By John Stauber on July 27, 2010

Last month, I wrote Chez Sludge, the first inside report on the sewage sludge scandal unfolding in San Francisco, based on internal documents obtained by the Food Rights Network and now online in the Toxic Sludge wiki on SourceWatch.

San Francisco, under its "green mayor" Gavin Newsom, has since 2007 perpetrated a greenwashing scam upon city gardeners. The city, known for its environmentally sound practices and commitment to a precautionary principle approach to dealing with environmental hazards, has deceptively and fraudulently been giving away free "organic Biosolids compost," that is actually nothing but toxic sewage sludge from San Francisco and eight other counties, "composted" by the giant waste handler Synagro.

This issue hit the news in San Francisco first last September and gained national media attention in December, 2009. On March 4, 2010 a protest in Mayor Newsom's office that also received national attention, led by the Organic Consumers Association, forced the Mayor to put the program on temporary hold, at least during the political season. He is currently the front runner for the office of California Lieutenant Governor and come December Mayor Newsom is likely on his way to Sacramento. And, apparently, he wants to leave his sludge, if not his heart, in San Francisco.

In the face of the controversy, and the dioxins and other dangerous contaminants found in their sludge, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission spent $25,000 to conduct some very limited and inadequate testing of their free "organic Biosolids compost." Like most sludge industry tests, this one examined a minuscule sample of the mountain of sludge, and only searched for a small fraction of the thousands of persistent chemicals and substances, and none of the biological contaminants, in sewage sludge.

It was designed as a PR stunt and worked well in that regard when the results were fed to the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. Both papers filed stories on July 28th, and both papers reported that the SFPUC staff would be bringing this controversy before the five citizens who make up the SFPUC Board of Commissioners, appointed by the Mayor, and who have never, despite the year-old public controversy, taken a close public examination of the sludge-to-gardens issue in any of their frequent meetings. But with two PUC commissioner meetings scheduled for August -- the 10th and the 24th -- that would soon change, the articles implied.

John Upton wrote in the Examiner:

Sewage-based compost given out by San Francisco is laced with contaminants such as heavy metals, which exist in comparable levels in commercially available soil amendments, the City found. ... SFPUC staff plan to meet publicly with commissioners to seek guidance on the biosolids compost program, which could be canceled or continued depending on the public mood.

Peter Fimrite of the Chronicle wrote:

The report is expected to be presented to San Francisco's utility commissioners next month (August). A decision could then be made on whether to continue the compost program.

In fact, both the newspapers were misled by the PUC staff and their PR maven Tyrone Jue. The Mayor and the PUC staff appear desperate to avoid any public showdown on the toxic sludge issue. The August 24th meeting of the SFPUC commissioners has been canceled, and the August 10th meeting of the commissioners will not have the much touted sludge tests on its agenda.

The two San Francisco newspapers fell for a classic government PR ruse: promise transparency and a public investigation, but then sweep the issue under the rug and out of the light of day and hope the press doesn't notice.

Why would the City of San Francisco behave so poorly? Simple. The sludge issue is a huge embarrassment to the Administration of Gavin Newsom. He is the front runner in the California Lieutenant Governor's race, and he has no intention of letting this issue muck that up. The longer his allies can push this issue down the road, the closer he gets to his November election. By the time the sludge hits the fan, he and his closest staff will be in new state offices in Sacramento and the wrongdoings of the SFPUC and his own Office of Mayor of San Francisco will be a headache for the next Mayor, and for the commissioners he appointed.

The internal documents we are investigating show deep and disturbing collusion among the city government officials in Mayor Gavin Newsom's office, the SFPUC staff, and industry promoters of growing food in toxic sludge. To say the least, the city officials have engaged in very bad and deceptive behavior in their handling of this issue. Announcing an August hearing of sludge-gate before the five PUC Commissioners, getting this printed in San Francisco's newspapers as a PR stunt, then making sure that sludge is off the agenda, is just the latest.

It is clear that far from this issue being decided in the interests of San Franciscans, the staff of the PUC are working hand in hand with the powerful national sewage sludge lobby led by the organizations and individuals belonging to the Water Environment Federation. The sludge industry wants to take the San Francisco scam -- "It's not toxic sewage sludge, it's free organic compost, grow your food in it!" -- and spread it nationwide as the latest way to greenwash toxic sludge and help the thousands of towns and cities with sewage plants dispose of their sewage sludge as biosolids fertilizer, out of sight, out of mind, and away from liability.

Stay tuned. Despite the PUC staff's efforts to keep this issue off the agenda of the appointed commissioners, I will be attending the August 10th meeting as a public citizen, and putting it on their agenda. The PUC staff tells me I will have no more than 3 minutes to speak before the Mayor's Board of Commissioners, but luckily for me I talk quickly!

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John Stauber is an independent author and investigative writer who advises the Food Rights Network. His views are his own.

John Stauber

In 1993, John Stauber founded the non-profit, non-partisan Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and its magazine, PR Watch, in Madison, Wisconsin.

Comments

John - I suggest you formulate a presentation of what you will do if a little 'problem' occurs and you are not allowed your 3 minutes, and pass this along to the PUC. This backup plan needs to be more embarrassing to the city than letting you speak.

We live down the peninsula in Santa Clara and did not know this issue was going now. Free organic compost sounds great, but it is hard to believe that it was toxic sludge. It would be a shame if Gavin Newsom's political ambitions are preventing the truth (whatever it may be) from coming to light.

Luckily San Francisco has an excellent open records law, and (with some important exceptions) the City seems to be complying with our intensive, ongoing investigation of its files. Definitely read the "Chez Sludge" article, the first written based on this investigation. Got to the top of this article and click on the link.