Outrage in San Francisco: City Gives Residents 'Organic' Compost Containing Toxic Sewage Sludge

Personal Health

When San Francisco, one of the greenest cities in America, offered its residents free compost, many were excited to take it. After all, purchasing enough compost for even a small 10 x 10-foot garden can cost over $50, and generating one's own compost in high enough quantities for such a garden takes a long time.

Few of the gardeners who lined up to receive the free compost at events like last September's Big Blue Bucket Eco-Fair suspected that the 20 tons of free bags labeled "organic biosolids compost" actually contained sewage sludge from nine California counties. On Thursday, March 4, angry San Franciscans returned the toxic sludge to the city, dumping it at Mayor Gavin Newsom's office in protest.

Sewage sludge is the end product of the treatment process for any human waste, hospital waste, industrial waste and -- in San Francisco -- stormwater that goes down the drain. The end goal is treated water (called effluent), which San Francisco dumps into the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. But the impurities and toxins removed from the water do not go away. With the water removed, the remaining byproduct is a highly concentrated toxic sludge containing anything that went down the drain but did not break down during the treatment process. That usually includes a number of heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, pharmaceuticals, steroids, flame-retardants, bacteria (including antibiotic-resistant bacteria), fungi, parasites and viruses.

On its Web site, San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission describes a "green" process, in which its own sludge is treated until it qualifies as "Class B Biosolids" and is then applied to farmlands in Solano and Sonoma counties. A small percentage undergoes further treatment to qualify as "Class A Biosolids" -- that's the stuff San Francisco's gardeners have been receiving as free "compost" since 2007. (The major difference between Class A and Class B is the amount of fecal coliforms present in the sludge. While it's lower in Class A, studies show it regrows in the compost after the treatment process is over.)

Along with San Francisco's sludge, the "compost" contains sludge from eight other California counties (Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Rosa, Solano and Sonoma) and equal parts yard waste and wood chips. But the fact that the sludge qualifies by law as safe to spread on farms and gardens does not make it so.

The EPA only requires treatment plants to kill off any fecal coliforms in the sludge and ensure that nine heavy metals (arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, molybdenum, selenium and zinc) are not present in unacceptable levels. But that only cleans up a tiny fraction of the harmful substances present in the sludge. A recent EPA study of 84 sludge samples from around the country found 27 metals, three pharmaceuticals (Ciprofloxacin, Diphenhydramine and Triclocarban), four anions (nitrates/nitrites, fluoride and water-extractable phosphorus), three steroids (Campesterol, Cholestanol and Coprostanol), and a number of toxic flame-retardants in nearly every single sample tested.

Many of the other contaminants tested for showed up in a high percentage of samples as well. While the study did not take into account whether these sludge samples were intended for spreading on agricultural land, nearly every one of the samples legally qualified as Class A or Class B biosolids and could have been spread on farm fields. (The study noted that the few samples with molybdenum, nickel or zinc exceeding federal limits for land application sent their sludge to landfills or incinerated it.)

When confronted by angry gardeners who had been duped into applying toxic sludge to their gardens, city and state authorities defended their actions. The California Association of Sanitation Agencies insisted that because San Francisco has "virtually no industrial facilities within its borders or sewer service area," the waste was not a combination of "industrial, commercial, hospital, and household wastewater." But, according to Organic Consumers Association, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) has documented the following in San Francisco sludge alone: p-Isopropyltoluene (an industrial chemical used in the manufacture of paint, furniture, etc); 1,4-Dichlorobenzene, a disinfectant, deodorant and pesticide; Tolulene (an aromatic hydrocarbon widely used as an industrial feedstock and as a solvent); 1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene (a product of petroleum refinery distillation); and Phenol (used in the manufacture of drugs, antiseptics, nylon and other synthetic fibers). [Full disclosure: I am on the policy advisory board of Organic Consumers Association.]

Also, even if the San Francisco sludge were innocuous, the sludge given out as compost also came from eight other counties and those areas include oil refineries, metal container manufacturers, foundries and electronics manufacturers. In tests commissioned by the Center for Food Safety, all samples of the "organic biosolids compost" handed out by SFPUC contained the flame retardant PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), which the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says "may cause neurobehavioral alterations and affect the immune system in animals." The CDC says that children should not play in dirt containing PBDE, yet SFPUC gave its sludge as compost to home gardeners, community gardens and school gardens, where children would certainly come in contact with it. The tests also revealed triclosan, nonylphenols and some "new" non-PBDE flame retardants.

SFPUC also defended its usage of the word "organic," claiming its use of the term "referred to the scientific definition of organic matter as in containing significant amounts of organic carbon" and never meant that the compost was certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Use of the word "organic" was particularly misleading because the USDA's organic standards strictly forbid the application of any sewage sludge on land used to grow organic crops. SFPUC now plans to refrain from using the term "organic."

