`We've Built Our Dreams Out Here' -- Woman Vows To Keep Fighting Metro's Sludge


Valerie Cunningham has a grudge against sludge.

Resentment also runs deep among Cunningham's neighbors in the wooded countryside around Cumberland, a once-booming coal-mining town above the Green River Gorge.

Around here, it's Cunningham and crowd against Metro, the countywide transit and sewage system colossus.

Metro bought about 1,200 acres on the outskirts of Cumberland from the Weyerhaeuser Co. for $3.6 million in 1987. Now the Seattle-based agency wants to make its trees on the property grow more quickly by spraying them with a fertilizer made from sludge, a semisolid by-product of treated sewage.

``We've built our dreams out here and we're up against this giant conglomerate that doesn't give a damn about us,'' says Cunningham, a 33-year-old homemaker who lives with her husband and two children in a red, two-level house on the edge of Hyde Lake.

``What they're doing is wrong, whether it's here or anywhere,'' she said.

The Cunninghams, who dwell near the south end of the Metro property, are worried that the area's frequent high winds will carry airborne sludge into their neighborhood, exposing people and farm animals to contamination.

Sludge contains disease-causing organisms and heavy metals such as lead and zinc.

Although forested areas receiving sludge would be kept off-limits for up to 12 months, Peggy Leonard, Metro's project manager, said there would be no health risks to surrounding residents.

Metro officials say the agency treats its sludge, killing most of the harmful bacteria and viruses before the sludge is used. The microorganisms that survive die three to six months after application, due to the ultraviolet light of the sun and soil temperatures considerably lower than the body temperatures they are used to, officials say.

But on a recent tour of the Cumberland area, Cunningham disagreed with Metro's assessment of the health risks of sludge. She said people won't know when Metro is applying the sludge.

She drove up and down hills and past herds of cows and expensive painthorses. She drove past large, newly built houses, one hand gripping the steering wheel, the other holding onto a mug of cold coffee.

``All of us are looking to have to leave because we don't want our kids exposed to that,'' she said. ``They say when they're spraying my children can't be outside. How am I going to keep my little boy from playing in the woods? That's why we moved out here.''

Cunningham has been fighting Metro's sludge plans for the past two years. She picketed Metro's downtown offices, and last year as chairman of Concerned Citizens of Cumberland she helped draft several sludge-protection bills and testified before the Legislature.

None of the measures was passed, but she promises to be back in Olympia this year to push for new legislation.

Cunningham criticizes area legislators for not working hard enough on the bills.

One of the bills Cunningham and other members of the Western Washington Regional Sludge Committee are working on would require labeling of all food products grown with sewage sludge.

``There is no question she's a natural-born leader,'' said King County Councilman Kent Pullen, an ally in the fight against sludge. ``She's certainly one of the up-and-comers.''

Cunningham said some of her worst fears were confirmed last fall when she walked through Weyerhaeuser's Snoqualmie Falls Tree Farm, where Metro's fertilizer sludge killed 40 acres of forest. Metro has agreed to pay Weyerhaeuser $428,000 for the damage.

``What I saw was like a wasteland of dead trees,'' Cunningham said.

Pete Machno, Metro's sludge-program manager, said treated sludge was applied to more than 1,000 acres at the tree farm.

But in some isolated areas, he said, the sludge didn't dry as quickly as expected and effectively sealed the top of the surface, making it impossible for air to get through to the roots of trees.

As a result, roots were unable to breath and ``went into a stress situation,'' he said. Then the dying trees, most of them about 35 to 40 years old, were attacked by hordes of insects.

In Cumberland, meanwhile, people don't want their town to be known as the sludge capital of King County. Last year, most of Metro's sludge was dumped at a strip mine near Centralia, Lewis County, taken to a wildlife reserve in Grant County or mixed with sawdust and sold as a composting material.

``It's jet black like a heavy goo,'' said Cunningham, who also worries that local drinking water will be contaminated. ``It's about the consistency of the oil you take out of your car.''

She said Metro owns two sections of property in the area south of Kanaskat-Palmer State Park, which was visited by 300,000 people last year.

In addition, she said, numerous

horseback riders, hikers, hunters and people in four-wheelers and on dirt-bikes use the Metro property.

``They bought property without seeing the whole picture,'' said Cunningham, who moved with her family into Cumberland in 1989.

If the sludge flies, Steve and Debbie Norman, Cunningham's neighbors, are worried they won't be able to sell their 4,000-square-foot dream house. They built their home, adjacent to Metro's property, last year.

``Eastern Washington wants this (sludge) for their crops - why not let them have it,'' said Debbie Norman, a former nurse. ``We have septic tanks. Why should they dump it out into the country when they are making a problem.''

Last September, Cunningham won a personal victory over Metro when U.S. District Judge William Dwyer ruled that the makeup of its governing body, the Metro Council, violates the one-person, one-vote principle in the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Metro agreed not to appeal and a new system of government is being worked out.

Cunningham became a plaintiff in the case because of her anger with Metro at the treatment she said she received when she questioned the agency's plans to spread the sewage near her home.

Because of concerns over its plans to apply the sludge fertilizer, Metro announced last October it will delay the release of an environmental-impact report on the sludge project until 1992, a year later than previously announced.

Metro's new schedule is expected to give the agency more time to gather technical information on wind and ground-water movement, said Patty Waller, a community-relations planner at Metro.

The Metro Council, which will make the final decision on the Cumberland project, hired CH2M Hill, consulting engineering firm, to head the technical studies. The firm is digging nine test wells from 50 to 100 feet deep and installing a 33-foot-tall aluminum tower to monitor weather conditions.

Metro initially said it wanted to spray sludge on about 700 acres of land as a substitute for chemical fertilizers used by previous owners. It also said there would be no need for an environmental-impact statement.

Cunningham believes the only reason Metro is doing the impact statement now is ``because we embarrassed the heck out of them.''

But she can't help worrying whether sludge is on the way and Cumberland is on the lonely road to becoming a ghost town.