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Organic Consumers Association

Free Compost - Or Toxic Sludge?

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."

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.


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