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When Environmentalists Go Bad (and Tell Lies)

by: Jill Richardson

Thu Jul 08, 2010 at 18:17:39 PM PDT


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Since 2007, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has given away "free organic biosolids compost" to gardeners and school gardens in San Francisco. Of course, their "organic" compost could not be legally applied on an organic farm because its made of sewage sludge - what the sewage industry likes to euphemistically call "biosolids." Sewage sludge is minimally regulated by the EPA and its use as fertilizer for food crops has resulted in human and animal deaths in the past. Of course, usually it doesn't result in such acute toxicity, but those are the chances you take when you play with such a minimally regulated chemical soup.

I've told this story on this blog before, but there's a reason I'm bringing it up again: new revelations, discovered by the Food Rights Network. Until now, I've largely given the SFPUC the benefit of the doubt and took them at their word. I was wrong to do so.

The Vice President of SFPUC is Francesca Vietor, a famous environmentalist in the Bay Area. She's credited with influencing the city's adoption of the Precautionary Principle, which means treating nothing as safe until it is proven so. Yet SFPUC's sludge giveaways represent the very opposite of that: giving away a product of unidentified risks, closing your eyes, and hoping you don't get caught. (To date, the sludge "compost" giveaway program ran from 2007 until it was recently ended and, to the best of my knowledge, SFPUC is only now performing comprehensive testing on it to check for safety.)

When this scandal broke out, at first it seemed that Vietor could be the key to reforming SFPUC's sludge policies. Sadly, Vietor took the low road. Instead of doing the right thing and adding one more credential to her environmentalist resume, she lied, stonewalled, made legal threats, and covered her own - and SFPUC's - ass.

Jill Richardson :: When Environmentalists Go Bad (and Tell Lies)
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."

Ya think?

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.

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Just goes to show that government agencies can be every bit as corrupt (4.00 / 2)
as commercial businesses. What SFPUC is doing with the sludge cover up/looking the other way is every bit as bad as BPs failure to operate in a responsible manner.

That's why I trust neither government nor large companies any further than I can throw them. The heads of both are way too far from the general public to have a clue. Both screw up in fantastically large ways, and both try their damnedest to cover their asses in any way possible, even to the detriment of allies and the general public.

Nope, don't trust 'em at all.....

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.


The one difference is (4.00 / 2)
with government you can file FOIAs and find out what they are doing and then toss the bums out. It takes an awful lot of work and it doesn't always happen like it should (and often happens after the harm's been done) but it's still one better than what you can do about a corrupt corporation.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Kinda hard to toss a bum out (4.00 / 2)
who hasn't been elected though.  

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
Very true nt (4.00 / 1)


"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
analytical chemistry (4.00 / 2)
This comment has nothing to do with the point of Jill's essay, but I thought a few readers might be interested to know a little about the technology used to analyze metals in the sludge samples. Mercury has its own method, and all the other metals are analyzed by one method, EPA 6010B. This uses ICP spectroscopy (ICP = Inductively Coupled Plasma). It is easy, fast, and cheap. I would use three steps if I were doing the analysis.

1. Dry the sample.
2. Digest the sample in acid, and dilute the digestate to a standard volume.
3. Analyze the sample using an ICP spectrophotomer.

Except for mercury, all the metals would be determined from one pass of one solution. The run would be calibrated using perhaps three levels of standards. Like the sample solution, each level of standard solution would contain all the metals of interest. Procedure would be to run the standard solutions followed by the sample solution, and I would finish by repeating at least one of the standard solutions to make sure nothing went haywire during the run.

A computer captures data from the spectrophotomer and does the necessary calculations. Easy peasy.

My point here is, analyzing a sludge sample for 5 metals or 10 metals or 20 metals is not a big deal and should not take a long time.

Analysis for organic chemicals is not as easy, and requires more time.


well, they seem to do an OK job (4.00 / 2)
testing for heavy metals, particularly the 9 that are regulated. It's all of the zillions of other things that haven't been tested and aren't regulated that I worry more about.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
A Mass Spec will not cover all (4.00 / 1)
the chemicals that go down the drain.

In fact one of the biggest issues is the toxic soup created by all the different types of chemicals than end up in sewer.  The chemicals interact and create different compounds. When this toxic soup is processed at the waste treatment the chemical bonds are broken so it hard to say that there is just a few specific chemicals in the sludge.  Testing will only show a fraction of what is actually in the finished material.

The best testing lab for sludge is Woods End Labs. http://www.woodsend.org/index....

They have done some very interesting work for the US military and other complex pollution issues.



[ Parent ]
mass spectrometer (4.00 / 1)
not very useful by itself, although mass spectrometry preceded by gas chromatography or liquid chromatography is very useful for organic compounds. Labor intensive workup, slow, expensive.

I don't care what went into the soup, only what remains after processing. Testing can show all the compounds in the finished material, depending on how much money the agency throws at it.


