Jolted by charges of health hazzards, the District of Columbia is reassessing its plans to build a regional sludge compositing facility on federal parkland at Oxon Cove near the southern tip of the city.
The controversy centers on an obscure but potent fungus - aspergillus fumigatus - that it frequently found in composting material, including the kind of sewage sludge that would be processed at Oxon Cove.
The fungus, whose spore is carried by wind, can cause asthma and associated coughing, wheezing, fever, aches and pains, according to medical literature. People already ailing are especially vulnerable, according to the literature, while those in good health appear to be generally immune.
The District had hoped to have the $14 million facility in operation by September, but with opposition building in nearby communities and on he City Council, the entire project has been in doubt.
"It's fair to say ," said planning director Ben W. Gilbert, "that we're not plowing ahead."
When apprehensions about the fungus were first expressed about a year ago, the District's Department of Enviromental Services redesigned the facility to further control the spread of any airborne fungi. Costs rose from $7.5 million to $14 million. "We designed in the concerns," said Jean B. Leavesque, director of thcity's water resources management administration.
But the leaders of nearby communities who were not allayed, note that the facility would be only 400 feet from the home for the elderly at D.C. Village. Also nearby, they say, are schools and other frequently used public facilities.
"There is no way they (District officials) can convince me and a lot of people that this facility could be made dafe here or anywhere else in the city," said Michael Wawilow, one of the representatives on the advisory neighborhood commission that serves his Congress Heights neighboorhood and other surrounding communities in Ward 8.
Another commissioner, Maxine Sutton, said, "This time bomb (Oxon Cove) is germ warefare (and) threatens the lives of every human being in this community."
A petition in opposition to Oxon Cove was signed by 213 voters from the neighborhood and sent to Mayor Walter E. Washington Sandra Jenkins, president of the Potomac View Apartments Tenant Association and leader in the petition drive, said, "We continue to ask what would happen if it (composting) gets out of control and whether any fungi could be blown toward us while the material is agrating for three weeks in an unenclosed area."
City Council members Jerry A. Moore Jr., chairman of the Transportation and Enviromental Affairs Committee, and Wilhelmina J. Rolark, who represents Ward 8, also have asked the mayor to halt the project.
In response to these pressures, the District has asked the D.C. Medical Society's environmental and occupational health committee and a group of prominent mycologists (authorities on fungi) to assess the health concerns. The federal environmental Protection Agency, which is financing most of the project, is checking with the experts at the Center for Communicable Diseases in Atlanta.
All this activity is under way because there are no standards on what concentrations of aspergillus fumigatus should be permitted in the environment. A report prepared for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission said the quantity needed to cause infection "is simply not known."
Although comparatively little is known about the fungus, it is commonly found in the environment wherever vegetative matter is decaying. Moldy hay can produce high concentrations.
To reduce potential hazards at Oxon Cove, the District's Department of Enviromental Services decided to move the first operation - where wood chips would be mixed with the sludge - to the nearby Blue Plains, which produces the waste byproduct. The screening operations at Oxon Cove - where the chips would be removed after they have absorbed excess water in the sludge - will be enclosed to prevent fungi from being carried away.
But protesters like Wasilow and Jenkins note that the aeration process - where the sludge is converted biologically into compost that can be used to condition lawns and gardens - must take place in the open. However, the District's Levesque said that as another precaution, 12 to 15 inches of finished compost will be put on top of the sludge during he aeration process to trap fungi and control odors.
The problems at Oxon Cove area symptomatic encountered in trying to deal with the mounting quantities of sludge produced by sewage treatment. As treatment continues to improve, more sludge is produced. But no one wants it.
When Blue Plains goes to a higher level of treatment in mid-1980, its daily sludge production will rise from 600 to 1,800 tons. At present, most sludge is buried in trenches, at a cost of 145 to $50 a ton, but Montgomery County has used up all its land for this operation, and Prince George's County will exhaust its space soon. The OXon Cove composting facility was designed to provide an interim alternative, and at cheaper price - $10 a ton.
Daniel D. Ge ller, Prince George's enviromental facilities coordinator, is one of the local officials who has spent considerable time trying to work out a regional disposal plan that will hold together. But, again, he finds himself frustrated.
"Composting was developed in the Washington area at Beltsville (the Agriculture Department's experimental station) and it is accepted worldwide," he said. "But now we might not be able to implement it in this very place."