|The two outright lies she told are as follows:
Lie #1: She found out about the sludge giveaways and their potential dangers in early March of 2010. Actually, she found out on February 8, 2010 at the latest.
Lie #2: She put a stop to SFPUC's sludge giveaways once she found out about them. Actually, SFPUC's manager Ed Harrington put the giveaways on hold and informed Vietor of this in an email on March 5, 2010 (nearly a full month after Vietor found out about the controversy).
These two lies may seem inconsequential in and of themselves but they are part of a larger pattern of failing to address the risks of using sewage sludge as fertilizer. The risks are very much in line with the recent report of the President's Cancer Panel, which said that out of 80,000 chemicals in commercial use, only 200 have been assessed for safety. In sludge, only 10 are regulated. This is the opposite of the Precautionary Principle. It's staying in the dark about the contents and the risks of sludge and hoping for the best.
The internal emails from SFPUC (which you can see in this timeline of the controversy) revealed that they - including Vietor - never truly considered that use of sludge as fertilizer may be dangerous. Instead of investigating whether those who opposed the use of sludge as fertilizer had a point, they merely crafted PR statements and tried to quiet the protesters, hoping that nobody would attack the sludge giveaway program the really cared about - giving away sludge to Solano County, where it is used as fertilizer.
San Francisco cannot dispose of all of its sludge as "Alternate Daily Cover" (ADC) on nearby landfills, and it faces pressure as more counties ban the application of "Class B biosolids" on land as fertilizer (Class B biosolids is sludge approved for use as fertilizer on animal feed crops). Currently, there is pressure to do this in Solano County. There are also narrowing options or increased costs to send the sludge to landfills. According to the document, San Francisco applies about 19% of its sludge on land. A little over half of it goes to Alternate Daily Cover on landfills, 14% is incinerated, and 10% goes in landfills. (Source: "Bay Area Biosolids Management: Challenges, Opportunities, and Policies," 2009.) They don't mind ending their sludge compost giveaways (which accounted for a tiny percentage of their overall sludge) but they would be very upset if Solano County stopped accepting their sludge for land application.
Another issue, albeit one that was not discussed in SFPUC's internal emails, is this: If the sludge given to gardeners is actually toxic, will SFPUC be held liable to pay for cleaning up the gardens they've contaminated and reimbursing the gardeners for any health effects suffered from gardening in and eating produce from contaminated gardens?
And then, there's the other important issue at stake, covering Vietor's own ass. Early on in this controversy, it came to light that she had a conflict of interest. She simultaneously serves as the VP of the SFPUC and the Executive Director of Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Foundation (CPF). In fact, in her CPF role, she declined a request from Organic Consumers Association (OCA) to sign onto a letter opposing SFPUC's sludge giveaways. (To be fair, her reason was that CPF has a policy that it does not sign onto any letter, but still, the conflict of interest was not disclosed in her response.)
When Vietor's conflict of interest was called out publicly by John Stauber on PRwatch.org, Vietor responded by having the SFPUC's communications guy Tyrone Jue draft her response and then post it on PRWatch (per Jue's recommendations) under somene else from SFPUC's name.
When Organic Consumers Association pursued Alice Waters herself, asking for a statement that no food should be grown in sludge, Vietor began by emailing SFPUC staff for help covering her ass:
"Alice and CPF are not going to respond but it's really important for SFPUC staff to come up with answers about whether the stuff does or does not contain the chemicals that Stauber, et al, say it does, and if so, in what doses and what those dose levels mean. It's not enough, at least in San Francisco, to say it's better than fed and state regs require. Can you get these answers quickly -- as now that people are trying to oust me from the PUC -- so I can decide whether to go on the offensive against these guys."
When Alice Waters did respond publicly to OCA (supporting Vietor and SFPUC and refusing to come out in opposition of sludge-as-fertilizer), both Vietor and SFPUC staff reviewed and signed off on her statement before it was made public. And Vietor DID decide to go on the offensive, enlisting friends to publicly and privately take her side on the issue. (Just a question: If Vietor and SFPUC can make their critics look really bad in public, does that make sludge inherently safer?)
Then there's my favorite part of this little scandal. A few days after I spoke to Vietor on the phone and then forwarded her the EPA's own testing of samples of sludge from around the country, Vietor (referencing that study) said the following in regards to the SFPUC's public statements on the safety of sludge:
"one other edit on the response that Ty [Tyrone Jue] is creating -- I think the word 'stringent' should be taken out of the federal guidelines descriptor as I am learning that the fed guidelnes do not regulate a lot of toxins so may not be as stringent as we may want."
We are now awaiting the test results of the sludge "compost" given away by SFPUC, which are expected later this month. And, it will be interesting to see what happens next at SFPUC. Will it be back to the drawing board to craft PR statements, or will they actually examine the safety of sludge-as-fertilizer and perhaps come clean about the risks involved in applying it to land where food is grown? What happened to that Precautionary Principle?
Obviously, the sludge problem doesn't go away once we accurately assess its risks and stop lying about them. There IS a problem here. Humans create and use hundreds of thousands of chemicals and put them down the drain where they mix together with water and our own waste. Once these chemicals are created and then mixed, it's difficult, if not impossible, to separate them out and then dispose of them or put them to "beneficial use" (as the sludge industry likes to say. It would be infinitely expensive and perhaps impossible to truly remove every possible toxin from sludge, and it would be possible but expensive to dispose of sludge as the toxic waste that it is. (A "perk" of using sludge as fertilizer is that it's cheap.) So I get that every wastewater treatment plant has an expensive and difficult problem on its hands... But I also fail to see how lying about it and then disposing of it in a way that puts people's health at risk can help. The best solution for toxic sludge is to stop creating it in the first place.
Note: The work I'm doing on sludge is funded by the Center for Media & Democracy.