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WARNING! Sewage sludge is toxic. Food should not be grown in "biosolids." Join the Food Rights Network.


This article is part of the Food Rights Network, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy. Find out more here.

Synagro, according to its website, is the largest processor of sewage sludge in the United States. [1] The company is owned, since 2007, by The Carlyle Group, a formal corporate partner of the Environmental Defense Fund. [2] Synagro describes itself as "a company that helps government agencies and private industries better manage organic residuals. Organic residuals include all non-hazardous (sic) byproducts created by industrial or municipal facilities during the water or wastewater treatment process. Our company: Serves more than 600 municipal and industrial water and wastewater facilities; Employs over 1,000 people; Operates in 33 states; Has revenues of over $344MM for the year ending 2009." [3]

Donating Sewage Sludge Products to Community Gardens 2013

In 2013, the USCC began a PR campaign it called the "Million Tomato Compost Campaign," which it said "connects community gardens, compost producers, chefs and food banks to grow healthy soil, healthy food, and healthy communities."[4]

According to the campaign website, "USCC's STA certified compost producer members will donate STA-certified compost to participating community gardens who sign on to the Million Tomato Compost Campaign. Community gardens will use their compost to grow one million tomatoes, either for their own use or for donation to local food banks. Chefs will work with the community gardeners, schools and nonprofits to teach people about using sustainably grown local food in recipes that even kids will love!"[5]

Of the dozens of producers in almost all 50 states that participate in the USCC's STA program, at least six are known to use industrial and residential sewage sludge in their products: A-1 Organics, EKO Systems (one of whose plants was producing 3,090 dry tons of sewage sludge product a year as of 2010), Synagro, WeCare Organics, the Inland Empire Regional Composting Authority (the Los Angeles area sewage treatment facility, sewage sludge from which is also used in products like those from Kellogg Garden Products), and Engel & Gray, Inc.'s Harvest Blend Compost.

These products are some of the sewage sludge products known to be sold by corporations and municipalities. To dispose of sewage sludge produced by wastewater treatment plants, the industry and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have renamed them "biosolids" and dubbed them as "green" examples of recycling, beneficial reuse, and organic fertilizer and compost products. In many cases, the sewage sludge is then packaged as compost or fertilizer and sold to unsuspecting gardeners or farmers.

Sludge contaminants can include flame retardants (which California recently listed as a carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent), antibacterial agents like triclosan, phthalates (the solvent that gives vinyl plastic the nickname "Poison Plastic") and other industrial solvents, nanosilver and other nanomaterials, endocrine disruptors, pharmaceutical residues, resistant pathogens, and perfluorinated compounds. Some of these contaminants can "bioaccumulate" in plants grown in sludge-contaminated soil and remain as residue on vegetables in contact with the soil. These plants can then eaten by children and adults.

CBS Gives PR Boost To Synagro with "Undercover Boss"

Currently, PR firm Allison & Partners is helping to mold and shape the image of Synagro by arranging with CBS to feature the enormous sludge company's CEO on CBS's "Undercover Boss," in a March 27, 2011 episode to air at 9 p.m. EST. "Undercover Boss" is a so-called reality television program featuring, "senior executives as they leave the comfort of their corner offices for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their companies," according to PRNewswire.[6] In this photo[7], Synagro CEO Bill Massa emerges from cleaning a tank full of toxic sewage sludge. PRNewswire's caption refers to Synagro's work as the designing and execution of "efficient, integrated waste capture and conversion solutions." Also in the episode, Massa allegedly helps to de-water sludge and dredge and clean a lagoon.

"From business operations to safety standards, Synagro is steadfastly committed to excellence, and we encourage our employees to tap into their own passions and view our company as a means to foster that growth and interest," Massa said through the Allison & Partners release. "I am honored to work alongside these men and women and offer them additional opportunities to help make a difference in their lives."

