Greenwashing Synagro: Secretive Corporate Giant Has Got the Private Poop

following up on P’s recent post about privatizing sewage…

I live near Detroit, so this year has been a doozy. Not only is Detroit (and all of SE Michigan) hit hard by unemployment, foreclosure, restructuring of the automobile industry and long-standing poverty, neglect and racism, but it also recently lost its mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and city council woman Monica Conyers, both of them because of corruption. Beyond the blight, Detroit is dealing with regime change, corruption and political instability.

Conyers’ mistake was taking bribes from the Synagro corporation, the nation’s largest waste disposal company, who wanted a 25-year, $1 billion contract for handling Detroit’s municipal sewage. In what the local media have taken to calling the “sludge scandal” ( – go ahead, google it), Synagro tried to recruit allies on the Detroit city council through bribery. Conyers is the only one so far who has copped to bribery charges, but the palm-greasing probably also included a 2003 junket to Hawaii to see a boxing match with Kwame Kilpatrick (for more, see this story in Detroit Business Magazine Crain’s).

Watching the shit hit the fan in Michigan has been sobering. But its also sobering to learn that Synagro has been greasing politicians’ palms since 1992, and has spiraled downwards into a mire of sludge and PR which threatens government and corporate transparency, health and safety, the environment, our food supply, and effective environmental regulation.

The Backstory:

1988’s Ocean Dumping Act made New York City’s previous waste disposal proceedure (dumping into the Atlantic) illegal and obsolete. By 1993, the city had set up the world’s largest solid waste recycling program, the New York Organic Fertilizer Co., owned and operated by Synagro. Here the relevant palm to grease was Alfonse D’Amato’s. The NYOFC produces Class A organic fertilizer – carefully sanitized with heat to kill microorganisms. But even this highest grade of treated sludge in the land may contain undocumented levels of plastics, heavy metals and other industrial residues – not very well regulated by the EPA, freshly excoriated by the Bush Administration (see “Sludge and Scandal,” 2004).

In 2000, the Houston Business Journal noted that Synagro became one of the world’s largest waste management corporations. The SEC’s disclosure of all Synagro’s subsidiaries is pretty sobering. This Texas company now has subsidiaries in Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, California, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, Canada and Iraq.

Everywhere Synagro goes, there is trouble from the locals.

In 1992, communities in Oklahoma and Alabama organized to reject New York City waste being used as fertilizer in their regions. As Joel Bliefuss wrote in his truly muckraking piece, “The Sludge Hits the Fan”:

In 1992, the Water Environment Federation, describing itself as a “not-for-profit technical and educational organization” whose “mission is to preserve and enhance the global water environment,” received a $300,000 grant from the EPA to “educate the public” about the “beneficial uses” of sludge. “The campaign will tie in with the Federation’s ongoing efforts to promote use of the term `biosolids,’ ” reported the Federation’s December 1992 newsletter.

“Beneficial use” is the industry euphemism for the practice of spreading sludge on farm fields. Even before the current push, sludge has been applied to soil for decades. Milwaukee’s sewage sludge has been dried and sold nationally for almost 70 years as “Milorganite,” a lawn and garden fertilizer. In 1982, the state of Maryland banned Milorganite after it was found to contain high levels of cadmium, a heavy metal. In recent years, other cities have followed Milwaukee’s example offering varieties such as “Nu-Earth” from Chicago, “Nitrohumus” from Los Angeles, and “Hou-actinite” from Houston.

Milorganite and other commercially-marketed sludge products usually carry labels warning that they should not be applied on food-producing soil. But most consumers and journalists are unaware that tens of thousands of acres, from Midwest dairy land to Florida citrus groves and California fruit orchards, are already routinely “fertilized” with byproducts of industrial and human sewage. In theory, this approach harkens back to the time-honored natural system of composting. Of course, the organic farmers of previous centuries didn’t have to worry that their “night soil” contained a synergistic soup of dioxins, asbestos, DDT and lead that could contaminate themselves, their groundwater, and their food.

