When you buy real estate, you buy into your neighbours' lives, too. Although their dogs, barbeques and kids may drive you crazy in any location, neighbouring farmers who apply biosolids to their land can drive rural property owners out of their homes, according to Wendy Deavitt, a Southern Ontario hobby farm owner and avid horsewoman.

On September 29, 2009, days before walking away from her unsold home, mortgage and property taxes included, Deavitt emailed: "We thought we had found our dream farm 8 years ago, until 2006 when the farmer adjacent to us started to use biosolids on his crops. Then the nightmare began!!!! We have suffered emotionally, financially and physically from the application of this product. After trying to sell our home for the last 2 years and reducing the price by C$60,000, we are still unable to sell the farm. The farm is now below bank appraised value and still does not sell. Real estate agents will not list the home without full disclosure of the use of biosolids on the adjacent properties, in fear of being sued, which we feel has resulted in no buyers. Would you buy it?"

The ongoing stench aside, Deavitt sites serious health problems suffered by their horses and other animals as well as family illnesses as key reasons for feeling at risk as long as they stay in their renovated century farmhouse situated in a 7.8 acre picturesque rural setting. The litany of health woes, government ineffectiveness, non-responsive officials and truck loads of sludge dumped next door makes this landowner's story sound like a scary movie. Her family's experiences are echoed by other neighbours of the biosolid-laden farm. Property owners in other rural areas where biosolids are used as fertilizers have suffered similar dramatic reductions in property value and difficulty selling.

Although details vary in different locations, the official story is a win-win-win cycle:

  • Municipalities must get rid of the never-ending stream of sewage sludge that is produced by their wastewater treatment plants.
  • Biosolid haulers are paid by municipalities to truck the accumulating sludge away from the plants.
  • Farmers are offered sewage sludge as fertilizer for their crops at no charge from the Municipal source or the haulers who deliver the biosludge right to farm fields.

But there's a parallel losing cycle, too, and real estate professionals are caught in the middle of this one:

  • If they know about biosolid contamination or should have known, they risk liability when the new property owner discovers the contamination.
  • Disclosing biosolid dumping on a property or adjacent land may render the real estate unsaleable since prospective buyers Google "biosolid" and viewings are cancelled.
  • Mortgage lenders can get left holding contaminated land which, even if it can be sold, may not generate enough cash to repay the mortgage debt and costs incurred. Lenders then have to go after the original property owner who may have little financial resources after suffering the collapse of land value. This can make financing rural property more of a challenge.
  • Environmental assessments and soil testing provide site specific information, but can be cost-prohibitive when testing is thorough enough to account for acres of land.

Deavitt reports now that family and animals have been off their property for a few weeks, good health seems to be returning. Long-term affects have not been evaluated at this stage.

Deavitt's email continued: "Although our battle is almost over and we have lost, it is important for people to realize that this issue is out there and they too could become victims of this. Unsuspecting buyers from Toronto who are looking for that nice piece of property to retire on in rural Ontario, completely unaware that this issue exists, could end up like us, left with property that you cannot live on and/or sell. Just because they have been 'doing this for years', doesn't make it right!!!! Our government told us asbestos was safe and lead was safe, both are banned now!!!" Spreading sludge on farmland is not a new practice, but how chemically similar is today's sludge when compared to that of 25 years ago? Currently, Ontario generates about 300,000 dry tonnes of municipal sewage biosolids annually of which approximately 40% is land applied, 40% goes to landfills and 20% is incinerated, according to the government.

How can you escape the same biosolid fate if you buy your dream rural haven or hobby farm? Ask a lot of questions and investigate the answers.

  • Share your biosolid concerns with the local real estate professional helping you find your ideal property and ask what precautions can be taken.
  • Can you determine to what extent this land-use practice is used in the area? Municipal offices, the provincial environmental ministry, agricultural agencies, agricultural colleges, wastewater treatment plants, environmental groups, provincial ombudsman's office...may all be worth contacting once you have decided on a county or region. Remember, that, in spite of the fact that governments promote Carfax as a "consumer protection source" it does not necessarily list all the accidents a used car has been in. The assurances and paperwork you accumulate about biosolid application or non-use may not tell the whole story. Is there a moratorium on biosolid application in the municipality? Does it extend to biosolid haulers bringing truck loads in from other municipalities?
  • Gather local feedback from neighbours, area landowners, animal care providers, media...anyone who will talk to you, but keep confidences as you go since you don't want a reputation as a gossip before you even move in.

With renewed interest in organic farming, the irony of agricultural land and homes being deliberately contaminated by heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and anything else that is passed through a sewage treatment plant is not lost on affected property owners and environmentalists.

Deavitt voiced concerns that government regulation is making it harder to track exactly which waste is going where. According to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment site, biosolids and "non-agricultural source materials" are under control: "Effective January 1, 2011, non-agricultural source materials (NASM) will be managed under the Environmental Protection Act until it arrives at the farm gate where it becomes subject to the General Nutrient Management Regulation under the Nutrient Management Act. 2002."

Referring to existing alternative uses for sewage sludge, Deavitt said, "We will never run out of sludge as long as there are people eating and flushing the toilet, so why not put it into renewable energy?"

Source: Sludge Watch

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