Sewage Sludge Protestors Sling Mud at Chez Panisse

Categories: A Civil Tongue

Unfair target?
​The good folks who earlier this month gallivanted into Mayor Gavin Newsom's office outfitted in HazMat suits and brandishing jars of compost will be doling out the charm again tomorrow ― at Chez Panisse. The Organic Consumers Association, via a not overheated at all press release announced they'll be crashing the Berkeley cafe in protest of proprietor Alice Waters' alleged fondness for growing food for needy kids in toxin-infested vats of steaming human excrement.

In actuality, the Organic Consumers Association's beef is a big more arcane. San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission has for years given away sewage-derived compost to all takers ― and was, rightfully, chided for using the term "organic" to describe the bags of reconstituted waste. A member of the Chez Panisse Foundation's board, Francesca Vietor, is a PUC vice president. Therefore, in the eyes of the compost activists, "Both Vietor and Waters support growing food on toxic sewage sludge."

While the Organic Consumers Association's rhetoric, actions, and Lyndon LaRouche-like logic might lead casual observers to label them as zealots ― there is a method behind this madness. In 2008, a Georgia judge sided with angry farmers claiming their cows were sickened by silage grown on sewage-derived compost; "The administrative record contains evidence that senior EPA officials took extraordinary steps to quash scientific dissent and any questioning of the EPA's biosolids program," wrote Judge Anthony Alaimo.

Lauren Fondahl, an EPA environmental engineer in San Francisco, noted that the compost given away by San Francisco is tested for nine key pollutants ― but not for many others that could lead to toxic results. But here's the rub ― no compost is tested for these additional toxins. Compost derived from sewage is not necessarily "dirtier" than former table scraps or garden clippings ― though the notion of sewage is inherently revolting, and induces a visceral reaction.  

"You can buy compost made from a variety of materials," said Fondahl. "If you test compost made from 100 percent green waste, you'll find lead and copper and zinc and so on in just about everything. It's in the environment at large; it's just a matter of concentration."

In fact, Fondahl says, "green waste" ― which sounds a lot better than "sewage sludge" ― actually has markedly higher levels of lead in San Francisco than the aforementioned sewage sludge. The yard clippings and tree branches that comprise green waste compost often contain paint chips from San Francisco's older buildings ― which are rich in lead.

Would the Organic Consumers Association claim Alice Waters favors giving children lead poisoning if she'd pushed for school gardens fertilized with 100 percent green waste? Perhaps that's something to ask them as they demonstrate on Shattuck Avenue tomorrow.

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