EWG To Monitor San Francisco Sludge Policy, Criticizes Unfounded Accusations Aimed At Vietor, Waters

The Environmental Working Group will join other watchdog groups in monitoring the San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s (SFPUC) controversial management of sewage sludge. EWG President Ken Cook said that advocacy organizations have been right to oppose the distribution of composted sewage sludge from the SFPUC for use on Bay Area gardens and farmland.

But Cook characterized as unwarranted and irresponsible the accusations that sludge opponents have made -- on consumer protection, environmental quality, and public health grounds -- against two prominent Bay Area environmental leaders: Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, and Francesca Vietor, Executive Director of the Chez Panisse Foundation and member of the San Francisco Public Utility Commission.

EWG has a long and distinguished track record of opposing any agricultural use of municipal or industrial sewage sludge. In the late 1990s, EWG was at the forefront of efforts to defeat an ill-considered Clinton-era proposal that would have allowed the use of sewage sludge on certified organic farming operations. Ultimately that proposal was withdrawn; sewage sludge is prohibited under federal organic farming standards.

A 1998 EWG investigation helped expose the “recycling” of toxic industrial waste from cement kilns, power plants and other facilities in synthetic fertilizers that poisoned the land of unsuspecting farmers who bought it.

“EWG’s scientists will bring this same tough-minded, fact-driven approach to bear as we monitor the SFPUC’s management of sewage sludge, and we salute the advocacy groups who initiated this action in the Bay Area,” Cook said. EWG has consistently recommended against the use of composted sewage sludge for home or agricultural purposes, he noted. “At the same time, the treatment and disposal of sewage sludge is a monumental, society-wide problem in this country. There are no easy solutions, but dumping sludge, composted or otherwise, on land used to grow food is no solution at all,” Cook said.

Cook derided the “Tea Party-grade conspiracy charges” that some anti-sludge advocates have aimed at Waters and Vietor.

“Because Vietor is both an SFPUC member and head of Alice Waters’ foundation, some activists have hurled the wild accusation that both women somehow support the use of toxic sewage sludge to grow food,” Cook said. “It stretches credulity into the realm of defamation to connect those dots.”

“Francesca Vietor is one of the Bay Area’s and the country’s most accomplished environmental leaders,” Cook said. “To suggest that her service as a commissioner on the SFPUC over the last 18 months is tantamount to an endorsement of the commission’s distribution of composted sludge is both unwarranted and irresponsible. To the contrary, it is our understanding that immediately after Vietor became aware of the practice, she raised questions about it with the appropriate SFPUC staff. Shortly thereafter, distribution of the sludge compost was halted, and the SFPUC has initiated a review that includes expanded laboratory testing of the material.” EWG will make the SFPUC’s review part of its monitoring effort.

“Alice Waters has done more than anyone to promote pure, fresh, organically grown and local food, which is exactly why she hired someone of Vietor’s deeply-held convictions and caliber to run her foundation,” Cook said. “To suggest that either one of these leaders actively promote food grown on sewage is like suggesting that I’m a great chef because I recently had my picture taken with Alice Waters.”

Cook said the EWG announcement was timed to provide context for a planned “protest” in front of Waters’s storied East Bay restaurant, Chez Panisse.

“I am somewhat consoled by the fact that this protest is on April Fool’s Day,” Cook said.


EWG is a nonprofit environmental research and advocacy organization that uses the power of information to protect the environment and public health.

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