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The Green Mayor has Toxic Sludge on his Hands

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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

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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 (more...)
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