Composted Sewage Stirs Up Bay Area Food Fight

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I never thought I'd see the day when the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) would be singing the praises of Alice Waters.

Since its inception a little over three decades ago, the conservative pseudoscience group has been on the wrong side of virtually every imaginable environmental and health issue. It is all in favor of the plastic Bisphenol-A (BPA) and the herbicide atrazine. It has come out against regulations banning trans fats and requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus.

Waters, who all but invented the "local, seasonal, organic" mantra at Chez Panisse, was also a prime mover behind the White House organic garden. The ACSH pooh-pooed that garden, and Elizabeth Whelan, the center's president, has called organic folks "elite and snobby." But in a post on its website early this month, the ACSH applauds Waters's stance on sewage sludge, praising her for "not caving in to the party line" when an environmental group asked her to come out publicly in opposition to the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer.

For the last several months the Bay Area has been embroiled in a true sludgefest. On one side are environmental and consumer groups such as the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). They have been pushing hard for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) to end its three-year-old program of giving away composted sewage sludge for citizens to spread on their yards and gardens. Sludge, the groups say, contains toxic chemicals and hazardous metals. It's a position supported by the Environmental Protection Agency, which has found that sludge can contain heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, PCBs, flame retardants, and endocrine disruptors (click here for a PDF of the report).

In February, the Organic Consumers Association wrote a letter to a number of Bay Area environmental groups asking them to sign on to the anti-sludge campaign. Many joined, but the Chez Panisse Foundation, Waters's charitable arm, declined through an email sent from Francesca Vietor, the foundation's newly hired executive director. Vietor is a respected environmental activist, and she is also vice president of the SFPUC, the organization behind the sludge giveaway.

In March, Vietor asked that San Francisco issue a moratorium on the sludge program ahead of a planned protest march in front of City Hall by the OCA. The moratorium will remain in effect until the city completes a scientific evaluation in a few weeks and subsequently holds public hearings.

But a moratorium was not enough for the OCA. They wanted the program terminated. The OCA wrote Waters directly, this time asking her to publicly oppose growing food with sludge, which is not permissible under USDA Organic rules. The letter said: "Given the work you and the Chez Panisse Foundation have done to champion the organic, locally grown, slow food movement in California and elsewhere, we imagine that you would want to be one of the first to unequivocally and publicly state that sewage sludge is unacceptable—in home gardens or in school gardens, on small a scale or in commercial agriculture." The OCA also said Vietor's dual roles at the SFPUC and the Panisse Foundation created a "clear conflict of interest."

In response, Waters wrote: "I have been involved with the organic garden movement for 40 years. I believe in the transparency of public institutions and count on the government to offer the highest standards outlined by the Organic Consumers Association and other reliable advocates. I look forward to reviewing the science and working with the SFPUC to ensure the safety of composting methods."

She added, "I support Francesca Vietor, Executive Director of the Chez Panisse Foundation and a PUC commissioner, whose environmental work I have admired for many years and whose integrity has been questioned."

On April 1, the OCA ratcheted up the pressure by picketing at Chez Panisse. Then the sludge hit the fan. In a statement issued the day of the protest, the Chez Panisse Foundation claimed that as soon as John Stauber, who was working with the OCA, brought the sludge program to Vietor's attention in March, she asked the SFPUC staff to put the give-away on hold pending "rigorous testing of the material." The statement also accused Stauber and the OCA of "attempting to taint the reputations of Alice Waters and Francesca Vietor" and called on Stauber and the OCA to "retract their false statements and issue Alice Waters and Francesca Vietor a public apology."

"I think the OCA tried to make this link to me to draw some attention to the issue," Vietor said in a telephone interview. "Forming an official policy on sludge is something that the foundation has not looked into." Vietor acknowledged that the application of sludge to cropland runs contrary to organic standards, but said, "There are a lot of practices that would not qualify as organic under government regulations that the foundation has not come out vocally against."

Stauber said that the OCA plans to intensify its anti-sludge campaign by pressuring the city to pay for the removal of contaminated soil. He also said he had no plans to retract anything.

"It's all been a very odd journey," Vietor said.

That's one thing all parties should be able to agree upon.

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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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