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Organic Consumers Association

Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Bribery, Indentured Science & PR

  • By Ronnie Cummins & Alexis Baden-Mayer
    Organic Consumers Association, February 4, 2010

Greg Kester, Natalie Sierra and Liz Ostoich, along with municipal governments across the U.S. in need desperately of getting rid of the noxious stuff called sewage sludge, want Americans to believe that that toxic brew is good for you. Specifically, these operators are waging a massive PR campaign to get farmers and gardeners, including school gardens, to “fertilize” their veggies with sewage sludge. Their campaign would have us believe that the chemicals in sewage sludge—thousands of them present in every degree of hazardous and toxic combination—are somehow magically gone from sewage sludge once you “apply” it to your garden.

Before you reach for the science on the practice of “land application” of sewage sludge (and you will not find any science in the hands of the purveyors of this practice), consider the elementary logic: the purpose of sewage treatment being to clean up the sewage that arrives without cease at its doors, sludge will by definition contain everything the sewage treatment plant did in fact take out of the sewage. This means, besides urine and feces from flush toilets, every chemical from every industry, every pharmaceutical, disinfectant, and pathogen from every hospital hooked into the municipal sewer system; it means all the chemicals—tens of thousands of them—produced in our society and flushed or washed into sewers at the industry end or the consumer end: heavy metals, flame retardants, endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, pharmaceutical drugs and other hazardous chemicals coming from residential drains. It also means untold—and unpredictable— new chemicals created by the negative synergy in the toxic soup that sewage is and the toxic stew that sludge is. It means hosts of new pathogenic bacteria also created through horizontal gene transfer in the stress of this same toxic soup and this same toxic stew.

Keep these plain, incontrovertible facts in mind as you read on and when you hear the 1984 talk of “biosolids” (the PR word concocted by the sludge gang), of “land application” of “biosolids” (euphemism for disposal of sludge), of “class A biosolids,” or “EQ” (for “Exceptional Quality”) “biosolids.”

Greg Kester represents the California Association of Sanitation Agencies' Biosolids Program, Natalie Sierra works for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and Liz Ostoich works for the corporate giant of toxic sludge, Synagro (recently bought by the infamous Carlyle Group). Their job is to make sure that “land application” of toxic sludge on American farmland—the cheapest way to dispose of toxic sludge since ocean dumping was stopped in 1992—remains legal.

Opposition so far comes from people who have been made very sick by sludge “applied” to farmland close to their homes, by those who have had their entire dairy herds wiped out after being fed with hay or silage grown on sludge, and those whose own guts warn them against allowing sewage sludge to be either processed or spread near their homes or their farms. Like Monsanto's genetically modified organisms (GMOs) polluting the gene pool, once toxic sludge contaminates our farmland, parks, schoolyards, and backyard gardens there is long term—or really, for all intents and purposes, permanent—damage. Growing food organically won't mean much if the soil is contaminated with the pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and heavy metals contained in sewage sludge. This is exactly why the organic community rose up in 1998 and forced the government to prohibit the spreading of sewage sludge on organic farms and gardens.

Sludge propagandists like Kester, Sierra and Ostoich are the front line troups for municipal governments trying to avoid their responsibility for this noxious product of wastewater treatment: convincing the public that toxic sludge is good for you to have on your land, in your backyard. All three spoke at an industry conference several of us attended last week in San Francisco, "Biosolids: Understanding Future Regulatory Trends and Impacts on Biosolids Management in California."

Greg "Buy the Science" Kester, California Association of Sanitation Agencies' Biosolids Program

Greg Kester pitched sewage professionals on a national strategy of getting ahead of the toxic sludge news cycle by "filling in the data gaps" with research funded with what he described as "Congressional funny money" and conducted by organizations like WERF, the Water Environment Research Foundation, a PR think tank and lobbyist for the toxic sludge industry.

