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Excerpt from Book "Toxic Sludge is Good for You"

Chapter Eight: The Sludge Hits the Fan

"The major public acceptance barrier which surfaced in all the case studies is the widely held perception of sewage sludge as malodorous, disease causing or otherwise repulsive. . . . There is an irrational component to public attitudes about sludge which means that public education will not be entirely successful."
              --US ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, 1981 public relations document

The German politician Otto von Bismarck once said that "those who love sausage and the law should never watch either being made." Something similar might be said about the process we've gone through in writing this book. Take, for example, our title. We knew we wanted to write an exposé of the PR industry, but our publisher felt that using "public relations" in the title would "put people right to sleep." His advertising timeline required that we furnish a title before the manuscript was actually finished. We went through weeks of constant brainstorming in search of a title that would say public relations without actually using those words. We searched dictionaries for interesting phrases, and badgered friends to ask how they felt about titles such as The Hidden Manipulators, Flack Attack, Sound Bites Back, or The Selling of the Public Mind. We seriously considered lifting the title from Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1994 film, True Lies, or from J. Edgar Hoover's classic 1950s anticommunist diatribe, Masters of Deceit.

Our final title was borrowed from the "Tom Tomorrow" cartoon reprinted in chapter one. We tried it on a friend who thought Toxic Sludge Is Good For You sounded "too weird" to be taken seriously, but our publisher felt it would stick in people's heads and make the book easier to market. In the end, therefore, our decision boiled down to commercial calculations. We weren't planning to write about "toxic sludge" per se. We were trying to reach so-called "Generation X" readers with a "Generation X" title-a cynical, exaggerated parody of deceptive public relations.

Then Nancy Blatt called, and we discovered that our "parody" is no exaggeration.

Nancy Blatt is an aggressively perky woman who serves as Director of Public Information for the "Water Environment Federation" (WEF). She phoned to say that she had seen an advance notice mentioning our book, and she was concerned that the title might interfere with the Federation's plans to transform the image of sewage sludge. "It's not toxic," she said, "and we're launching a campaign to get people to stop calling it sludge. We call it 'biosolids.' It can be used beneficially to fertilize farm fields, and we see nothing wrong with that. We've got a lot of work ahead to educate the public on the value of biosolids." Blatt didn't think the title of our book would be helpful to her cause. "Why don't you change it to Smoking Is Good For You?" she suggested. "That's a great title. People will pick it up. I think it has more impact. You can focus in on all the Philip Morris money. I think it's a grabber."

We thanked her for the suggestion, but explained that we don't want our book to be confused with Christopher Buckley's hilarious satire of the PR industry, titled Thank You For Smoking.

Blatt took pains to insist that "I am not a flack for an interest that I don't believe in personally." She said she shared our dim view of PR representatives working to promote tobacco and other harmful products. She said the Water Environment Federation works to promote recycling by applying the nutrients in sewage waste as fertilizer to farm fields, a "natural process" that returns organic matter to the soil and keeps it from polluting water supplies.

"We were concerned that you might have heard some negative things about the campaign planned by our PR firm, Powell Tate," Blatt said.

That caught our attention. Powell Tate is a blue-chip Washington- based PR/lobby firm that specializes in public relations around controversial high-tech, safety and health issues, with clients from the tobacco, pharmaceutical, electronics and airlines industries. Jody Powell was President Jimmy Carter's press secretary and confidant. Sheila Tate similarly served Vice-President George Bush and First Lady Nancy Reagan. Tate is also the chairperson of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Realizing we might be on to something, we asked Nancy Blatt to send more information about the Water Environment Federation. She dutifully mailed a glossy brochure and some other promotional materials, along with a letter reiterating her concern that our book might "do a disservice to the public and the environment." 1 Her cooperation quickly turned to stonewalling, however, when we requested strategy documents, memos, opinion surveys and other materials from Powell Tate. Legally we are entitled to these documents, since the Water Environment Federation is partially funded at taxpayer expense. WEF's refusal to voluntarily produce them forced us to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal government. As this book goes to press, the EPA is still stalling on our information request.

Our investigation into the PR campaign for "beneficial use" of sewage sludge revealed a murky tangle of corporate and government bureaucracies, conflicts of interest, and a coverup of massive hazards to the environment and human health. The trail began with the Water Environment Federation-formerly known as the "Federation of Sewage Works Associations"-and led finally to Hugh Kaufman, the legendary whistleblower at the hazardous site control division of the Environmental Protection Agency.

