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.
The celebrity chef Alice Waters is probably the world's most famous advocate of growing and eating local, Organic food. In February 2010 her Chez Panisse Foundation chose as its new Executive Director the wealthy "green socialite" and liberal political activist Francesca Vietor. Vietor's hiring created a serious conflict of interest that has married Waters and her Foundation to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) and its scam of disposing of toxic sewage sludge waste as free "organic Biosolids compost" for gardens.
For the first time, thanks to an ongoing "open records" investigation by the Food Rights Network, the public and the press have easy online access to dozens of internal SFPUC files (SFPUC Sludge Controversy Timeline), documenting the strange tale of Chez Sludge, or how the sewage industry bedded Alice Waters.
Apparently not. Shauna Ahern of the famous Gluten-Free Girl blog is paid to write a blog for the National Pork Board. She just wrote a piece about a factory hog farm she visited and how wonderful it was. Here's an excerpt:
The entire place felt warm. Even though there were something like 2,500 pigs there, taken from birth to the market (farrow to finish, in pork production terms), the whole place felt calm and well-kept. It felt like a home.
I've been to a factory hog farm, too, and it was also a "family farm." But that didn't change the fact that there were 4,000 pigs crammed into one building eating unhealthy diets and unable to engage in natural hog behaviors, like rooting. If it felt like a home, it was a home sitting on top of half a year's worth of hog manure.
When First Lady Michelle Obama decided to plant a vegetable garden at the White House, she faced a problem that many new homeowners in America run into. Previous residents of her house had applied sewage sludge to her lawn, but left no warnings to alert the her about the potential toxicity of her soil as a result of the sludge application. When the Obamas tested the soil in preparation for planting their garden, they found some lead in the soil. At 93 parts per million (ppm), the lead showed that the soil was probably contaminated by something, even though at 93 ppm the lead itself was not necessarily a danger. Still, the Obamas took precautions to further lower the lead level to 14ppm, and make the lead unavailable to plants by adding soil amendments that diluted the lead and changed the pH of the soil.
Unfortunately for the Obamas, and for the entire nation, once the story hit the news, it became politicized. While the issue was initially raised as a comment on the safety of using sewage sludge as fertilizer – an issue that has no political party – the right soon grabbed a hold of the story as a way to make fun of the Obamas. Some on the left fiercely defended the Obamas in return. But the Obamas are not the villains in this story; they are the victims. They are among many other Americans whose yards and gardens are contaminated with sewage sludge without their knowledge and who, as a result, are exposed to toxic contaminants in the soil. And lead is just a fraction of the overall problem.
(NOTE: Visit the SourceWatch Portal on Toxic Sludge)
Fifteen years ago, the Center for Media and Democracy in my book Toxic Sludge Is Good for You first exposed the deceptive PR campaign by the municipal sewage industry that has renamed toxic sewage sludge as "biosolids" to be spread on farms and gardens. Unfortunately, the scam continues to fool more people than ever, even in San Francisco which is often dubbed the country's greenest city.
I suspect that Bay area celebrity chef Alice Waters would never dump sewage sludge onto her own organic garden, nor serve food grown in sludge in her world famous natural foods restaurant Chez Panisse. The mission of her Chez Panisse Foundation is to create "edible schoolyards" where kids grow, prepare, and eat food from their own organic gardens. But Francesca Vietor, the new executive director of the Chez Panisse Foundation, is at the same time actively promoting dumping toxic sludge on gardens in her role as Vice President of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
"The ingenuity of the food manufacturers and marketers never ceases to amaze me," remarked author Michael Pollan. "They can turn any critique into a new way to sell food." Marketers are appropriating language from the "eat local" or "locavore" movement, which encourages support for small farms, sustainable practices and better treatment of animals.
For decades, government agencies and polluters have cynically and dangerously used the magic of PR to reclassify toxic sludge as "beneficial fertilizer," and thus haul it to rural farmlands where it is spread on fields out of sight, out of mind.