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."
It was quite a spectacle at San Francisco City Hall Thursday. People dressed in hazmat suits, goggles and gloves dumped piles of compost on the steps.
"It's the stuff your flushing down your toilet," San Francisco PUC spokesperson Tyrone Jue said. "It's brought to our treatment plant, treated there, then to a compost facility where it's treated for another 30 days at 130 degrees Fahrenheit."
The Organic Consumers Association says it is dangerous sewage sludge.
Biosolids is really just a clever way of saying crap, and the water that went down with it -- it is the byproduct of the water treatment process. And the compost that was given to San Franciscans came from nine counties, which are home to oil refineries, metal container manufacturers, foundries and electronics manufacturers, Jill Richardson writes. Which means there's the potential for the compost to be a noxious soup of chemicals, metals, pharmaceuticals, bacteria, parasites and more.San Francisco's choice to label the compost "organic" has really got residents steamed. Richardson writes that the city claims they meant "organic" not to connote the USDA's program but that it instead "referred to the scientific definition of organic matter as in containing significant amounts of organic carbon." Hm, I'm guessing that might not have been immediately apparent to all the gardeners who hauled away sludge-laden compost. And in a city full of greens, the city almost certainly knew better.
Organic Consumers Association is calling on Newsom, who ironically was named the country's greenest mayor by Organic Style, to stop the "toxic sewage sludge giveaways."
What to do?
Unfortunately, many American farmers and gardeners are unknowingly using sludge-derived "compost." One reason for this is that sludged compost is being given away free in many cities throughout the United States, and as a result, farms and homes across the country have been unknowingly spreading hazardous chemicals and heavy metals on their fields, lawns and gardens. The problem has affected even our most prestigious residence--the White House. First Lady Michelle Obama herself has taken commendable steps to alleviate contamination from sludge-based fertilizer in her garden, a result of sludge used on the White House lawn more than a decade ago.
Courts have also weighed in on the dangers of sludge and the failure of the EPA to protect our food and farms. A federal court in Georgia recently ruled that land application of sewage sludge was the cause of contamination of several farms and the cause of death of the plaintiff farm's prizewinning cattle. The court also found that rat poison in sludge came out in milk distributed via commerce. It also turns out that in defending its sludge program in this case, the EPA used fraudulent data and tried to hide what they were doing. As the court noted: "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."Despite this case and mounting evidence of the dangers in biosolids, sludge giveaway programs continue unabated and are often accelerated.
Source separation, reduction, and--where the wastes are too hazardous to reuse--containment, are the elements of a safe recycling plan. It's long past due that the EPA, the wastewater treatment industry, and city governments acknowledge the truth about sewage sludge distributed as fertilizer: it's not safe, it's not compost, it's not organic, and it's certainly not cheap. Indeed, our communities and children could pay a steep human health price.