Ag-Caustic! Battling Toxic Compost Giveaways in San Francisco

compost

At first, it seems extremely eco-friendly, the biannual Compost Giveaway Events every fall and spring in San Francisco hosted by the city’s Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).

Residents are offered free compost to produce soil for community and school gardens and local backyards. It’s the green and organic thing to do.

The problem is the mulch isn’t made of food scraps and manure but a combination of toxic sewage sludge from waste water treatment, green waste, yard waste and wood chips.

What’s in sewage sludge? Stuff that’s foul and harmful to people and other living things.

The True Food Network, which is leading a petition drive against the latest giveaway argues sewage sludge is shown by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to contain heavy metals, pathogens, pharmaceuticals, PCB’s, flame retardants and endocrine disruptors. In addition, organic pollutants are present in sludge samples, such as polybrominated diphenal ethers (PMDEs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, DDT degradation products, chlordadanes, synthetic musk products, triclosan and tributytin.

“Residents may be led to believe that the city’s sludge compost is organic,” says the network. “The USDA’s National Organic Program’s (NOP) regulations, however, strictly forbid the use of sewage sludge as a fertilizer or soil amendment, no matter if it is composted or otherwise treated. This compost is by no means organic.”

The Center for Food Safety and the Resource Institute for Low Entropy Systems filed a petition with Gavin Newsom, San Francisco’s Mayor and Ed Harrington, General Manager of SFPUC, asking them to immediately and permanently suspend the sewage sludge compost giveaways for the fall. Residents are asked to join the letter writing campaign to protect the health of its gardeners.

Image: SfLatchkey

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DISCUSSION

6 thoughts on “Ag-Caustic! Battling Toxic Compost Giveaways in San Francisco

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  2. Thank you for contacting the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) regarding the safety of our City’s biosolids compost and the use of the term “organic” in signs and literature promoting our compost give away events.

    The SFPUC has been giving away biosolids compost yearly since 2007. The SFPUC shares your concerns regarding the safety of biosolids compost – that is why we test our biosolids for contaminants, and make those test results available to the public. We are constantly re-evaluating our pilot giveaways and have no immediate plans for our next event.

    The SFPUC’s previous use of the term “organic” in signs and literature regarding our biosolids compost was intended to communicate its high carbon content in a manner akin to the term “organic chemistry”. To prevent confusion with what is labeled as “Organic” by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the SFPUC has since removed any reference to the term from all of its signage and literature.

    San Francisco is a city that prides itself on its sustainability and being at the forefront of new environmental and public health initiatives. Just as in many of our other initiatives, our biosolids program goes above and beyond what is required by federal and state laws. Although no law requires it, the SFPUC tests for contaminants and we have found extremely low levels of contaminants in our biosolids. One of the few countries in the world that has limits on endocrine disrupters is Denmark. Our levels of endocrine disrupters fall below what is required to meet even their reuse standards.

    I hope you will take the time to learn more about our San Francisco biosolids program by reading the accompanying text. In addition, you can also find more documentation along with tests results on our website at http://www.sfsewers.org

    Sincerely,

    Tommy Moala
    Assistant General Manager for the Wastewater Enterprise
    San Francisco Public Utilities Commission
    —————————————————————————————————————————-
    Background: What are Biosolids? What is Biosolids Compost?
    “¢ Biosolids are the treated nutrient-rich solid waste removed from sewage at every wastewater treatment plant. In San Francisco, biosolids treated in an anaerobic environment (in an environment devoid of oxygen) and heated for about 20 days at 95 degrees Fahrenheit in a series of tanks at our treatment plants. Methane gas is collected from the biosolids and used to produce renewable energy that powers our operations.

    “¢ Biosolids Compost undergoes further aerobic treatment for 3-4 weeks (oxygen-based environment) and kept at temperatures exceeding 131 degrees Fahrenheit at a composting facility in Merced. At the facility, the biosolids are mixed in with organic materials like wood chips or paper fiber. This is the process that converts the biosolids to compost.

    “¢ The sustained and serial anaerobic and aerobic treatment substantially reduces many compounds of concern.

    Metals Levels / Other compounds of concerns (i.e.: endocrine disrupters, triclosan, etc.)
    “¢ Metals – We have very low concentration of metals in our biosolids. Our levels are not only far below the current EPA standards, but below the more stringent European Union standards as well. In fact, if you line up our biosolids compost with the same compost you would purchase at your typical gardening store, the metals concentrations would be about the same, in other words, very low.

    Other compounds of concerns
    “¢ Although we aren’t required to, the SFPUC has conducted tests on these compounds because we want to be ahead of the curve. We have extremely low levels for all of these compounds in our biosolids. One of the few countries in the world that has limits on endocrine disrupters is Denmark. Our levels of endocrine disrupters fall below what is required to meet even their reuse standards.

