Free Compost--Or Toxic Sludge?

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Photo Courtesy of San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center


Some offers are too good to be true. In late September, San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission once again offered "high-quality, nutrient-rich, organic" compost to any citizen who wanted it absolutely free. It's a popular program. Bay-area residents sprinkle about 80 tons a year of the fertilizer on their lawns and gardens--even schoolyards.

But Washington, D. C.-based Center for Food Safety (CFS) says that San Franciscans may be getting more than they bargain for when they load their trunks with white plastic bags at the city's "Compost Giveaway Events." What the Public Utilities Commission fails to disclose, the CFS says, is that the popular soil amendment is made out of sewage sludge composted with wood chips or paper by-products. According to a report released this year by the Environmental Protection Agency, sludge has been found to contain heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, PCBs, flame retardants, and endocrine disruptors--pretty much anything that humans living and working in a large metropolitan area flush down their toilets or pour down their drains. The CFS claims that San Francisco's compost contains "toxic chemicals and hazardous materials."

Although the current flashpoint is San Francisco, municipalities across the country are looking for places to put their sludge. The CFS has an on-going, nationwide program to shine light on the environmentally questionable practice, and the Organic Consumers Association, an advocacy group, announced last month that it is about to launch a "major campaign against the sewage sludge industry."

"San Franciscans are getting the wool pulled over their eyes," said Laura Orlando, the executive director of RILES, in an interview. "It is a toxic product."

In September the CFS, joined by the Resource Institute for Low Entropy Systems, (RILES) a Boston-based organization that works to protect public health and the environment, petitioned the city to stop the giveaways. "We're not telling San Francisco what to do with their sewage sludge. We're just asking them to stop the program because of all the unknowns and because of the potential for it to be misleading and deceptive," Paige Tomaselli, the staff attorney in the CFS's West Coast office, said in an interview. "Residents could be at serious risk of poisoning from the application of sludge to crops and gardens."

In late November the groups got an answer to their petition. Speaking before a citizens' advisory committee, Natalie Sierra of the public utilities commission, said that, far from ending the program, the city hoped to expand it ten-fold.

At that point the sludge really hit the fan.

"San Franciscans are getting the wool pulled over their eyes," said Laura Orlando, the executive director of RILES, in an interview. "It is a toxic product. The citizens of San Francisco don't know what they are getting. They think they are getting free compost from the city. They don't know they are putting sewage sludge on their lawns, and people don't want to eat food grown in sewage sludge."

Orlando notes that advertisements put out by the city fail to identify the compost as being based on sludge, instead relying on the term, "biosolids," a euphemism coined in the 1970s by waste water managers looking for a sanitized word for, well, shit. Also misleading, according to Orlando, is the term "organic," used by the city to describe its compost. "Food that receives USDA organic certification cannot be grown with sludge," she said.

Phone calls to the Public Utilities Commission were not returned, but in a statement, spokesman Tony Winnicker said, "San Francisco's biosolids compost is safe, tested, and great for plants. It is tested for metals and other contaminants and meets or exceeds all standards," almost making it sound like the eco-friendly flipside of the locavore movement.

Tomaselli of the CFS does not dispute Winnicker's claim that San Francisco's sludge might be "greener" than sewage solids from more industrialized and less environmentally enlightened cities, nor does she argue that it fails to meet standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But, pointing to a 2008 court case where a federal judge ruled in favor of farmers who sued the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) when their cows became ill and died after eating silage grown on land upon which sludge had been applied, she noted that the city was abiding by the "same rules that sickened those cows."

In that Georgia decision, U.S District Court Judge Anthony Alaimo wrote, "The EPA cannot assure the public that current land application practices are protective of human health and the environment."

Saying experts had yet to reach a consensus on the safety of sludge, the judge concluded, "The administrative record contains evidence that senior EPA officials took extraordinary steps to quash scientific dissent and any questioning of the EPA's biosolids program."

Tomaselli said that her group has not been dissuaded by the city's refusal to accept the petition's request to stop the program. "I think the most important thing is that the public knows what's in the compost so they have the option of choosing whether or not they want to use it."

When asked about possible next steps, she said, "We can't share that strategy."

It's worth bearing in mind that Tomaselli is a lawyer, and she's not ruling out legal action.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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