Sludge Fest: Center for Food Safety vs. San Francisco. It’s a battle that may be coming soon to a city near you

Courtesy of San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center

Courtesy of San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center

Some offers are simply 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 (EPA), 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 based in Minnesota, announced last month that it is about to launch a “major campaign against the sewage sludge industry.”

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 sludge. 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 that 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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  1. Barry, thanks for the informative article. I’m located in Ottawa, province of Ontario and the city of Ottawa has resumed spreading sludge after a short moratorium. A small village called Vernon is at the center of the spreading. It’s located 25Kms south of city hall at the southernmost part of the city but surrounded by fields and forests – a very rural area. We’ve been fighting the spread of these biosolids for months now. The province will now relax the content rules for sludge to include paper mill waste and even glass shards. The province of Quebec has been at the forefront of the sludge fight and they’ve won some major victories against municipalities and farmers wanting to taint their land with this waste. Thank you for writing about this and I hope to read some follow up information in the coming months about the people in San Fransisco. I read your story originally in The Atlantic.

  2. Sam Fromartz says:

    I wonder if SF has released its results of testing the compost for heavy metals and other toxins, presumably it’s public data.

  3. Barry says:

    Hi, Sam. SF says it has tested for metals and endocrine disrupters, and that its sludge is well below limits. The CFS/RILES petition claims that, “upon request, the only test result provided by the SFPUC is a metals analysis of Synargo Central Valley Compost. [Synargo is the company that makes SF’s sludge into compost.] No toxic analysis or other data about the hazardous contents of sludge are provided.”

  4. Barry says:

    Abby Rockefeller, President of RILES emailed me the following correction:
    “There are a couple of inaccuracies in the article I would like to
    mention and to see if they could be corrected. The most significant is
    your statement that the word “biosolids” is a euphemism for the word
    “shit,” when tin fact it is a euphemism for sludge. This error is an
    important one, however tempting to make, since the deceiving “land
    applicators of biosolids” want like nothing more than this
    construction, since a) shit is, compared to all the toxins in sludge,
    the good stuff, and b) their aim in using the PR term is to get
    people’s minds off the noxious sludge.”

  5. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission says:

    Thank you for contacting the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) regarding the safety of our City’s biosolids compost and the use of the term “organic” in signs and literature promoting our compost give away events.

    The SFPUC has been giving away biosolids compost yearly since 2007. The SFPUC shares your concerns regarding the safety of biosolids compost – that is why we test our biosolids for contaminants, and make those test results available to the public. We are constantly re-evaluating our pilot giveaways and have no immediate plans for our next event.

    The SFPUC’s previous use of the term “organic” in signs and literature regarding our biosolids compost was intended to communicate its high carbon content in a manner akin to the term “organic chemistry”. To prevent confusion with what is labeled as “Organic” by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the SFPUC has since removed any reference to the term from all of its signage and literature.

    San Francisco is a city that prides itself on its sustainability and being at the forefront of new environmental and public health initiatives. Just as in many of our other initiatives, our biosolids program goes above and beyond what is required by federal and state laws. Although no law requires it, the SFPUC tests for contaminants and we have found extremely low levels of contaminants in our biosolids. One of the few countries in the world that has limits on endocrine disrupters is Denmark. Our levels of endocrine disrupters fall below what is required to meet even their reuse standards.

    I hope you will take the time to learn more about our San Francisco biosolids program by reading the accompanying text. In addition, you can also find more documentation along with tests results on our website at


    Tommy Moala
    Assistant General Manager for the Wastewater Enterprise
    San Francisco Public Utilities Commission
    Background: What are Biosolids? What is Biosolids Compost?
    • Biosolids are the treated nutrient-rich solid waste removed from sewage at every wastewater treatment plant. In San Francisco, biosolids treated in an anaerobic environment (in an environment devoid of oxygen) and heated for about 20 days at 95 degrees Fahrenheit in a series of tanks at our treatment plants. Methane gas is collected from the biosolids and used to produce renewable energy that powers our operations.

    • Biosolids Compost undergoes further aerobic treatment for 3-4 weeks (oxygen-based environment) and kept at temperatures exceeding 131 degrees Fahrenheit at a composting facility in Merced. At the facility, the biosolids are mixed in with organic materials like wood chips or paper fiber. This is the process that converts the biosolids to compost.

    • The sustained and serial anaerobic and aerobic treatment substantially reduces many compounds of concern.

    Metals Levels / Other compounds of concerns (i.e.: endocrine disrupters, triclosan, etc.)
    • Metals – We have very low concentration of metals in our biosolids. Our levels are not only far below the current EPA standards, but below the more stringent European Union standards as well. In fact, if you line up our biosolids compost with the same compost you would purchase at your typical gardening store, the metals concentrations would be about the same, in other words, very low.

    Other compounds of concerns
    • Although we aren’t required to, the SFPUC has conducted tests on these compounds because we want to be ahead of the curve. We have extremely low levels for all of these compounds in our biosolids. One of the few countries in the world that has limits on endocrine disrupters is Denmark. Our levels of endocrine disrupters fall below what is required to meet even their reuse standards.

    The Term “Organic”
    • The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s (SFPUC) former use of the term “organic” referred to the scientific definition of organic matter as in containing significant amounts of organic carbon. To prevent confusion with what is labeled as “Organic” by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the SFPUC has since removed any reference to the term from all of its signage and literature.

    Why are the metals/other compounds low?
    – There are a couple of reasons why:
    1) The SFPUC provides drinking water from an enclosed, protected tap water supply. There is no contamination of our water from wastewater dischargers into our water source. We receive our great water pretty much straight from snowmelt off the Sierra Nevada to our taps.

    2) San Franciscans are very educated and environmentally conscious. Part of that is due to the great work of SF Environment and the SFPUC. People know they shouldn’t be dumping their motor oil down the drain or dumping dangerous chemicals down the toilet. After all, where does all that end up – straight to our wastewater treatment plants.

    This is also part of the reason the SFPUC has sponsored an Eco-Fair two years in a row, the Big Blue Bucket event. We educate people and provide resources. For example, at our events, we collected more than 2 tons of old/expired medications for proper disposal.

    The SFPUC also has an aggressive, and award winning water pollution prevention program. In the past 8 years, we’ve eliminated mercury runoff from dentist’s offices and are constantly sampling our major dischargers to make sure they are in compliance.

    3) San Francisco is primarily a residential city. There are no major industries in the City that would serve as a large contributor of metals, chemicals and compounds into the wastewater system.

  6. Vincent Vaughn says:

    The above reply from the SFPUC is notable for a number of reasons. First,
    the backpedaling on the term “organic” is, as is obvious to the most casual
    observer, a lie. The term was clearly *not* being used in its “scientific
    definition” capacity. If it were, the only reason for doing so would be to
    distinguish the compost from “inorganic” compost. Since there is no
    reason to make that distinction, since “inorganic” compost by definition
    DOES NOT EXIST, they were clearly using the term in the conventional,
    food sense. That they go so far out of their way to avoid admitting a mistake
    on this relatively minor point clearly indicates the level of hardheadedness
    that may be in play when they refuse to stop distributing their toxic sludge.

    Additionally, while they claim that they make their test data available to the
    public, they do not actually make their test data available to the public.
    Simply making the baseless claim that metal contamination is “lower
    than Denmark” is not the same as presenting a test result. Specifically,
    what tests were run and what were the numerical results. This is the
    data that is being demanded and this is the data they refuse to provide.

    In short, this reply from SFPUC not only does nothing to assuage the doubts
    and concerns about the sludge, it raises further issues about the integrity
    and competence of the SFPUC employees who are running the program.

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