Is the EPA Killing People? by John Carlisle and Michael Centrone

Tony Behun was a typical eleven-year-old boy. As do many boys his age, he enjoyed riding his motorbike in the fields around his hometown of Osceola Mills, Pennsylvania.

But then Tony mysteriously died.

By all accounts a healthy child, Tony suddenly contracted an illness characterized by skin lesions, fever and respiratory problems. The illness baffled doctors, who treated him as if he were suffering from a blood infection. Doctors were unable to save Tony and he died from kidney failure after just four days.1

Although Tony’s 1994 death was puzzling at the time, a number of scientists – including some employed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – believe they now know the source of Tony’s illness. Furthermore, they believe that the EPA may ultimately be responsible not only for Tony’s tragic death but for other deaths and illnesses similar to Tony’s.

Just before he became ill, Tony rode his motorbike through a mine reclamation field where a type of municipal waste sludge was being dumped. Municipal waste sludge consists of human feces, hospital waste and various chemicals. After ocean dumping of sludge was outlawed, the EPA ordered in 1993 that municipal sludge be dumped on land. The EPA argues that the sludge, officially labeled as Class B sludge, can be used by farmers as a fertilizer because it is made safe through a chemical treatment process.2

Or is it?

In 1994, the same year Tony died, numerous EPA research scientists warned that the agency’s 503 Sludge Rule regulating the dumping policy was so scientifically flawed that it may pose unacceptable risks to public health and the environment.3 Even EPA’s Inspector General released a report stating, “Accordingly, while EPA promotes land application (of sludge), EPA cannot assure the public that current land application practices are protective of human health and the environment.”4 A 1992 University of Arizona study found “significant numbers of pathogens exist in sludge even after stabilization and treatment.”5 EPA scientist Dr. David Lewis believes that toxic fumes produced by chemically-treated sludge could be what killed Tony and another young man, Shayne Conner of Greenland, New Hampshire.6

Shayne, 26, went to bed on Thanksgiving night 1995 in seemingly good health only to wake up gasping for breath with symptoms eerily similar to Tony Behun’s. And as in Tony’s case, baffled doctors were unable to save Shayne. Other members of Shayne’s family and neighbors in Greenland also experienced difficult-to-treat and unexplained diseases, all of which started after a contractor began dumping Class B sludge from municipal waste treatment plants on a nearby field.7

What is most scandalous about these tragic deaths is that EPA officials not only ignore warnings about Class B sludge from their own scientists but have persecuted dissenting scientists, such as Dr. Lewis and other critics. For instance, Dr. Alan Rubin, an EPA scientist and advocate of the sludge policy, responded to California dairy farmer Jane Beswick’s public denunciation of Class B sludge as a fertilizer by mailing her hostile and threatening letters urging her to keep quiet. In one letter he wrote, “Jane, ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee!”8

Dr. Lewis says that the EPA harassed him and smeared his reputation because of his strong criticism of the agency’s disregard of science in drafting sludge-related regulations.9 Ironically though, the EPA later was forced to give Dr. Lewis an award for an article he published in Nature magazine in October 1999 in which he criticized the EPA’s sludge policy. The EPA retaliated against Dr. Lewis’s supervisor, Dr. Rose Russo, for allowing Lewis to publish the embarrassing article by removing her from the EPA lab she had headed for 16 years. But EPA backed down after congressional criticism of the action and a finding by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that the EPA’s attempted reassignment of Russo was discriminatory.10

Still, EPA officials such as Dr. Rubin who authorized the policy refuse to admit they were wrong and continue to back the dumping of the controversial Class B sludge. Says Dr. Lewis, “It’s a worse case scenario of what EPA too often does: Implement regulatory policies without relying on sound science.”11

Americans have long been forced to pay a high price for EPA’s bureaucratic arrogance and scientific ineptitude in the form of lost economic opportunity and costly regulations. But in the case of Tony Behun and Shayne Conner, this time EPA’s arrogance may have cost lives.


John K. Carlisle is director and Michael Centrone a research associate of The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Policy Task Force. 


1 John K. Carlisle, editor, the 2000 National Directory of Environmental and Regulatory Victims, The National Center For Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C., 2000.
2 Dr. Bonner Cohen,”Under the Guise of Environmental Protection – EPA Revealed,” Special Report, The National Wilderness Institute, Washington, D.C., September 2000.
3 Dr. David Lewis, Letter to the Kern County, California Board of Supervisors, September 28, 1999.
4 Executive Summary for the Final Audit Report on the Center for Chesapeake Communities – Report Number E6DEF8-03-0014-9100117, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General Mid-Atlantic Division, March 31,1999.
5 Timothy M. Straub, et al., “Hazards from Pathogenic Microorganisms in Land-Disposed Sewage Sludge,” Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, Vol. 132, Springer-Verlag, 1993, p. 55-91.
6 The 2000 National Directory of Environmental and Regulatory Victims.
7 Ibid.
8 Dr. Bonner Cohen.
9 Tom Randall, “A Death in the Night,” Environment News, Vol. 2, No. 7, May 1999.
10 Dr. Bonner Cohen, “EPA Chief Accused of Allowing Racial Discrimination,” The Earth Times, October 31, 2000.
11 The 2000 National Directory of Environmental and Regulatory Victims.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.