Shit show

Pub date March 23, 2010
SectionGreen City

By Brady Welch

GREEN CITY Food safety groups complain that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has until recently been dumping its crap in the backyards and gardens of any residents who unwittingly asked for it.

The city calls this crap “biosolids compost,” and for Mayor Gavin Newsom and the SFPUC, it seemed like a green dream come true. But it turns out that putting processed human excrement into people’s vegetable gardens might not be the elegant — if somewhat gross — reuse strategy it once seemed to be.

The vexing sewage sludge left over after treatment and separation of the city’s wastewater was being treated, combined with woodchips and paper waste, and labeled compost so it could, according to the SFPUC’s Web site, “provide essential plant nutrients, improve soil structure, enhance moisture retention, and reduce soil erosion.” Not bad for the ultimate human waste product.

The problem, say groups including the Center for Food Safety and Organic Consumers Association, is that the SFPUC’s compost contains a host of other toxins and hazardous materials not necessarily originating with what the city’s granola-munching denizens flush down the toilet. In fact, a January 2009 Environmental Protection Agency study of sewage sludge from 74 treatment plants found, in nearly every sample, “28 metals, four polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, two semi-volatiles, 11 flame retardants, 72 pharmaceuticals, and 25 steroids and hormones.” Yikes.

“You name it, it’s in there,” John Mayer, said spokesperson for the Organic Consumers Association. The compost “is hazardous waste, and it’s absurd to claim that it’s safe to consume. No matter what the sludge processing industry claims, it is by definition dangerous.” The EPA report would certainly seem to support Mayer’s claim, except that it expressly stops short of doing just that, stating that the results “do not imply that the concentrations for any [substance] are of particular concern to EPA.”

Then again, it was the EPA that started promoting the use of biosolid compost in the first place, back in 1978. The only safety thresholds the agency sets for biosolids compost concern nine heavy metals and the elimination of pathogens — none of the flame retardants, steroids, semi-volatiles, and carcinogens found in their study — a standard that has remained largely unchanged for a decade.

But that’s only part of the story, because as it turns out, San Francisco’s sewage sludge isn’t that contaminated compared to the shit generated in other regions. “We found in our tests that it’s really low for all the emerging pollutants,” SFPUC spokesperson Tyron Jue told us, citing data listed on its Web site indicating that testing goes beyond what the EPA requires, and even beyond more stringent European Union standards. Jue even said that the SFPUC’s biosolids compost has “metal limits lower than in a daily vitamin, and lower or comparable to store-bought compost.”

Yet Paige Tomaselli of the Center for Food Safety understands the data differently. “San Francisco may test above and beyond the national standards. They may think their testing is green. But the truth of the matter is that that the compost they’re giving away is not generated here in San Francisco.”

Indeed, the sewage sludge the SFPUC tested is not the same stuff it was handing out for three years as “organic biosolids compost.” After the organic food industry complained, the utility recently dropped the “organic” designation, offering the admittedly sheepish defense that the label was meant to imply “carbon-rich,” a definition that would make, among nearly everything else, the Guardian you hold in your hands organic.

Jue told us that the utility spends over $3 million annually on its biosolids program, $500,000 of which last year went to contracts with Synagro, “the largest recycler of organic residuals in the United States,” according to its Web site. The compost in the SFPUC’s giveaways came from the corporation’s Central Valley Composting Facility in Merced County, where it was mixed with sludge from at least eight other counties, including municipalities whose safety requirements are nowhere near as stringent as San Francisco’s.

“The vast majority [of sludge] comes from Fresno,” Tomaselli said, adding that the SFPUC continues to cite its own numbers, “completely ignoring the fact that this sewage sludge comes from a city with agricultural and industrial toxins that may be going into the waste stream.”

Many of those toxins remain in the “compost” San Franciscans have been applying to their tomato plants. “You can cook it all day,” Mayer told us. “Those things aren’t going anywhere.”

Both OCA and CFS say that, given such a broad avenue by which toxic material could enter the SFPUC’s compost, the SFPUC is violating San Francisco’s environmental standards. For example, the opening chapter of the Environment Code for the City and County of San Francisco explicitly states that all members of the city’s government should employ the “precautionary principle” in conducting its affairs, requiring the city to err on the side of caution in environmental policy.