    The Term “Organic”
    “¢ The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s (SFPUC) former use of the term “organic” referred to the scientific definition of organic matter as in containing significant amounts of organic carbon. To prevent confusion with what is labeled as “Organic” by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the SFPUC has since removed any reference to the term from all of its signage and literature.

    Why are the metals/other compounds low?
    – There are a couple of reasons why:
    1) The SFPUC provides drinking water from an enclosed, protected tap water supply. There is no contamination of our water from wastewater dischargers into our water source. We receive our great water pretty much straight from snowmelt off the Sierra Nevada to our taps.

    2) San Franciscans are very educated and environmentally conscious. Part of that is due to the great work of SF Environment and the SFPUC. People know they shouldn’t be dumping their motor oil down the drain or dumping dangerous chemicals down the toilet. After all, where does all that end up – straight to our wastewater treatment plants.

    This is also part of the reason the SFPUC has sponsored an Eco-Fair two years in a row, the Big Blue Bucket event. We educate people and provide resources. For example, at our events, we collected more than 2 tons of old/expired medications for proper disposal.

    The SFPUC also has an aggressive, and award winning water pollution prevention program. In the past 8 years, we’ve eliminated mercury runoff from dentist’s offices and are constantly sampling our major dischargers to make sure they are in compliance.

    3) San Francisco is primarily a residential city. There are no major industries in the City that would serve as a large contributor of metals, chemicals and compounds into the wastewater system.

  3. SF Biosolids Compost is Safe, Tested and Great for Plants. It is tested for metals and other contaminants and it meets or exceeds all standards, even EU standards! San Francisco’s biosolids compost is high quality and safe.

    The biosolids compost that the SFPUC gives out at our events is basically what you would find in a gardening store. Our goal with the program is to increase awareness about biosolids and expand our in-city reuse opportunities. The problem with claims by the Center for Food Safety is that they don’t really address the fact that we have empirical lab data on the metals and other compounds found in San Francisco’s biosolids. Their broad statements really have no foundation in San Francisco, where as with many of our other sustainable programs, we go above and beyond what is required by federal and state laws in testing.

    Background: What are Biosolids? What is biosolids compost?

    – Biosolids are the treated nutrient-rich solid waste removed from sewage at every wastewater treatment plant. In San Francisco, biosolids treated in an anaerobic environment (in an environment devoid of oxygen) and heated for about 20 days at 95 degrees Fahrenheit in a series of tanks at our treatment plants.

    – Biosolids Compost undergoes further aerobic treatment for 3-4 weeks (oxygen-based environment) and kept at temperatures exceeding 131 degrees Fahrenheit at a composting facility in Merced. At the facility the biosolids is mixed in with organic materials like wood chips or paper fiber. This is the process that allows us to designate the biosolids as compost.

    – The sustained and serial anaerobic and aerobic treatment substantially reduces many compounds of concern.

    Metals Levels / Other compounds of concerns (i.e.: endocrine disrupters, triclosan, etc.) :
    – Metals – We have very low concentration of metals in our biosolids. Our levels are not only far below the current EPA standards, but below the more stringent European Union standards as well! In fact, if you line up our biosolids compost with the same compost you would purchase at your typical gardening store, the metals concentrations would be about the same, in other words, VERY LOW.

    Other compounds of concerns – Although we aren’t required to, the SFPUC has conducted tests on these compounds because we want to ahead of the curve. We have lab reports showing extremely low levels for all of these compounds in our biosolids. One of the few countries in the world that even has limits on endocrine disrupters is Denmark. Our levels of endocrine disrupters fall below what is required to meet even their reuse standards.

    – The Center for Food Safety is correct that the EPA doesn’t require testing, it doesn’t really apply to San Francisco because we have tested.

    Why are the metals/other compounds low?
    – There are a couple of reasons why:
    1) The SFPUC provides drinking water from an enclosed, protected tap water supply. There is no contamination of our water from wastewater dischargers into our water source. We get our great water pretty much from Sierra Nevada snowmelt to our taps.

    2) San Franciscans are very educated and environmentally conscious. Part of that is due to the great work of SF Environment and the SFPUC. People know they shouldn’t be dumping their motor oil down the drain, or dumping dangerous chemicals down the toilet. After all, where does all that end up – straight to our wastewater treatment plants.

    This is also part of the reason the SFPUC puts on the Big Blue Bucket event, which took place last Saturday, September 26. We educate people and provide resources for people to do the right thing. At our first event last year, we collected more than 2 tons of old/expired medications for proper disposal. A few months ago SFE started a pilot drug mail-back that has been met with huge success.

