Shit show

What has the SFPUC has been dumping in city gardens?

The SFPUC has been giving away compost made of human waste for years, but recently stopped due to health concerns

By Brady Welch

GREEN CITY Food safety groups complain that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has until recently been dumping its crap in the backyards and gardens of any residents who unwittingly asked for it.

The city calls this crap "biosolids compost," and for Mayor Gavin Newsom and the SFPUC, it seemed like a green dream come true. But it turns out that putting processed human excrement into people's vegetable gardens might not be the elegant — if somewhat gross — reuse strategy it once seemed to be.

The vexing sewage sludge left over after treatment and separation of the city's wastewater was being treated, combined with woodchips and paper waste, and labeled compost so it could, according to the SFPUC's Web site, "provide essential plant nutrients, improve soil structure, enhance moisture retention, and reduce soil erosion." Not bad for the ultimate human waste product.

The problem, say groups including the Center for Food Safety and Organic Consumers Association, is that the SFPUC's compost contains a host of other toxins and hazardous materials not necessarily originating with what the city's granola-munching denizens flush down the toilet. In fact, a January 2009 Environmental Protection Agency study of sewage sludge from 74 treatment plants found, in nearly every sample, "28 metals, four polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, two semi-volatiles, 11 flame retardants, 72 pharmaceuticals, and 25 steroids and hormones." Yikes.

"You name it, it's in there," John Mayer, said spokesperson for the Organic Consumers Association. The compost "is hazardous waste, and it's absurd to claim that it's safe to consume. No matter what the sludge processing industry claims, it is by definition dangerous." The EPA report would certainly seem to support Mayer's claim, except that it expressly stops short of doing just that, stating that the results "do not imply that the concentrations for any [substance] are of particular concern to EPA."

Then again, it was the EPA that started promoting the use of biosolid compost in the first place, back in 1978. The only safety thresholds the agency sets for biosolids compost concern nine heavy metals and the elimination of pathogens — none of the flame retardants, steroids, semi-volatiles, and carcinogens found in their study — a standard that has remained largely unchanged for a decade.

But that's only part of the story, because as it turns out, San Francisco's sewage sludge isn't that contaminated compared to the shit generated in other regions. "We found in our tests that it's really low for all the emerging pollutants," SFPUC spokesperson Tyron Jue told us, citing data listed on its Web site indicating that testing goes beyond what the EPA requires, and even beyond more stringent European Union standards. Jue even said that the SFPUC's biosolids compost has "metal limits lower than in a daily vitamin, and lower or comparable to store-bought compost."

Yet Paige Tomaselli of the Center for Food Safety understands the data differently. "San Francisco may test above and beyond the national standards. They may think their testing is green. But the truth of the matter is that that the compost they're giving away is not generated here in San Francisco."

Indeed, the sewage sludge the SFPUC tested is not the same stuff it was handing out for three years as "organic biosolids compost." After the organic food industry complained, the utility recently dropped the "organic" designation, offering the admittedly sheepish defense that the label was meant to imply "carbon-rich," a definition that would make, among nearly everything else, the Guardian you hold in your hands organic.


"San Francisco collects biodegradable waste material, good waste material, that can make very good compost,"
And where does that go?
My guess is that "Recology" the company with a monopoly on SF trash and recycling services, the company that keeps charging us more and more per month while requiring by law that we sort our waste more efficiently, is selling this "good compost" and furthering their profits.

You collect valuable compost, a giant corporation charges you, then sells it, and then your government gives you a load of poisonous shit to grow your food with.

Posted by Garbage Scam on Mar. 25, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

Clean biosolids can be transformed into energy via an environmentally responsible process which is well tested over many years. Gasification is the thermal conversion of biomass from a solid fuel to a gaseous fuel much like natural gas in compostiion. The major difference between the two is the BTU content of of the syn gas compared to natural gas.

The resulting syn gas can be used in nearly all the same ways that natural gas is used. The heat from the system can be used to dry the biomass fuel if needed or it can be sold to a customer who requires heat for their own purposes.

Sort of like spinning straw into gold.

Neal Van Milligen
Bioten Power and Energy Group Inc

Posted by Guest on Mar. 26, 2010 @ 8:06 am

It never ceases to amaze me how folks who claim to be environmentalists are willing to write this type of uneducated trash without thorough evaluation of real scientific data. But I suppose that writing a story with a catchy title and using a sound bite or two from a couple folks' opinions will always draw more readership and attention than a story based on real facts.

The truth of the matter is that the wastewater industry is tightly controlled and regulated by federal and state laws. Programs that require monitoring and limits on what can be sent to a treatment plant by industrial and commercial users are required by virtually every wastewater facility in the country that serves industrial users.

The guys and gals on the front line who actually operate and maintain wastewater treatment facilities and biosolids operations are often strong environmentalists who have a passion to transform human waste into products that benefit the environment. Clean water & biosolids that are safe to use in agricultural, commercial and residential applications. Time and time again, biosolids (from a facility that is properly operated) have been demonstrated to be safe and beneficial.

Unfortunately, there are some examples of facilities that have been operated poorly and with little to no regard to public health and safety. Like any other topic, the buzz surrounds those that dramatically fail, and rarely does anyone mention that this is exception, not the rule. Look at the successes of biosolids operations in King County Washington, or Milwaukee Wisconsin...these are only two examples of thousands of facilities who produce safe biosolids for use in land application.

All too often, those who claim to be environmentalists do nothing more than yell & scream their views and opinions, never even attempting to actually DO SOMETHING. If you have concerns about the local biosolids operation, get involved. Is there an advisory board or committee you can join? Have you actually visited the facility & toured the operations?

Mindless blather means nothing...get involved and educate yourself.

Posted by Waterdude on Apr. 01, 2010 @ 3:38 am

Well said Waterdude. I hope they print a response to this terrible article in a subsequent issue. It's unfortunate that several readers first impression of biosolids will be characterized by this article. The Guardian should have taken the opportunity to educate the public on this promising, growing, closed-loop green technology.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 02, 2010 @ 6:21 am

What is it about "contains toxic chemicals and hazardous materials" do some people not understand?

It is not the idea of human waste being composted and used in an efficient, but the fact that it "contains toxic chemicals and hazardous materials". This point is quite simple to comprehend, and no one without bias or a conflict of interest can deny, since it shows up in any matter who tests it!

Posted by Guest on Aug. 05, 2010 @ 4:53 am