One sentence in particular would seem to address biosolids and the 2009 EPA study specifically: “Any gaps in scientific data uncovered by the examination of alternatives will provide a guidepost for future research, but will not prevent the city from taking protective action.” And in the case of so-called biosolids, protective action would seem to call for keeping this shit away from food.

Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at the EPA and founder of the Superfund program, flatly stated to us over the phone that “there’s no scientific consensus that this stuff is safe. They test less than 1 percent of the stuff that has been tested to be in it.”

The health effects of even that 1 percent can be alarming. Of the nine heavy metals the EPA tests for, chromium is a known carcinogen and mercury can cause permanent nervous system and kidney damage. But if that stuff doesn’t kill you, prolonged exposure to low levels of arsenic, another heavy metal, “can cause a discoloration of the skin and the appearance of small corns or warts,” according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration Web site.

Considering that Kaufman works in the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (as apposed to the Office of Water that oversees biosolids), we asked him how and why his own employer is encouraging the land application of something so potentially hazardous.

“I think it’s very similar to the reason why the government doesn’t ban naked credit-default swaps. You’ve got a situation here where the cheapest way to dispose of the sludge is land application,” he said. By giving away the sludge as compost, as San Francisco has been doing, “you can transfer liability from the government to the public where the stuff is ultimately dumped. There is tremendous economic pressure to keep the ball rolling in the same direction.”

A February 2008 ruling of 11th Circuit Court of Appeals would seem to bear this out. The case involved the McElmurrays, a family of farmers that allowed the city of Augusta, Ga., to apply biosolids on their land from 1979 to 1990. The sludge eventually poisoned their crops and even the cows who fed on them.

Citing Augusta’s lack of disclosure about the noxious effects of the sludge, the McElmurrays sought compensation subsidies under a 2002 Farm Bill, going first to the county, then the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, a state-level agency. After a number of back-and-forth denials and delays, the matter was appealed to the national USDA, which then sought the EPA’s advice for their ruling.

The court found that the series of opinions the EPA subsequently issued were unrelated to the case before the USDA and were nevertheless based on Augusta’s faulty land application data. “In short,” the ruling’s conclusion states, “it appears that the only persons to consider [the McElmurrays’] applications ended up ruling in their favor…. The USDA’s decision to accept a contrary decision, based on no review of the applications by the EPA, was arbitrary and capricious. The conclusions of the EPA were not based on substantial evidence.”

As for SFPUC’s biosolids giveaway, “They wanted a program that would green-wash this dangerous substance,” Mayer told us. “And they participated in this ruse for the benefit of Synagro. Even the mayor got pulled in.”

Tony Winnicker, the spokesperson for the SFPUC before becoming Newsom’s press secretary in January, told us the idea behind the program was a good one. “The spirit behind this is right, in terms of reuse and sustainability,” he said. “This was one of the PUC’s environmental initiatives from the beginning, and the mayor supports the agency’s efforts at environmental sustainability.”

But Winnicker said he was not aware that San Francisco’s well-tested biosolids were being mixed with those of other areas, and that Newsom would defer to SFPUC experts on how to handle the situation.

“I have no doubt that they tell people it’s biosolids compost,” CFS’s Paige Tomaselli told us. But she echoed the 11th Circuit court’s findings when she added, “On the other hand, I don’t think people know what that entails.”

This could be why SFPUC recently suspended the compost giveaways. “We’re reevaluating,” Jue told us. “What we’re trying to do is take a step back. We’re always looking at all the new information presented in front of us.” As for the utility’s record of disclosure, “We’ve always been very transparent with everyone coming to pick up compost. This is bringing awareness to an issue people don’t want to think about. [Sewage] doesn’t disappear. We have to think about it.”

So what’s to be done? Newsom has pushed San Francisco to the national forefront in sustainability and generating zero waste. Unfortunately, “they’re part of the wrong side of the sludge game,” said EPA’s Kaufman. “Is it possible to manage it better? Yes. Is there a black box to spin gold out of hay? No. Can one be invented in the future? Maybe.”

Kaufman found quite a bit of potential in the city’s successful green-bin composting. “San Francisco collects biodegradable waste material, good waste material, that can make very good compost,” he noted. “It’s not made from industrial waste; it’s made from real organic material. That’s not what the giveaway compost is made from. If San Francisco had taken what homeowners had put in for recycling and composted that and given that away, that would be fantastic.”

It would certainly have been better than the shit it has been giving away.