However, San Francisco's sludge handler, Synagro, continues to sell its "Allgro" sludge as "All Purpose Organic Compost and Natural Fertilizer." The Web site for Allgro claims it is "composted thoroughly to produce a high quality humus material free of pathogens and weed seeds." (Interestingly, Synagro -- the largest marketer of sewage sludge based "compost" in the nation -- is owned by the secretive Carlyle Group, the private global investment firm co-founded by Bush family friend and former Secretary of State James Baker III.)

The land application of sewage sludge is actually a national issue, not merely an issue limited to San Francisco or even California. It can be traced back to the Clean Water Act and the subsequent outlawing of dumping sewage sludge into the ocean. The Clean Water Act of 1972 required sewage plants to remove at least 85 percent of pollutants in the waste they received before discharging the resulting effluent. Waste treatment reform advocate Abby Rockefeller points out the irony that the more successful a plant is in removing impurities and toxins from wastewater, the more concentrated and toxic the resulting sludge.

In addition to the chemicals already noted, sludge may contain PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), pesticides, dioxins, petroleum products, industrial solvents, radioactive waste or even asbestos. Until a few decades ago, cities could dump their sewage sludge in the ocean. Predictably, this was an environmental catastrophe. Environmental groups took action to ban ocean dumping, which Congress did with the Ocean Dumping Reform Act of 1988. That's when the cheerleading for applying sewage sludge to agricultural land began.

In order to secure the end of ocean dumping, groups like Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council agreed to support a policy of land application of sewage sludge instead. With the increased necessity to dispose of sludge on land, the Water Environment Federation, the sewage industry's trade, lobby and public relations organization, held a contest among its members to find a new, more appealing name for sludge. In 1991, they selected the innocuous-sounding name "biosolids," which the EPA has also embraced. Along with the new name came new rules from the EPA, which modified its rules in 1992, reclassifying sludge from hazardous waste to fertilizer. Then they gave the Water Environment Federation a $300,000 grant to run a PR campaign promoting the "beneficial uses" of sludge.

Other options to dispose of the sludge exist, such as dumping into landfills, incineration (releasing pollutants into the air), or gasification to generate methanol for energy (the most environmentally sound and most expensive option), but land application is the cheapest. That is -- it's the cheapest to the dumper, but perhaps not to the dumpee. One year after sludge was spread on an adjacent farm, the cows began to die on the Washington dairy farm of Linda and Raymond Zander. Tests revealed heavy metals in the soil where the sludge was applied and in two neighborhood wells. The casualties were not limited to the cows; Raymond Zander suffered from nickel poisoning and 16 neighboring families reported a range of health problems they believe are linked to the sludge.

In 2008, another sewage sludge victim, Andy McElmurray, testified before Congress about his experience. He and a neighboring dairy farm each applied sewage sludge on their land for more than a decade. In the late 1990s, the cows on each farm began dying and both dairies went out of business as a result. The uneventful application of sludge for years, followed by the rapid poisoning of the cows points to one of the areas that EPA should carefully examine prior to allowing any land application of sludge. Over the years that sludge was applied, the farmland became more and more acidic. To counteract this, both farms applied lime, a common soil amendment to raise soil pH. The change in pH made a number of toxins suddenly more bioavailable to the forage crops grown to feed the cows.

A further investigation showed that the Augusta, Georgia treatment plant providing the sludge had illegally fudged its numbers, covering up high concentrations of the nine heavy metals regulated by the EPA. However, even if the sludge had contained legal amounts of molybdenum, it still would have killed the cows. Thallium, a rat poison toxic to humans even in small doses, went from the sludge, to the crops, to the cows, all the way to milk on grocery store shelves. As thallium levels in sludge are unregulated, the thallium contamination would have occurred even if the treatment plant had followed the law. (In the EPA's recent tests, 80 out of 84 samples of sewage sludge tested positive for thallium.) Instead of taking action against the treatment plant the EPA reacted by covering up its violations. According to McElmurray, "federal bureaucrats in the EPA Office of Water, who developed the EPA's sludge regulations, had too much to lose if local Augusta officials were held accountable."

So where does this leave San Francisco? According to the EPA, about half of all sewage sludge is applied to farmland as fertilizer. As seen in the McElmurray case, even when sludge is limited to use on fields growing animal feed, the toxins in it can still find their way to the human food supply. Also, Class A biosolids are approved for unrestricted use, meaning they can be applied to farms growing food for humans (although they cannot be applied on land where organic food is grown). EPA expert Hugh Kaufman warns that government regulation for Class A biosolids ignores 99 percent of the pollutants found in it.

In San Francisco, the sludge hit the fan because the city had the audacity to label sludge as "organic" and give it away to home gardeners and even school gardens. The city's actions are outrageous, but they serve as a wake-up call that the entire nation regularly consumes foods grown on fields fertilized with sludge. The so-called beneficial use of our sewage sludge is actually the distribution of sludge into our land, our water and our bodies.

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