Why Isn't the EPA Doing More to Regulate Toxic Sludge? (Hint: Lobbyists!)


A trade association known for using the terms "compost," "organic," and "biosolids" to describe sewage sludge is investing in a new public relations campaign to influence policymakers and the public. The US Composting Council (USCC), which was founded by the disposable diaper industry, will be expanding its long-standing efforts to "rebrand" sewage sludge, which is increasingly disposed of on agriculture crops and through garden centers without telling the public that their food is being grown in medical, industrial, and human waste.

Earlier this year, the USCC announced that it hired a PR firm, Colehour + Cohen, to help with the rebranding efforts and that it will also be increasing lobbying efforts.

The word “compost” traditionally has applied to vegetable material and scraps gardeners and farmers collect to re-use on crops and gardens. The USCC uses the term "compost" on an industrial scale to include sewage sludge, as well as other commercial and municipal waste. 

The spreading of sewage sludge -- which contains numerous toxic substances -- on farm fields and gardens has come under increasing fire by citizens concerned about the potential health consequences of this practice. Although the industry claims the practice is cheap and safe, a previous U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) survey concluded that all sewage sludge contains toxic and hazardous materials, including endocrine disruptors. 

As documented in "Toxic Sludge is Good for You," a book by the founder of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), John Stauber, the sewage sludge industry has attempted to re-brand sewage sludge as "biosolids" since the 1990s. The EPA embraced the new term, and in 1992 used the term "biosolids" for the first time in new regulations that reclassified certain kinds of sewage sludge that were previously designated as hazardous waste, as "Class A" fertilizer.

CMD recently attended the USCC conference in Austin, Texas, where the trade group announced a four-pronged plan to ramp up sewage sludge sales and use.

“This is a monumental step for the US Composting Council,” USCC President Frank Franciosi said. “We are spending a lot of money on this but we think that it’s long overdue and well worth it.” 

Rebranding Sludge and "Compost." Colehour + Cohen is working on brainstorming a new tagline for the industry. It will be something along the lines of “compost: it’s the crack cocaine for plants,” Franciosi joked. The firm, based out of Seattle and Portland, said the USCC is hoping the new branding of sludge and compost will play off of environmental themes.

The firm will also work with industry stakeholders at the BioCycle Magazine's events this year to set branding goals. That publication is an advocate for the use of sewage sludge as “compost.”  

The firm is slated to meet with Kathy Kellogg, whose title at her family's sludge business is "Chief Sustainability Officer" for Kellogg Garden Products. Her organization has been criticized by CMD and others for marketing sewage sludge for use in "organic" school children’s gardens. The meeting was described at the USCC conference as an opportunity for Kellogg to brief the firm on her experiences with the ongoing criticism the industry faces for marketing sewage sludge to gardeners without any disclosure that the products they are buying, which use terms like "organics," "compost," and sometimes "biosolids," are made from city sewage sludge.

Sludge Heads To Washington. To coincide with efforts to spice up messaging, the USCC has also decided to have a greater presence in Washington, D.C. The council will move their Long Island, NY office to the D.C. area for easier access to lobbying on Capitol Hill. The desire to have a presence in D.C. was also integrated into their choice when hiring their new executive director, Michael Virga. Virga does not have prior experience in the sewage sludge industry, but he has worked as a lobbyist for other trade organizations. In his new position, Virga will be tasked with lobbying Congress for industry-friendly legislation.

USCC Executive Director Michael Virga at the council's conference in Austin. His role, according to Franciosi, will be in helping to “lobby congress so we can get our foot in the door, so that we can make permitting more streamline, so we can get our nose in the farm bill, so that we can get credits and grant money.”

The council also indicated that it is hoping that its 501(c)3 non-profit arm -- the Composting Council Research and Education Foundation -- will receive government grants, which it can't get as a trade organization. 