Chez Sludge and Synagro

Synagro "composts" the toxic sludge of the City of San Francisco and 8 other counties, the product at the heart of the Chez Sludge scandal in San Francisco. The Food Rights Network released a major investigative report on July 9, 2010 titled: Chez Sludge: How the Sewage Sludge Industry Bedded Alice Waters. [8] It examines collusion between the Chez Panisse Foundation and the SFPUC based on an extensive open records investigation of the SFPUC internal files. (To view the internal documents see: SFPUC Sludge Controversy Timeline.)

Synagro Processes San Francisco's Toxic Sludge (aka "Organic Biosolids Compost")

In 2009 a major controversy erupted in San Francisco when the Center for Food Safety and the Organic Consumers Association called on the SFPUC to end its give-away of toxic sewage sludge processed by the Synagro company as free "organic biosolids compost" to gardeners. The sewage sludge "compost" is processed from the sludge of San Francisco and eight other counties.

A March 4, 2010, demonstration at City Hall by the OCA forced a temporary halt to the program. (See articles below)[9] [10][11][12] [13] The misleading labeled "organic compost," which the PUC has given away free to gardeners since 2007, is composed of toxic sewage sludge from San Francisco and eight other counties. Very little toxicity testing has been done, but what little has been done is alarming. Just the sludge from San Francisco alone has tested positive for 1,2-Dibromo-3-Chloropropane (a.k.a. DBCP), Isopropyltoluene (a.k.a. p-cymene or p-isopropyltoluene), Dioxins and Furans. [14]

Independent tests of sewage sludge-derived "compost from the Synagro CVC plant in Merced, CA -- a product distributed free to Bay Area gardeners since 2007 by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in their "organic biosolids compost" giveaway program -- have found appreciable concentrations of contaminants with endocrine-disruptive properties. These contaminants include polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants, nonylphenol detergent breakdown products, and the antibacterial agent triclosan. The independent tests were conducted for the Food Rights Network by Dr. Robert C. Hale of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences and released publicly on August 10, 2010, at a meeting of the SFPUC.

Synagro's Detroit Sludge Bribery Scandal Involving Felon Monica Conyers, Wife of Congressman John Conyers

Monica Conyers, the Detroit politician who is the wife of powerful liberal Congressman John Conyers, is a convicted felon, going to prison. "She pleaded guilty in 2009 to taking bribes to vote for Synagro Technologies in a $1.2-billion sludge disposal deal. "[15] However, Synagro or its owner the Carlyle Group has not been charged. [16]

Articles and Resources

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External Articles


  1. Synagro Website Visited June 16, 2010.
  2. Carlyle Website visited June 16, 2010.
  3. Synagro website accessed July 1, 2010
  4. Leanne Spaulding, U.S. Composting Council, RE: Happy ICAW 2013!, organizational email to members, May 7, 2013.
  5. U.S. Composting Council,, Million Tomato Compost Campaign website, accessed May 2013.
  6. Synagro Featured on CBS's "Boss Undercover", International Entertainment News, accessed March 2011.
  7. Photo: Synagro CEO Bill Massa covered in sewage sludge, PR Newswire, accessed March 2011.
  8. John Stauber, Chez Sludge: How the Sewage Sludge Industry Bedded Alice Waters,, July 9, 2010
  9. Heather Knight, Nonprofit calls PUC's compost toxic sludge, San Francisco Chronicle, September 27, 2009.
  10. Barry Estabrook, Free Compost--Or Toxic Sludge?, The Atlantic, December 1, 2009
  11. Anna Werner, Concern Over SF Compost Made from Sewage Sludge, CBS Channel 5, March 3, 2010
  12. Leora Broydo Vestel, Food Groups Clash Over Compost Sludge, New York Times Green Inc. blog, April 9 2010.
  13. Chris Roberts, Farmers Call PUC's Shit, Will Dump it on City Hall Today, San Francisco Appeal, March 4, 2010.
  14. Jill Richardson, What San Francisco Found in Their Own Sludge, La Vida Locavore blog, April 8, 2010.
  15. [David Ashenfelter, Monica Conyers loses bid to delay doing prison time, Detroit Free Press, August 17, 2010
  16. Diane Bukowski, Carlyle and Synagro escape charges; Powerful global firm, subsidy engineered city pay-offs, Michigan Citizen, July 29, 2010.