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More debate over San Francisco's compost

By Heather Knight | The San Francisco Chronicle

It seems we have a compost smackdown on our hands. In one corner is the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and in the other is the Center for Food Safety.

Just what's coming out of this place?
Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

Just what's coming out of this place?

The latter, a national nonprofit that seeks to curb harmful food production, has petitioned the former to stop giving out free compost. It seems everybody's pro-compost these days - and you won't have a choice for long if you're a San Franciscan - but the nonprofit says the PUC's regular giveaways are actually toxic sewage sludge advertised as compost.

The PUC turns the treated solid waste removed from sewage (basically anything that's flushed down our drains except water) into compost and gives it away to gardeners and others. The Center for Food Safety says this sewage sludge should never be used on home gardens because it contains heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, flame retardants and other hazardous material.

"San Franciscans may think they're getting a gift from the city, but this is no gift," said Paige Tomaselli, staff attorney for the center. "City residents could be at serious risk of poisoning from the application of sewage sludge to local crops and gardens."

The center admits the PUC is in total compliance with federal regulations regarding sewage sludge, but says the regulations need to change.

Tony Winnicker, spokesman for the PUC, said the center's charges are "flatly untrue." He said San Francisco's sludge is treated over the course of several weeks and mixed in with wood chips or paper fiber at a composting facility in Merced. The material has been tested and contains metals not only below U.S. standards, but below the standards of the European Union, too. ("And you know how they regulate everything," he said with a laugh.)

"It's unfortunate and irresponsible that they're raising such a stink," Winnicker said. "Our biosolids compost is safe, tested and great for plants."

Check out Winnicker's full rebuttal here.

Tomaselli said a lawsuit could be in the works so stay tuned.

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