San Francisco: "The Green Mayor has Toxic Sludge on his Hands"

By Susan Galleymore
OpEdNews April 25, 2010

Gavin Newsom's reputation as "the green mayor" is going down the drain, contaminated by the toxic sludge on his hands.

With Mayor Newsom's blessing, in 2007, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) distributed 80 tons of "organic biosolid compost" to city residents, community gardens, and the Parks and Recreation Department.

On May 17, 2008, SFPUC conducted its third Great Compost Giveaway "5 gallons for every green thumb!" claiming that "all food scraps, garden clippings, and soiled paper that residents have been piling into green bins had been transformed into rich, soil-enhancing compost that is perfect for landscapes and containers." One trusting resident commenting on the Giveaway's website writes, "I made out like a bandit last year! Garden looks great because of it. When is this year's Great Compost Giveaway?"

Problem is, this substance is not organic! Moreover, the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) regulations strictly forbid the use of sewage sludge as a fertilizer or soil amendment, no matter if composted or otherwise treated.

John Stauber is the author of Toxic Sludge is Good for You and an advisory board member to Organic Consumers Association (OCA). He says, "In the mind of the public, "organic" represents the highest standard of integrity, purity, and healthfulness."

But the EPA's January 2009 "Targeted National Sewage Sludge Survey" found San Francisco's sludge contains heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, PCBs, flame retardants, and endocrine disruptors.

Stauber adds, "That the sewage industry and the SFPUC misuses the word "organic" destroys ordinary peoples' trust and credibility. It is the same sort of public relations spin that hoodwinks farmers around the country."

While writing his book, Stauber heard from a worried Water Environment Federation spokeswoman. "We don't call it sludge anymore," she said. "What's more, it is no longer toxic. It is now a natural organic compost we call 'biosolids'. We work with the EPA and major public relations firms to give biosolids away free to farmers. Your book title will scare them."

Indeed, the sewage sludge industry had held a contest in the early 1990s to rename sewage sludge. The term, "organic biosolid compost" won, and has been used ever since. Had the SFPUC called this substance what it is -- treated sewage -- no one would show up for even a sniff-test. "SFPUC engaged in fraudulent deception and OCA is fighting to ensure "organic" cannot be used this way," Stauber said.

In 2009, the Center for Food Safety and the Resource Institute for Low Entropy Systems (RILES) petitioned Gavin Newsom, in his official capacity as mayor, and Ed Harrington, in his official capacity as SFPUC general manager, to suspend the Giveaway program.

Nevertheless, Newsom and notables like restauranteur Alice Waters went along with PUC spokesman Tony Winnicker's statement that, "San Francisco's biosolids compost is safe, tested, and great for plants [and is] tested for metals and other contaminants and meets or exceeds all standards."

Mayor Newsom went further and claimed the substance is safe and healthy...and that he'd be happy to eat food grown in it. Does this mean his PlumpJack business associates use it for their products? Unfortunately, the mayor's intractability undermines other successful green programs he supports, including Recology's city-wide paper, plastic, glass, and food scraps recycling programs.

On March 4, 2010, OCA's bay area organizer John Mayer rallied a grassroots action against the mayor and the SFPUC, charging they were purposefully duping residents. Mayer says, "San Francisco's "organic biosolid compost" is about one third sewage sludge and two thirds wood chips."

That same day, SFPUC announced it was temporarily suspending the Giveaway. They emphasized that it was not because the OCA team, dressed in haz-mat suits, dumped a load on the steps of City Hall and made national and international headlines.

There is a silver lining to the black cloud over sludge-stained Mayor Newsom: a recognition that public organizations and mayors crying "green" doesn't make them green...or that wishing away toxic realities makes them disappear. Stauber says, "There is little, if any, attention when farm animals die from this stuff. But there is national and international attention when the green mayor of San Francisco is caught fooling urban gardeners and foisting toxics on them."

John Mayer and OCA concur and support any gardener who wants SFPUC and The City to clean up their gardens. Mayer says, "This is a pretty cut-and-dry case where people took the stuff because it was said to be organic; it is not organic and they've admitted it is not organic. The PUC must take it back."

Trust betrayed

"Ordinary people," says Stauber, "tend to think of sewage treatment plants as magical places where water from industrial, residential, and medical toxins is treated so people can re-use it. It is true that sewage plants remove as many pathogens as they can: about 50 percents of it. They give the remaining mounds of sewage sludge that is too toxic to incinerate, landfill, or dump in the ocean to farmers free! Free to spread on America's fruited plains.

Sludge reaches right into the White House too. After the Obamas moved in, Michelle Obama had the White House garden soils tested; they revealed elevated levels of lead. Previous administrations had used sewage sludge there.

Once this substance containing thousands of hazardous synthetic chemicals from medications to sprays used upon fruit and vegetables is dumped in any garden it is not easy to remove.

Extrapolate what went on in San Francisco and at the White House and to thousands of unsuspecting farmers around the country. Recognize that only about one percent of our Earth is fertile enough to produce crops capable of feeding the world's population -- and then consider the far-reaching implications.

Moreover, Stauber says that the majority of progressive environmental groups operating back in the 1990s were so focused on preventing sludge from being dumped into the ocean and were so enthusiastic about cleaning up our water that "they took a dive on this issue and allowed the EPA to spread it on land. Most national environmental groups are still not involved in the fight to stop spreading "organic bio-solid compost" on farmland."

They are not the only ones fooled. Stauber says, "A lot of my friends in the environmental community have drunk the biosolid kool-aid and say, "Gee this is just nutrient recycling." But this is not just human manure or "Humanure" as we call it -- this is toxic sludge from industrial, medical, residential, and other waste."

Solutions to Pollutions?

John Stauber concludes that the entire sewage process as now constituted is archaic. "We cannot afford to contaminate our clean water with our waste and send it to plants that pull out the toxics then spread it on our farmlands. We already spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars moving this stuff around instead of, for example, separating humanure from the truly toxic stuff and safely composting what we can. We will spend hundreds of billions more dollars to figure this out... and we had better start sooner rather than later."

Despite the cliché, everything is connected. Humans are smart enough to look at the big picture and integrate generative solutions. We can no longer pretend these problems don't exist...or think we will solve them with more bigger, better, brighter technology... or export our waste to other countries. Ordinary Americans can -- must -- insist upon the opportunity to confront our mistakes directly, and our elected officials must deal honestly with residents who are ready, willing, and able to collaborate.

In San Francisco, a first step toward healing the credibility gap between local government and residents is for the mayor and the PUC to take back their not-so-free Giveaways.

- Susan Galleymore is the author of Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak about War and Terror, sharing the stories of people in Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and U.S. [Pluto Press 2009]. She is also host and producer of Raising Sand Radio ( a former counselor on the GI Rights Hotline, founder of MotherSpeak ( and and itinerant artist illustrating the effects of war in the Families of War Series. She lives in California and South Africa and has traveled fairly extensively in the Middle East and southern Africa. She focuses on the intercultural issues, war, and the environment.