical composition of sewage sludge in an effort to “obtain information on whether certain contaminants of emerging concern may be present ... and at what levels.”

Regulatory options for disposal include land applications, landfilling or surface disposal, and incineration.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.