In the 1980s, Kaufman refused to remain silent about the collaboration between EPA officials and leaders of the industries they were supposed to regulate. His courageous testimony exposed the agency's failure to deal with mounting chemical wastes and brought down Anne Burford, President Reagan's EPA administrator. "His active protest resulted in a secret campaign to track his whereabouts and find evidence to fire him," report Myron Peretz Glazer and Penina Migdal Glazer in their 1989 book, The Whistle Blowers. "The EPA's inspector general became implicated in this scheme. Silencing Kaufman became official policy even if it meant invading his privacy in the futile hope of uncovering some personal indiscretion. . . . Kaufman gained national prominence and became a symbol of an employee who refused to be cowed by an oppressive bureaucracy."2

Today, Kaufman is attempting to raise a similar alarm about the so-called "beneficial use" of sewage sludge, a boondoggle he refers to as "sludge-gate . . . the mother lode of toxic waste." 3

A Brief History of Slime

Prior to the twentieth century, indoor plumbing was an almost unheard-of luxury. Common people used outhouses, while the wealthy used a primitive indoor system-bedpans, which were carried away by servants. In either case, the waste ultimately returned to the soil near its point of origin. In traditional, agricultural societies, human waste was prized as a prime ingredient in what the Chinese called "night soil"-artfully composted, high-grade fertilizer.

Things changed with the industrial revolution, which brought people together in congested cities, far away from farmlands, where composting and recycling were no longer practical. Open gutters were dug to carry sewage from city streets into nearby bodies of water. When populations were small and water supplies seemed unlimited, the wisdom of using fresh water as a vehicle and receptacle for human waste was not questioned. By the 1920s and 1930s, large cities were piping large quantities of untreated sewage into rivers and oceans, creating serious pollution problems. Septic systems in thousands of small and medium-sized communities were failing due to overloading. Thousands of industries were also producing chemical wastes and needed to dispose of them.

The environmentally sound approach would have been to develop separate treatment systems for human and industrial waste. Biological wastes should have been recycled through a system that returned their nutrients to the soil, and businesses should have been required to separately treat their chemical wastes on-site so that they could be contained and re-used within the industries from which they came. At the time, however, it seemed easier and cheaper to simply dump everything into a single common sewer system. For businesses, the system provided tax-based aid to help them dispose of their toxic byproducts. For people, indoor plumbing that magically "carried everything away" was a luxury that marked their escape from frontier hardship and their entrance into modernity. The system helped limit the spread of communicable diseases, and for many it symbolized the difference between primitive crudity and the civilized benefits of technological society.

The problem with this system, however, is that it collects, mixes, and concentrates a wide range of noxious and toxic materials which are then very difficult, if not impossible, to separate and detoxify. According to Abby Rockefeller, a philanthropist and advocate of waste treatment reform, "conventional wastewater treatment systems . . . are not designed to produce usable end-products. Because this is so, it must be said that failure to solve the overall problem of pollution caused by the waste materials received by these systems is a function of their design." 4

"Today," observe environmental writers Pat Costner and Joe Thornton, "waterless treatment systems-on-site composting and drying toilets that process human wastes directly into a safe, useful soil additive-are available. These dry systems are more economical than water-flushed toilets and their attendant collection and treatment systems. However, water-flushed toilets are so entrenched in the cultural infrastructure that the transition to alternative waste systems has been blocked. Instead, billions of dollars are spent on perfecting the mistake of waterborne waste systems: wastes are first diluted in water and then, at great expense, partially removed. The products of this treatment are sludge-which requires even further treatment before disposal-and treated effluent, which carries the remaining pollutants into receiving waters." 5

To cope with the mounting problem of water pollution, the United States launched what has become the largest construction grants program in US history, linking millions of homes and tens of thousands of businesses into central treatment facilities. As the 1970s dawned, front-page headlines across America told stories of polluted drinking water and quarantined beachfronts. Pressure from environmentalists spurred Congress to pass the Clean Water Act of 1972, which according to US Senator Max Baucus, "put us on the course to fishable and swimmable rivers at a time when one river was known as a fire hazard and others hadn't seen fish in a generation." 6 The Clean Water Act required communities to make sure that by 1977 their sewage plants could remove at least 85 percent of the pollutants passing through them, and allocated funding to pay for the additional treatment and filtering technologies needed to achieve this goal. By 1976, the federal government was spending $50 billion per year to help cities achieve water purity goals.7

In the 1980s, however, politicians responded to pressure for reduced federal spending by cutting funds for water treatment, and by the 1990s the money had been virtually eliminated.8 In the meantime, the push for clean water had created another problem- tons of pollution-laden sewage sludge generated as a byproduct of the treatment process.

According to Abby Rockefeller, the hundreds of billions of dollars spent purifying water through central sewage processing plants has largely been wasted. "Leaving aside the immense costs of this option, both in energy and in money, there is the critical though inadequately recognized problem of the sludge," Rockefeller states. "The more advanced the treatment of the sewage (the more successful the separation), the more sludge will be produced, and the worse-the more unusable and dangerous-it will be. That is, the 'better' the treatment, the greater the range of incompatible materials that will have been concentrated in this highly entropic gray jelly." 9

To read more of Chapter Eight, please click here.
To purchase this book, click here.

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