Writing for Mental Floss in 2015, Emily Becker finished her article on the twenty-year export of New York City’s wastewater sludge to Colorado with the words “there are no plans for the New York City poop train to leave the station again.” Fast forward to 2018 and the wheels are once again rolling.

As reported by the Washington Post, an injunction to keep New York City sludge out of West Jefferson, AL, had stalled a train carrying treated wastewater sludge from New York City in the small town of Parrish. Bound for the Big Sky Environmental LLC landfill in Adamsville, residents were up in arms over the stench as the train sat idle by the neighboring little league baseball fields for more than two months before Parrish mayor Heather Hall was able to arrange for the sludge to be trucked away.

Image credit: “Freight B&W,” Micolo J © 2014

New York City produces approximately 1.7 billion gallons of treated sewage every day and for years disposed of its biosolids 100 miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. But in 1988 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the practice, forcing the city to scramble for a new solution. NYC quickly turned to converting the sludge into fertilizer and shipping it to farmers.

What’s ironic about the stalled train in Alabama is that back in the early 1990s, Alabamians vehemently opposed the transportation of the waste to their State. Instead it was farmers in states such as Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, and Arizona who eagerly took the treated sludge for free as nutrient-rich fertilizer for their crops.

Despite the fact that the sludge was checked for pollutants throughout the process, from New York at the wastewater treatment plant to monitoring it once applied to the ground, public opposition remained strong leading to a string of civil suits, public hearings and injunctions. And as New York looked to recoup the expensive transportation costs by charging farmers for the fertilizer, interest gradually waned.

Then in December 2016, Big Sky received approval from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to begin accepting the biosolids as alternative cover at the Adamsville landfill. As the sludge began to roll in, the town of West Jefferson filed a lawsuit against Big Sky and the County determined the rail yard being used for unloading the sludge was not zoned for that activity. Parrish, without the zoning regulations to block the trains, was stuck with the stalled waste.

It is a tale all too familiar in the rural South where inexpensive land and open-door zoning laws make landfill operations easy to start up and offer cities cheap disposal of their biosolids despite the transportation costs. But faced with few other alternatives, it’s likely a practice that will continue.