A national environmental group is focusing attention on a San
Francisco program that transforms human waste into backyard compost,
calling the program little more than a scheme to sling toxic toilet
sludge back at the people who produced it.
The hullabaloo is over a program by the San Francisco Public
Utilities Commission, which once a month distributes biosolid compost
to gardeners, school groups and homeowners for free. The commission
claims the compost is heat-treated fertilizer that is as good as the
stuff sold in gardening stores.
But the Organic Consumers Association insists that the sacks given
out to San Franciscans contain a stew of excrement and toxic chemicals
from the sewer.
"The problem with sewage sludge or the euphemistic term 'biosolids'
that they use is that all of this is hazardous material that
potentially contains thousands and thousands of contaminants," said
John Stauber, a member of the group's advisory board and the author of
several articles and a book on sewage sludge. "Everything that goes in
the sewer potentially ends up in it."
The San Francisco PUC has largely dismissed the criticisms, saying
the levels of toxins found in the compost are well below federal and
"We are giving away highly treated, heat-pasteurized biosolids,"
said Tyrone Jue, spokesman for the Public Utilities Commission. "It has
been tested for metals and pathogens and is basically sterile."
The consumers association and another nonprofit environmental group,
the Center for Food Safety, staged a protest on March 4 in San
Francisco, where demonstrators dumped the compost on the steps of City
Hall. The organizations sent a letter to Mayor Gavin Newsom demanding a
halt to the distribution of the soil-like material, which they believe
contains heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, flame retardants and other
The leaders of the group are concerned children and others who touch
the compost might swallow or absorb chemicals into their bloodstreams.
They are also afraid that food grown in the stuff could be
The dustup has since spread to Berkeley where the group last week
picketed Chez Panisse and criticized the restaurant's famous chef,
Alice Waters, for allegedly turning a blind eye to the PUC's antics.
The demonstrators accused Francesca Vietor, the executive director of
the Chez Panisse Foundation, of "actively promoting sewage sludge,"
because she is also a PUC commissioner.
Stauber has claimed that tests conducted by his organization found
dioxins, flame retardants and other chemicals in the compost, but he
has declined to release comprehensive results.
"They have chosen not to release those tests to the public or us,"
Jue said. "Yet they are willing to stand in front of a camera and say
our biosolids are toxic. How can we even respond to this if they aren't
releasing their information to be analyzed?"
Waters, too, hit back, accusing the group of engaging in a smear
campaign that "shamelessly misrepresented her position." The Chez
Panisse Foundation accused Stauber of knowingly repeating "false
accusations" against Vietor.
"Mr. Stauber and the OCA have attempted to taint the reputations of
Alice Waters and Francesca Vietor, both of whom have long and
outstanding records as environmental advocates," the foundation said in
a statement. "Alice Waters believes deeply in organic farming and
gardening. Her 40 years of advocacy on this issue speak for
The issue is a complicated one. Composting has for decades been
considered an ecologically sound way to recycle eggshells, lettuce and
other food waste. Soil naturally breaks down such material, almost as
if it was the Earth's microbial liver.
The San Francisco PUC began the composting program in 2007 in an
effort to help the environment and reduce the city's carbon footprint
by eliminating dump truck trips.
The program uses about 20 tons of the 82,000 tons of solid material
removed from the city's sewage every year. The treated waste is taken
to a regional composting facility in Merced County, where it is mixed
with green yard waste and heated to 130 degrees for 30 days, Jue said.
The end product is touted by the PUC as a valuable source of
nutrients that can be used to improve soil fertility, plant growth and
lessen the need for synthetic sprays.
Yet critics insist that the process does not neutralize heavy
metals, pesticides or drug residue. Exacerbating the problem is the
fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires the compost
be tested for only nine pollutants, about 1 percent of the hazardous
materials that can be found in sewage. Dioxins, flame retardants and
PCBs are not among the chemicals tested.
Experts, including Hugh Kaufman, an EPA waste management official,
have urged people not to grow food in sewage sludge. Despite this,
Stauber said, schoolchildren, organic gardeners and landscape
architects in San Francisco are free to use the sewage compost.
EPA scientists are conducting studies to determine whether other
chemicals should be tested in biosolid compost. Still, one EPA expert
said there is no evidence that San Franciscans are in any kind of
danger if they use the compost.
"None of the sewage sludge produced in California has tested
hazardous under the national standards," said Lauren Fondahl, the
biosolids coordinator for the EPA's Pacific Southwest Region. "About 1
percent has tested hazardous under the stricter California standard.
San Francisco is well under both standards."
Jue said the PUC is conducting comprehensive tests for potentially
toxic chemicals in addition to what the EPA requires and intends to
make those results public.
"We want to be good environmental stewards," Jue said. "We
understand there are additional concerns about biosolids, which is why
we are willing to openly work" with the EPA and environmental groups.
"But to arbitrarily attack us and not share the data behind that attack
I think seriously undermines the credibility of these environmental