Another bonus for the big move is that the council will be in closer proximity to other organizations with which it hopes to partner. One of these key groups is Keep America Beautiful which, despite its feel-good name, gets its funding directly from big corporate polluters and companies with a vested interest in litter and solid waste management policies, such as Waste ManagementDow Chemical CompanyClorox and Cargill. As CMD previously reported, the group has been "accused of betraying the public trust on behalf of corporate polluters" and has helped its corporate sponsors influence legislation. The two groups issued a press release last month that announced “the organizations will join forces on efforts to increase waste reduction through composting education and activities nationwide.” Virga is hoping to take advantage of the K-12 schools his new partner already has relationships with.

The EPA "Loves" The Sludge Industry. The move is also intended to bring the USCC closer to the primary government agency tasked with regulating the industry: the EPA. But this is hardly necessary, according to critics, as this federal agency has been captured by the sludge industry for years. The EPA has worked to persuade farmers and food processors that sewage sludge is a "beneficial fertilizer," even though the National Organic Program at USDA bars the use of sewage sludge to grow food with the USDA certified organic label, due to long-standing concerns about the myriad toxic substances in sewage sludge.

"It makes sense for a lot of different reasons to be in the D.C. metropolitan area," Virga said. "We are closer to Capital Hill and closer to Congress (I’ve spent a lot of time there). We are closer to the agencies we work with, that regulate us and provide oversight -- Environmental Protection Agency: number one.”

The EPA standards for monitoring sludge have repeatedly been called into question. For example, the National Research Council found in 2002 that the "U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standards that govern using treated sewage sludge on soil are based on outdated science." The faulty metrics were again placed in the spotlight in 2011 when scientists found that noroviruses survive the heating of sludge that kills some pathogens such as Salmonella, but that does not eliminate carcinogenic flame retardants, heavy metals, pharmaceutical residues, and dioxins that are ubiquitous in sewage sludge. 

The EPA's website even promotes the USCC’s Seal of Testing Assurance (STA) labeling program, which requires regular, minimal testing of compost products by "certified" third-party labs. The STA program standards are calculated to allow the "certification" of garden products containing sewage sludge, without notice to gardeners that they are made from sewage sludge.

"You never see this within a private industry -- to see this kind of recognition by the EPA. This is phenomenal -- they are promoting an industry-driven program on their website," Virga said at the conference.  

He then continued to boast about EPA’s fondness for the compost industry and sludge: “Could you have scripted this in any better way? This is the nation’s regulatory watchdog, and they love this industry, they love this council.”

Colehour + Cohen has worked on other projects for the EPA, including the "Energy Star Rock the Bulb" campaign.  

The USCC Helps Write "Model" Legislation. Despite new efforts to influence policymakers at the federal level, some aspects of the sludge industry are regulated at the state level. That is why the USCC is also working on "model" legislation to "streamline" the permit process. The draft legislation is currently being crafted with the USCC, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and others and will be released later this year for other states to use. The proposed new regulations also attempt to create a new PR euphemism in exchange for the term “solid waste” -- as requested by the waste management industry. The Georgia DNR already uses the word "residuals" instead of "waste," as do some other states. One of the partners in the project is The Coca-Cola Company.

The Latest PR Rebranding. Rows of sewage sludge mixed with yard trimmings at a "biosolids" facility in Austin, Texas. The sludge industry is no stranger to rebranding. As CMD has previously reported, the Water Environment Federation (WEF), a sludge industry trade group, recently decided to rebrand municipal sewage plants "water resource recovery facilities."

The common goal of all the rebranding efforts is to make the use of sewage sludge on farms and gardens sound more pro-environmental and less worrisome than calling sewage sludge what it is. In reality, sewage sludge has been shown to contain flame retardants, endocrine disruptors, pharmaceutical residues, phthalates, industrial solvents, resistant pathogens, heavy metals and perfluorinated compounds, which can bioaccumulate in soil.

This article originally appeared on PR Watch.

Photo Credit: PR Watch