[ Parent ]
Not really (4.00 / 1)
when the molecular structure breaks down the compounds are not definable.  That why coffee from chemical farms test hot before roasting but clean after roasting.

I've done pesticide residue testing for 20+ years and it always amazes me what can get through a testing lab.

False positives happen with great regularity, so you just retest the product to see if the positive was real.

Nobody retest a negative, but statistically you know that false negatives happen as often as false positives.  Which means tainted product does get into the system.

Testing is more of an art that a science; that statement pisses off testing labs, but we used to send same product to three different labs for a QC check. Invariability we would get 2 labs results the same and the third lab test would different.

We would sent the identical samples, of the same product, to 3 different labs and get similar mixed results.

All it takes is someone not cleaning a piece of equipment correctly. or not processing the sample correctly and you have cross contamination or an incomplete test.

Considering that these labs are testing thousands of samples on a regular basis it's easy to see where human error can play a big role in testing.

     


[ Parent ]
Human error... (4.00 / 1)
Interesting point.

I worked on the grunt (field services) side for a large private environmental testing laboratory in New Jersey for over nine years, collecting soil and groundwater samples from brownfields and Superfund sites all over NJ, PA, NY, DE, CT, RI, etc...

I would hope, however, that such organizations have some sort of system in place to control for inevitable human error?  I remember many, many, many, many mandatory 'retraining' meetings (every 6 months or so) which stressed the vital importance of coming up with honest results, and the dire consequences which awaited those who consciously falsified results (federal prison! million dollar fines! etc...), which always struck me as sort of quite heavy on the 'personal responsibility' thing, with no mention at all of what our company was doing to maybe lessen the amount of potential mistakes made by overworked analysts who were increasingly being forced to work more and more hours with less breaks / coworkers with each and every corporate sale / acquisition (three ownership changes during during my last 7 years) during my time there, and "hey, if you don't like it work somewhere else!".

But of course, there wasn't really anywhere else to work for since one of our competitors gobbled us up and then immediately began gobbling up the other three of our competitors along the way.

I still remember the days when I'd come back to the lab after 12 hours of collecting samples and find out that 25 analysts, project managers and sales people were laid off at a lunch time meeting.

Considering that these labs are testing thousands of samples on a regular basis it's easy to see where human error can play a big role in testing.

Let's not forget how often human error is caused by corporate force, especially in the US these days...


[ Parent ]
What they knew about bacteria in compost (0.00 / 0)
Sludge folks have known for 30 years that pathogens will regrow in compost. If anyone else pulled this trick it would be considered bioterrorism.

1981 -- Factors Affecting Salmonellae Repopulation in Composted Sludges

The repopulation potential and recovery of Salmonella sp. and their close relatives Arizona spp. and Citrobacter spp. in sewage sludge which had been composted was examined. Salmonellae growth in previously composted sludge was found to occur in the mesophilic temperature range (20 to 40 degC), require a moisture content of -20%, and require a carbon/nitrogen ratio in excess of 15:1.
These results also indicated that some enteric bacteria, upon desiccation, became dormant and in this state were highly resistant to both heat and radiation.

Optimal recoveries in the low bacteria sample occurred at the 21% moisture level at 28 to 36 degC after a 5-day incubation. The population increased more than four orders of magnitude under these conditions. The indigenous salmonellae initiating this growth had survived in a desiccated state for over 1 year prior to providing the proper moisture-temperature combination for the repopulation to occur. --- as long as a demonstrated potential exists for repopulation of salmonellae in a commercial soil amendment product produced from composted sludge, a potential health hazard exists for the user.


APPLIED AND ENVIRONMENTAL MICROBIOLOGY, Mar. 1981, p. 597-602
http://thewatchers.us/EPA/2/19...

Wouldn't this be true also for composted animal manures? (0.00 / 0)
Chickens, goats, and ruminants can harbor salmonella. Even if they weren't shedding salmonella, wild animals, and avians can harbor slamonella as well as other pathogens that can either sporulate or become dormant and reactivate under proper conditions as well.

I suppose the only way to be absolutely sure that those pathogens were killed in the compost when it's produced would be to autoclave it? If so, then exposure in the environment would probably inocculate it with a new population of pathogens?

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.


[ Parent ]
County Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County Compost research (0.00 / 0)
The people who put your health at risk know the most about that risk and care less.

1988 -- Occurrence of Pathogens in Distribution and Marketing Municipal Sludges
[Class A Sludge -- aka Biosolids]

"Although the use of sludge as a soil amendment is attractive, it is not without potential health risks. Toxic chemicals, including heavy metals and industrial organics, may enter the food chain and
present long-term health risks." The plague causing bacteria Yersinia (pestis?) was consistently
found in static pile compost. CDC authorities state, "Outbreaks in people still occur in rural
communities or in cities." significant increases in bacterial populations, including salmonellae,
occurred during subsequent production of commercial soil amendment products.

http://deadlydeceit.com/D_M_sl...

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