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A terrible waste gets long look

People are asking why a boy died after riding his bike over some sludge

Sunday, June 11, 2000

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

OSCEOLA MILLS, Pa. -- The hurt is deeper because Tony Behun was so healthy -- an 11-year-old boy who loved life in the perpetual motion universe of an 11-year-old boy.

Brenda Roberston holds a picture of her son, Tony Behun, at his grave. (John Beale, Post-Gazette) 

At her dining room table, his mother holds a stack of family photos, the chronicle of a young life.

There's the scrubbed, sandy-haired boy in his baseball uniform. The grinning youngster at creek-side, fishing. The tame dirt bike he rode across the mountaintops, where Centre and Clearfield counties come together.

Six years ago, life did what life isn't supposed to do to baseball-playing, dirt-bike-riding boys.

It slipped away.

On Oct. 12, 1994, Tony rode his dirt bike across hills coated in a sludge of treated sewage, the soup of waste and nutrients that the state lets strip miners use to coax life back into used-up mines.

In two days, he had a sore throat and headache. Six days later, he was in a hospital emergency room, his fever climbing, doctors calling a helicopter to fly him 110 miles through the night to Pittsburgh.

"Before the helicopter came, he was actually excited about the ride. He said, 'I'll get to tell the kids at school about this,' " said Tony's mother, Brenda Robertson. "Those were our last goodbyes, at Clearfield Hospital."

Tony died at 7:54 the next morning in Allegheny General Hospital.

Doctors determined he was killed by a blood infection, the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. How he got it was a soul-searing question with no hint of an answer.

Until last year. Brenda Robertson happened to see a newspaper story about a state permit to spread sludge on another idle strip mine. The state Department of Environmental Protection was responding to talk that a local youngster had ridden through treated sludge and died of a bacterial infection.

The boy died of a bee sting, DEP corrected. And there wasn't any sludge on the ground yet, anyway.

Last month, in a letter to Robertson, DEP Secretary James Seif blamed shoddy research and changed the story. The boy was Tony Behun, he wrote. There was no bee sting. There indeed was sludge on the ground.

But sludge wasn't to blame, he wrote.

Now, Tony Behun -- the boy who wanted to be a fireman -- is a focus in a nationwide dispute.

On one side are federal and state environmental officials and allies from corners such as the waste business, insisting that treated sewage sludge, properly applied, is safe.

On the other side are critics fingering sludge as a public health threat, packing pathogens that sicken people on contact and could spread epidemics.

And according to David Lewis, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency microbiologist who reviewed the medical records, Tony Behun was a likely victim.

"I'm hearing from people across the country who are getting sick just like Tony did," Lewis said. "The case of Tony Behun is as clear a connection as you'll see."

'Covered with something'

Ask DEP officials about treated sewage sludge, and they offer a quick caution.

"They're biosolids," department spokeswoman Darlene Crawford said.

It's a friendlier term coined as the EPA tried to sell the public on rules, drawn up seven years ago, allowing treated sludge on farmland, strip mines and other ground.

Sludge, a soup bearing industrial chemicals, human waste and more, is the leftover from the sewage-treatment process.

The sludge, in turn, goes through what Milton Lauch, chief of DEP's Division of Wastewater Management, portrays as a microbe torture chamber. Among other things, it can be heated, suffocated and mixed with lime. "You make it very uncomfortable for a very long period of time," he said.

But bacteria survive, albeit in smaller numbers, in what EPA categorizes as Class B sludge. That's the stuff commonly used on farm fields and strip mines. Sludge can be treated to the point where microbes are almost immeasurable, a category dubbed Class A, but the process is costly.

"Class A is safer, much safer," Lewis said.

"It costs more money, more taxpayer money," Lauch said.

In Pennsylvania, DEP figures that 400,000 tons of dried-out sludge a year are spread as fertilizer, often trucked off and given away to farmers and strip miners.

"They call it biosolids, but all it is is human waste after they've filtered out the tampon applicators," Lewis said. "You take what's flushed down the toilet at a hospital, what's flushed out of a metal-plating plant, mix it and sell it as fertilizer. That's a bad idea."

But DEP defends the system, if users follow state mandates. For instance, DEP limits the amount of treated sludge that can be spread on a tract, bars it from use on food crops and says access to even lightly traveled land should be restricted for 30 days after sludge is poured on.

"If it's used as they recommend ... there's no harm," said Gene DeMichele, director of the National Biosolids Partnership, a federally funded marriage of government, the sewage industry and others.

In Osceola Mills, Tony Behun's family never had to be sold.

His father, Joe Behun, is a welder on strip mine jobs. He and Brenda Robertson, now divorced, are quiet people. They've lived their lives around here as the hilltops have been carted away, ton by ton, by tri-axle coal trucks.

"We figured it was safe. The government monitored it. Nobody ever said anything about it being hazardous. If there was a problem, the government wouldn't be letting them dump up there," Behun said. "The joke was that the stuff smelled bad and grew big tomatoes."

On Oct. 12, 1994, Tony Behun and his mother set out riding -- she on an all-terrain vehicle, he on the dirt bike he'd gotten four months earlier, on his 11th birthday. Her ATV gave out. He kept riding, on a trail through the sludge-covered Al Hamilton Coal Co. Mountain Top Mine Site, "the strippings," in local parlance.

"On the way home, I noticed Tony was covered with something -- mud, dust, grime," Robertson said. "We got home, I hosed off the bike, and I made him go to the basement to take off his clothes. The smell was like -- just a terrible smell. Then, he took a bath."

