Synagro's Shiny New Patina

Synagro protest in DetroitSynagro Technologies is the latest big corporation trying to ditch a scandal-ridden past by re-branding itself. In an August 10, 2011 press release, the company announced it is launching a new website as part of a "rebranding initiative." The press release says the initiative "is a reflection of the enhanced and growing service and solution offerings that have resulted from organic growth and recent acquisitions." Of course, the press release fails to mention the back-to-back scandals that have plagued Synagro since 2008 as well as earlier controversies.

Synagro is in the business of marketing sewage sludge as "compost," or, as the company's new, PR-approved website puts it, "Transforming natural waste challenges into sustainable, planet-friendly solutions." The company is a subsidiary of the Carlyle Group, the largest private equity firm in the world. Carlyle is also a sizeable part of the military-industrial complex with ties to numerous national politicians, including former British Prime Minister John Major, Alice Albright (daughter of former Secretary of State Madelyn Albright), and both George W. and George H.W. Bush.

Synagro's Sewage Scandals

Synagro's executive leadership was at the center of "Sludgegate," a Michigan pay-for-play scandal. In 2008 it was discovered that a Synagro executive had bribed Detroit city council members to secure a $1.2 billion contract for Synagro to handle the city's sewage. Synagro vice president James Rosendahl pleaded guilty to bribing Detroit city council members to seal the deal. Synagro fired Rosendahl; neither the corporation nor its owner, the Carlyle Group, was criminally charged in the scandal. In 2009, Detroit city council member Monica Conyers, the wife of Congressman John Conyers, pleaded guilty to taking bribes to approve Synagro's $1.2 billion sludge deal. She was subsequently sentenced to 37 months in prison.

Detroit's Sludgegate wasn't the only recent scandal to taint Synagro.

Synagro handles sewage sludge for the city of San Francisco, and helps produce the sludge at the heart of another sewage scandal in San Francisco. In July 2010, the founder of the Center for Media and Democracy, former executive director John Stauber and author of the book Toxic Sludge is Good for You, revealed that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) was giving Bay Area gardeners what it called "free, organic biosolids compost" that was actually made from toxic sewage sludge. The so-called "organic compost" was made of industrial and human waste from the city of San Francisco and eight other counties. Sewage sludge routinely contains toxic substances like heavy metals, flame retardants, phthalates, pharmaceuticals, and other endocrine disruptors.

No Apologies, No Acknowledgement -- Just Move On

Clearly, Synagro is interested in finding some way to distance itself from these scandals, and the re-branding is consistent with such a PR tactic. The same way that Philip Morris plotted to escape the taint of tobacco by changing its name to Altria, and the private mercenary firm Blackwater tried to escape the black eye of the Nisoor Square massacre and other scandals by changing its name to the barely-pronounceable "Xe," we can now expect similar moves from Synagro as it flees Sludgegate and other image problems at least in part by developing a nice, clean-looking new website that asserts that the company "helps people and the planet thrive."

But just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, no matter how attractively it is packaged, rebranded or marketed, sewage sludge will always stink.