“Sludge Queen” Maureen Reilly was a relentless environmental crusader
Sad news arrived today in an email that said Maureen Reilly, who had fought for decades against the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer, had suddenly passed away at age 58.
Reilly was the face of Sludge Watch, an ongoing effort to engage and educate media, politicians and academia about the perils of spreading biosolids made from the end product of the municipal sewage treatment process on crops.
She had a deep suspicion of claims that municipal sewage makes good fertilizer, and understood that the need to get rid of enormous amounts of it is driving its application on farm fields across North America.
I first met her nearly 10 years ago, when I worked in The Star’s city hall bureau and was writing about Toronto’s new plant that was turning sludge into tiny fertilizer pellets, a facility later destroyed by fire.
Reilly educated me. For her, the bottom line was that whatever was flushed down the toilet and poured down the drain on any given day went into the pellets produced from that day’s sludge.
All kinds of toxic materials are disposed of that should never be spread on fields, where it can make its way into food and ground water, she said, which put her in the crosshairs of municipalities and fertilizer producers who peddle the stuff.
It made sense to me, and I have since had a profound mistrust of anyone who says sludge is good fertilizer.
She was a relentless emailer of studies and stories from around the world that questioned sludge as fertilizer or offered evidence that it was poisonous; those of us who were on her list were familiar with her unique style of always sending three emails at a time.
For many years she lived in a ramshackle farmhouse near Orangeville, where she waged an international computer war against biosolids that earned her the Sludge Queen title.
She had long suffered from health problems, so it wasn’t all that surprising to get an email saying she was suddenly gone.
A celebration of Reilly’s life will be held Saturday Dec. 22 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Society of Friends (Quakers) at 60 Lowther Ave.