Two days later, he seemed to be coming down with the flu. In another day, a lesion was visible on his forearm and grew to the size of nickel. A doctor prescribed antibiotics.

But a few days later, Tony was vomiting and breathing hard. His parents drove him 18 miles, to the emergency room at Clearfield Hospital. In 47 minutes, the boy's fever climbed from 99 degrees to 102, Robertson said. Doctors were stymied.

"They're asking us what he got into," Robertson said. "We didn't know what to tell them."

"We're trying to think -- poison berries, a dog bite, a mushroom," Behun said. "We didn't know."

The next morning at AGH -- comatose, his parents with him -- Tony Behun died.

"Tony got appropriate medical care every step of the way," Lewis said. "It was just a losing battle. The doctors did what they could."

But they couldn't answer how Tony Behun got sick.

"You look at my house, it's clean. My kids are clean," Robertson said. "... I'm asking, 'Was it something in the carpet, the wallpaper, the paint?' "

Said his father, "I remember her crying at night, 'Did I do something to kill our son?' "

'Made up a story'

David Lewis, the EPA microbiologist, is at odds with his own agency. He has written critically of sludge-spreading in the international science journal Nature and, outside his job, hotly criticized sludge regulation.

By Lewis' reckoning, if 100 people rode the same trail the same day Tony Behun did, only a handful would get sick enough to see a doctor. But Lewis figures Behun for one of the unluckiest ones.

Caustic chemicals such as lime and ammonia in the sludge opened lesions, and the bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus, used them as doorways to slip into his body, Lewis said.

Staphylococcus aureus can live on the skin, make itself at home anywhere from telephone handsets to kitchen countertops and, by some estimates, is carried by 30 percent of the population at any given time, doing little harm.

But for Tony, things were different, Lewis said. He figures the boy was exposed to concentrations of staph -- and a mean variety.

"It could be more virulent because there's waste in that sewage that comes from hospitals," Lewis said. "Hospital strains are shown to be resistant to antibiotics. In Tony's case, his staph was resistant to one or more antibiotics."

For four years, nobody drew a scenario like that. Almost nobody drew any scenario involving Tony and strip mine sludge.

Then came Lenny Martin, 38, owner of a local auto body shop and three video stores. When a woman stopped by last year, carrying a petition opposing sludge-spreading at another idle mine, he refused to sign.

"I figured DEP wouldn't allow anything bad," he said. "Then, I started reading, and I read that this had severe risks to it."

Lenny Martin, cautious businessman, became Lenny Martin, four-hour-a-day activist.

David Cowfer, supervisor in nearby Decatur Township, slipped Martin a long-held theory that Tony -- a boy he knew only from a newspaper obituary -- died of an infection picked up from sludge. At a local sludge permit hearing in early 1999, Martin repeated the suspicion to DEP officials, refusing to name the youngster.

Four months later, DEP replied and the local newspaper, The Progress, carried the reply: "The child did die from a bacterial infection resulting from a bee sting while riding his four-wheeler. This incident happened prior to any biosolids application."

That day, at her sister-in-law's home, Brenda Robertson picked up the newspaper, never aware that her son's death was more than a faded, unsolved mystery.

"I just about died," she said. "I was in shock. All they needed to do is come to Osceola, go to the only funeral director, go to the only school. They could have found out. They made up a story about a bee sting."

State Rep. Camille George, D-Houtzdale, accused DEP of "deception and incompetence."

Last month, DEP retracted the account. Seif, the DEP secretary, wrote Robertson an apology, contending that DEP got bad information "through what our employees thought was a reliable source." Deputy Secretary David Hess said last week that he didn't know who the source was.

But he insisted that Tony didn't get sick from sludge because Staphylococcus aureus isn't in treated sewage sludge in the first place.

"I don't know why it couldn't be," said Nancy Burton, an industrial hygienist who has investigated complaints of sludge-related illness for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "It occurs in the human body. It just depends on what's flowing into the waste water in the treatment plant."

"Whether it was in a particular sludge at a given time all depends on what was going into the waste water, what was coming out of the hospital, what kind of people were living there at a certain time," said James E. Smith, an EPA environmental engineer. "I wouldn't want to say it couldn't be. I wouldn't want to say it could be."

Nor can anybody say definitively. It is years too late to test remaining sludge samples.

"It's difficult to piece together what happened five years ago," Hess said.

Origin of microbe

Bio Gro Inc. of Millersville, Md., is the middleman that carried treated sludge from Philadelphia to the field through which Tony Behun rode his dirt bike.

"After more than 40 years' experience applying biosolids in the U.S., it's important to note that no illness related to land application of biosolids has even been documented," company promotional material says.

That's true, NIOSH's Burton said.

But it might be true largely because it's tough to prove just where a microbe came from, she said.

That could change with investigators beginning to use technology that gives them a DNA link between an infected person and a bacteria source.

In the meantime, there are only suspicions. Among them:

Five years ago, in Greenland, N.H., 26-year-old Shane Conner died, sickened, his family says in a lawsuit, by the parade of trucks that carried sludge past his house.

In Centre County, not far from the field where Tony Behun rode, miners got sick last summer at a site being treated with sludge. "There was nausea, vomiting, sore throats within a day," said James Lamont, international health and safety director for the United Mine Workers of America. NIOSH found no bacteria tied to gastrointestinal ailments, but the UMWA complained that sampling came two months after the fact. NIOSH indicated that it will do more sampling if more sludge is spread.

In Le Sourdsville, Ohio, workers for the county Department of Environmental Services reported getting sick after working with treated sludge. NIOSH took air samples that indicated a tie between the sludge and the illness.

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