It is, in other words, quite a difficult situation. Under cover of producing environmentally responsible recycled waste (a rather progressive, sophisticated organic composting program), Synagro helps cities and companies produce waste which is actually a mix of human waste, food waste, garbage, and industrial waste – whatever goes into the sewer. As Bleifuss points out, “The environmentally sound approach would have been to develop separate treatment systems for human and industrial waste” Yeah…but we didn’t do that. And so he highlights the non-organic, non-fertilizing parts of sludge for his readers:

  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs);
  • Chlorinated pesticides — DDT, dieldrin, aldrin, endrin, chlordane, heptachlor, lindane, mirex, kepone, 2,4,5-T, 2,4-D;
  • Chlorinated compounds such as dioxins;
  • Polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons;
  • Heavy metals — arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury;
  • Bacteria, viruses, protozoa, parasitic worms, fungi; and
  • Miscellaneous — asbestos, petroleum products, industrial solvents.

Do you want these in your food? I don’t. Do they maybe help account for all the cases of e-coli in packaged produce recently? Could be. In 2002, Synagro acquired Earthwise Organics and Earthwise Trucking, which most likely use Class A organic fertilizer like the stuff produced in New York City. So should we trust that what we’re getting from Earthwise Organics is really and purely organic?

Since the 1990s, communities in the Bronx have been organizing to protest the hazards and stench of the New York operation. In 2002 Synagro settled out of court with the family of Shayne Conner, a New Hampshire man who died in his sleep a month after the spread of such fertilizer on a neighboring field. In Riverside County, Calif., a Synagro plant closed Dec. 31, 2008 after years of complaints about what residents called headache-inducing, property-value-sucking smells, about 50 miles southwest of downtown LA.

In the Bush era, as the EPA eased up on regulation, Synagro captured a larger and larger share of national and international waste management markets. More and more businesses and municipalities contributed their waste. This waste was then quietly spirited away by Synagro. Synagro not only turns waste into fertilizer (a great idea), but also turns fertilizer into a hiding place for many mysterious industrial residues (a diabolical idea).

In 2007, Synagro was bought out by the giant holding company The Carlyle Group. Carlyle, it seems, recognized Synagro’s power to dispose of waste and keep it quiet at the same time. The buyout, they announced, would be accompanied by making Synagro a private company. In Dec. 2007 SEIU protested, challenging Carlyle to disclose information about potential health hazards of using treated sludge to fertilize crops (SEIU Press Release). SEIU convincingly argued that taking the company private would be an excuse for tight-lipped Cheney-esque non-disclosure. They worried that the terrible secrets in sludge might never be revealed.

Because the EPA and Synagro aren’t too concerned about whether treated sludge is safe, very justified public outcry has set back the long-term prospects of convincing Americans of the safety of organic waste recycling. The public is scared of sludge now, and with good reason – but they should not fear eating food fertilized by their own waste. The key for everyone’s own food safety is to know the difference between Class B and Class A Fertilizers, and to know the difference between organic and conventional produce.

As Bliefuss wrote,

Currently, “certified organic” farmers are prohibited from using sludge on their crops, but the sludge industry is pushing for acceptance by organic farming organizations, and this will be a battleground for industry PR in the future. The amount of farm acreage dedicated to organic farming is currently very small. However, said Brian Baker of California Certified Organic Farmers, “imagine what great PR it would be for the sewage sludge promoters to say that sludge is so clean it can even be certified organic — what a way to `greenwash’ sewage sludge!”

And there you have it! Greenwashing: the insidious PR move of hiding potential environmental waste under the mantle of organic sustainability.

Synagro helps us see all of the different things that can be privatized: it privatized its annual statements in 2007, it privatized the waste disposal business, on the vanguard of de-regulation, it privatized waste itself, it privatized information or knowledge about the chemical contents of that waste. Almost anything can be commodified and privatized – invent a new market out of thin air and someone will usually enclose it, quick.