What really upsets Kester are reporters who “overlook” what he sees as the "benefits" of toxic sludge. Case in point, the John Hopkins study in Baltimore that examined the possibilities of using toxic sludge “to reduce the impact of lead contamination” in poor black neighborhoods by “tying it up” in the sludge. The plan was to test the blood of the children living in this project—before and after the “application” of the “biosolids”—to see if the lead levels had gone up or down.

The researchers “applied” "sterilized Baltimore sewage sludge mixed and composted with wood chips and sawdust," along with grass seed, to backyard soil contaminated with lead. After a year, the grass cover was shown to reduce the amount of lead-contaminated soil being tracked from people's yards to their homes, making it less likely that the lead-contaminated soil would be ingested and absorbed into the blood stream. Kester believes this is really a positive story about how toxic sludge can improve the environment by producing "lush green grass."

Kester says the industry should have gotten great PR out of this one, but this isn't how the story played to the media. After all, even contaminated soils can grow grass. The trouble with toxic sludge is that it, too, contains hazardous levels of lead. The "exceptional quality," "class A biosolids" that were used in the experiment are permitted to have up to 300 mg/kg of lead. The law allows land used to dispose of toxic sludge to cumulatively reach a load of 264 pounds of lead per acre.

The AP reporter who had suggested a comparison with this “study” and the Tuskeegee studies of the 1950s was removed from his post and sent to no man’s land at the United Nations.

A second story Kester thinks could have been played better by the toxic sludge industry is the “application” of toxic sludge to the White House lawn during past administrations. This story made the news again when the First Lady Michelle Obama began growing what she intended to be an organic garden in a piece of that lawn. Kester said the lead contamination caused by use of a toxic sludge product called OrGrow (incidentally, the same thing that was used in the Baltimore study) had left lead contamination of "only" 93 ppm, "lower than expected for urban soils and safe gardens." Kester is technically, if deceptively, correct: our EPA says that soil with more than 56 parts per million of lead might not provide "adequate protection of terrestrial ecosystems," but doesn't suggest worrying about anything below 400 parts per million as a threat to human health. However, some soil scientists advise against feeding children produce grown on soil with more than 100 ppm of lead.

Of course, knowing as we do that that sludge itself contains unpredictable but high levels and thus certainly contributes to the lead contamination of soils, who in their right mind would continue to support the practice of disposing of it on land? And remember also, lead is only one of countless and unpredictable toxins to be found in sewage sludge.

Natalie "Sludge Giveaways" Sierra, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

Natalie Sierra has helped the toxic sludge industry score a major victory in the green city of San Francisco, where they've actually been able to get city residents to take toxic sludge and dispose if it in their own yards and community gardens. As part of the SF Public Utilities Commission's contract with Synagro to take its toxic sewage sludge, SF gets a little of it sent back to them in a form that's very similar to what was used in the Baltimore study and at the White House: pelletized, composted, sanitized beyond recognition. This is given away to community, school and home gardeners as "organic compost." Since May 2007, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has given away more than 125 tons of toxic sludge to the unsuspecting public at “free giveaway” events.

The sludge giveaways have been successful, either because the recipients think they're getting real organic compost (how should they know otherwise when the city also gives away OMRI-certified organic, genuine compost made from composted food scraps collected in the green recycling bins), or they trustingly assume that the law regarding the use of toxic sewage sludge as fertilizer must be protective of human health. As Greg Kester emphasized in his talk, the toxic sludge industry is counting on the city to stand their ground against complaints from groups like the Center for Food Safety and RILES (ReSource Institute for Low Entropy Systems), which filed a legal petition with city in 2009 to stop the disposal of toxic sludge on city lands through the “giveaway” program. Precisely because of its reputation as a green city, San Francisco is the strategic battleground in a national dispute pitting the toxic sludge industry against localities that have decided they don't want to be toxic sludge disposal sites anymore. In Kester and Sierra's view, sludge “giveaways” are the best opportunity to convince the public that toxic sludge can be "beneficially reused" as "non-toxic, nutrient-rich organic biosolids compost."

