Interest groups sometimes "shop around" federal regulatory agencies trying one and then another to get what they want.

Take for example the case of a Chicago-based group, Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE), that wanted to have all sewage sludge products banned from public sale or distribution as soil conditioners or fertilizers because, it argued, such products posed health hazards.

Sludge, according to CBE, can contain high levels of toxic metals, such as cadmium and organic contaminants. Therefore, in May 1979, CBE asked the Environmental Protection Agency to prohibit distribution of "Nu-Earth," a sludge fertilizer produced by the Chicago Municipal Sanitary District. Instead, the regional EPA office put out an "advisory" on the danger of indiscriminate use of "Nu-Earth."

EPA had already issued regulations for state and local sewage systems on the generation and disposal of sludge. At the time, it was working on draft rules for the distribution and marketing of sludge-based consumer products.

Rather than banning such products, however, EPA wants to extablish safety standards for them, setting levels for elements such as cadmium and lead.

Unhappy with EPA's approach, the citizens organization went to the Consumer Product Safety Commission in January 1980, according to the Aug. 4 Federal Register (page 51631).

CBE asked for an outright ban on all sludge-based consumer products designed for use as fertilizers or soil conditioners in lawns and gardens. The sludge products, CBE said, could put high levels of cadmium in food products grown on treated soil and there was danger that children would eat the sludge-treated soil and thus be exposed to high levels of lead.

The safety commission recognized there was "some evidence of health hazard" in today's sludge use, it decided to turn down the CBE petition because the EPA effort was already underway.

A CBE lawyer said recently he had hoped that the commission would take a stronger position, but pronounced himself satisfied that by going to a second federal agency, his organization had at least "lit a few candles under someone's can."

EPA, he said, had speeded up its rule-making and the proposed final rule is expected to be put out for comment in December.

Meanwhile CBE is pushing its three-year campaign through state and local agencies and in the courts. And it is preparing to fight the EPA rule, whatever it turns out to be.