Worst of all, the poorest people are usually the ones who suffer, albeit in various ways. In the Bronx, the poorest New Yorkers are afflicted with stench and mysterious questions about heath and safety. In south-west Detroit, the people are afflicted by the incinerators that Synagro would have replaced, had the dirty contract with the city gone through. In New York, the people suffer because Synagro is “working hard” (whatever that means), while in Detroit, they suffer because Synagro is “hardly working.”

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6 Comments on “Greenwashing Synagro: Secretive Corporate Giant Has Got the Private Poop”

  1. Jim Bynum Says:

    I am impressed withP’s post. It is very acurate. However, there is no real difference between Class B and Class A sludge fertilizer, except that Class has fewer thermotolerant E. coli (fecal Coliform) in Class A due to the lack of nutrients and it being dryer. Fecal coliform is actually the name of the test for one gram negative type of E. coli that will continue to ferment lactose to produce some amount of gas and/or acid at the elevated temperature of 112.1 degsF. Most E. coli (a coliform) go dorment at that temperature, but will double every 20 minutes at 97-98 degs F. EPA hid the one major 1988 study that showed bactereia regrow in Class A and the 1988 study that showed EPA had no idea what chemicals were in sludge.
    Occurrence of Pathogens in Distribution and Marketing Municipal Sludges http://deadlydeceit.com/D_M_sludge.html
    Trace Organics and lnorganics in Distribution and Marketing Municipal Sludges
    http://deadlydeceit.com/D_M_Organics.html

  2. pizzapelsa Says:

    Although I’m no expert on bacteriology (or the chemistry of sludge more generally), it seems like E. coli is the most serious immediate health risk from applying sludge as fertilizer. The really mysterious aspect is the long-term dangers associated with the existence of industrial waste in sludge, which no one in the industry (or the EPA) seems to WANT to know about.

  3. Ben Oostdam Says:

    Excellent article.
    As to the comments to-date, not only the fecal coliforms but also the toxic trace-elements and organic compunds contained in the extensive industrial contributions to our
    WTP’s and their “biosolids” make any land application
    of these substances so risky that such countries as Holland do no longer use this “solution” to the
    sewage disposal problem.

    The Synagro Syndrome solution is obviously sinister
    and hopefully un-American! (Maybe even a spelling error; SINAGRO is more like it …excuse the pun.)

    For more about this topic including calling the enabler USEPA Bioterrorists,
    kindly visit my website
    (which is fairly up to date starting with our
    testimony against abandoning ocean disposal in the
    1980’s but less so in the 2000’s when several other good websites were established):

    http://www.boostdam.net/sludge/index.html

  4. P Says:

    Quite a thorough piece!

    From our angle of privatization concerns, I think this is another great example of this new dynamic we’re exploring wherein the enclosure of public safety information is not only a method though which private corporations can stifle inquiry into their business practices (and thus avoid being pressured into adopting measures that would increase safety at the cost of profit), but also a way for government entities to shift accountability away from themselves.

    I’d be interested for us to do some further thinking about how situations like this dovetail with the anti-regulation aspects of political conservativism/libertarianism, which often portray government oversight as a form of “tyranny”, whether or not it might be able to keep e. coli out of our spinach.

    • pizzapelsa Says:

      Big thanks to Jim Bynum and Ben Oostdam for not only leaving interesting comments, but also leaving some useful weblinks – thanks!

  5. Van Says:

    For an academic take on a similar case, though its much smaller in scale, see David Pellow. 2004. “The Politics of Illegal Dumping: An Environmental Justice Framework” Qualitative Sociology. 27 (4): 511-525.

    Pellow examines illegal dumping in Chicago through an environmental justice lens and notes the importance of local collaborators and corruption, which has clear parallels here.


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