    The SFPUC also has an aggressive, and award winning water pollution prevention program. In the past 8 years, we’ve eliminated mercury runoff from dentist’s offices and are constantly sampling our major dischargers to make sure they are in compliance.

    3) San Francisco is primarily a residential city. There are no major industries in the City that would serve as a large contributor of metals and compounds into the wastewater system.

  4. San Francisco’s biosolids compost is safe, tested and great for plants!

    It is tested for metals and other contaminants and it meets or exceeds all standards, even EU standards! San Francisco’s biosolids compost is high quality and safe.

    The biosolids compost that the SFPUC gives out at our events is basically what you would find in a gardening store. Our goal with the program is to increase awareness about biosolids and expand our in-city reuse opportunities. The problem with claims by the Center for Food Safety is that they don’t really address the fact that we have empirical lab data on the metals and other compounds found in San Francisco’s biosolids. Their broad statements really have no foundation in San Francisco, where as with many of our other sustainable programs, we go above and beyond what is required by federal and state laws in testing.

    Background: What are Biosolids? What is biosolids compost?
    – Biosolids are the treated nutrient-rich solid waste removed from sewage at every wastewater treatment plant. In San Francisco, biosolids treated in an anaerobic environment (in an environment devoid of oxygen) and heated for about 20 days at 95 degrees Fahrenheit in a series of tanks at our treatment plants.

    – Biosolids Compost undergoes further aerobic treatment for 3-4 weeks (oxygen-based environment) and kept at temperatures exceeding 131 degrees Fahrenheit at a composting facility in Merced. At the facility the biosolids is mixed in with organic materials like wood chips or paper fiber. This is the process that allows us to designate the biosolids as compost.

    – The sustained and serial anaerobic and aerobic treatment substantially reduces many compounds of concern.

    Metals Levels / Other compounds of concerns (i.e.: endocrine disrupters, triclosan, etc.)
    – Metals – We have very low concentration of metals in our biosolids. Our levels are not only far below the current EPA standards, but below the more stringent European Union standards as well! In fact, if you line up our biosolids compost with the same compost you would purchase at your typical gardening store, the metals concentrations would be about the same, in other words, VERY LOW.

    Other compounds of concerns
    – Although we aren’t required to, the SFPUC has conducted tests on these compounds because we want to ahead of the curve. We have lab reports showing extremely low levels for all of these compounds in our biosolids. One of the few countries in the world that even has limits on endocrine disrupters is Denmark. Our levels of endocrine disrupters fall below what is required to meet even their reuse standards.

    – The Center for Food Safety is correct that the EPA doesn’t require testing, it doesn’t really apply to San Francisco because we have tested.

    Why are the metals/other compounds low?
    – There are a couple of reasons why:
    1) The SFPUC provides drinking water from an enclosed, protected tap water supply. There is no contamination of our water from wastewater dischargers into our water source. We get our great water pretty much from Sierra Nevada snowmelt to our taps.

    2) San Franciscans are very educated and environmentally conscious. Part of that is due to the great work of SF Environment and the SFPUC. People know they shouldn’t be dumping their motor oil down the drain, or dumping dangerous chemicals down the toilet. After all, where does all that end up – straight to our wastewater treatment plants.

    This is also part of the reason the SFPUC puts on the Big Blue Bucket event (that took place last Sat, 9/26). We educate people and provide resources for people to do the right thing. At our first event last year, we collected more than 2 tons of old/expired medications for proper disposal. A few months ago SFE started a pilot drug mail-back that has been met with huge success.

    The SFPUC also has an aggressive, and award winning water pollution prevention program. In the past 8 years, we’ve eliminated mercury runoff from dentist’s offices and are constantly sampling our major dischargers to make sure they are in compliance.

    3) San Francisco is primarily a residential city. There are no major industries in the City that would serve as a large contributor of metals and compounds into the wastewater system.

  5. H-man, thanks for contributions. I think your last comment is the most apt in this sense. The post is about donating this stuff to home gardeners and schools. They grow food. Guess you said it yourself. Not good for carrots, radishes or potatoes. What do you use it for in your home garden that is so safe?

  6. This is much ado about nothing. They are not giving away sewage sludge, they are giving away compost. The compost process takes the material to over 131 degrees for a minimum of 15 days, takes 3-4 months overall, and kills 99.9 percent of all the pathogens. State law requries regular testing of the finished product for heavy metals and pathogens. Ignore the lilly-livered whiners who want you to fear everything. Unless they are going to stop taking a dump every day and flushing it down the drain, they should shut up. Where do you want that stuff to go??? Anyhow, the home gardener may not want to grow carrots, radishes or potatoes in this compost, but it is perfectly safe for everything else.

 

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