For the “biosolids” conference, which organizers assumed was attended only by industry insiders (admission to the one day event was $226 for people who aren't members of the California Water Environment Association, a sewage industry trade association), Sierra gave a presentation on local ordinances in California that threatened to limit efforts to dispose of sludge on rural lands. When I questioned her after the conference as to why it was so important to give sludge away to San Francisco gardeners, she claimed that it was an issue of "social justice"—meaning you shouldn’t dump on someone else’s land what you don’t want on your own; that city dwellers shouldn't be so cavalier about dumping their wastes on the farmland of rural counties. This was a shock to me, considering that, in her presentation about the "challenge" of anti-sludge rural counties, the only concern she had expressed was to "keep rate payers in mind" and "keep costs down." But, in this “social justice” comment, it appeared for a moment that, in her view, rural communities should not be forced to receive of a city’s toxic sewage sludge for disposal on their farmland. She quickly disabused me of this illusion, assuring me that this was not what she meant. Perhaps she has not yet got her propaganda logic straight.

Liz "Bribery" Ostoich, Synagro

Liz Ostoich works as a project developer for the “land application”-of-toxic-sludge corporate giant, Synagro. Her presentation began with a cartoon image of a person who had gotten whacked very hard on the nose. She said she was going to teach us what she had learned in the school of hard knocks about how to gain local approval for toxic sludge processing. This is what she's learned:

1. Poor Neighborhoods, Not Rich Neighborhoods

Ostoich advised us to pick the "right location," not someplace that's going to involve "taking trucks through a very exclusive neighborhood."

2. Out of Sight, Out of Mind

A "remote location" is also key. Ostoich warned us to "be in an area where folks can't really see you, they smell with their eyes."

Ostoich gave two examples of projects she'd worked on, one Synagro's Temescal Canyon facility in Corona, CA, "where it was done wrong," and the other its South Kern County facility, which she told us was "unanimously supported."

To hear Ostoich tell it, the closing of Synagro's Temescal Canyon facility was the result of Synagro's failure to manage the politics and public relations surrounding toxic sewage sludge, not their failure to properly manage the toxic sludge itself. She shared with us her suspicions that complaints that were phoned in from neighbors (suburban sprawl had placed 7,000 homes within a 4 mile radius of the sludge plant) were "bogus and contrived to get us shut down."

What Ostoich didn't share with us was that 37 individual small-claims lawsuits for $5,000 each, the maximum allowable amount, were won against Synagro for creating a public nuisance. This was for 11 years of suffering. One of the plaintiffs, Diana Schramm, told a local newspaper, "We would express our frustration to these people, Synagro, that the odor was so intense that it was burning our eyes, burning our noses, burning our throats. It was so frustrating. They just didn't seem to care about us."

As a counterpoint, Ostoich used Kern County as an example of a place where Synagro had done things right: "remote location," "political involvement," "proven technology," and "going into it with the right attitude." As an example of the community support Synagro received for their project, Ostoich read—in full—a letter from the president of Taft College written to California Senator Florez about Synagro's generosity: an annual contribution of $25,000 to the college. Oh, and the letter happened to mention that Taft College was of the opinion that Synagro was a superb environmental steward. If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em?

That strategy didn't work so well with the Taft City Council. As councilman Craig Noble said after the council voted to reject a check from Synagro for $25,000, he felt that accepting the money could have created a conflict of interest.

"I hate to take money from somebody that might try to be buying their way into something later on," Noble said.

It isn't easy to go up against a public-private trifecta that is so well-resourced and unscrupulous, but we have to try. If we can't stop San Francisco, home to the man Organic Style magazine calls the World's Greenest Mayor, from tricking its citizens into taken poison and growing their food in it, there's no telling what the toxic sludge industry will try and get away with in other towns. That's why we're putting out a national call to all of our members and readers to encourage organic consumers across the country to help us stop San Francisco's toxic sewage sludge giveaways. Please take action today!

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