St. Louis Composting’s Patrick Geraty hooks up with a national syndicate that peddles sewage.
by Bill Newmann
“I have learned in the past that if you don’t have a seat at the table, you can be on the menu,” says Patrick Geraty, owner of St. Louis Composting Inc., the region’s largest commercial composter.
Geraty made the revealing comment to the board of directors of the U.S. Composting Council (USCC) late last year. As part of his pitch to gain a board seat, Geraty also proposed adopting an advertising blitz similar to the now-famous mantra: “Got Milk?”
The St. Louis businessman’s proposition is part of a recurring public relations barrage aimed at cleaning up an industry image sullied by its involvement in the toxic waste trade.
Geraty now dines at both the tables of the USCC and its governmental counterpart, the Missouri Solid Waste Advisory Board. The private and public agencies regulate wood waste – St. Louis Composting’s main raw material. But they also regulate another waste that’s being incorporated into compost with increasing frequency: sewage sludge.
Sewage sludge is raw sewage minus water. Raw sewage is everything that gets flushed down toilets and drains, including household, industrial, and medical wastes. Water-treatment plants collect raw sewage, and their main goal is to recover as much clean water as possible for reuse. The leftovers form a concentrated, toxic stew.
All sewage sludge contains hazardous materials, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Many of the individual contaminants in sludge cause cancer, reproductive, and immune-system disorders.
After the sludge is separated from the waste water, the problem then becomes what to do with the remaining toxic mess. Burning or burying the waste is often prohibitively expensive, so reusing sludge as fertilizer is the cheapest disposal method the agency allows. As a safeguard, the EPA requires sludge be treated to eliminate pathogens and the USCC imposes its own limited restrictions. However, many experts question whether these precautions go far enough to protect human health and the environment. While policy makers and health experts continue to debate the safety concerns, the USCC is pushing its agenda by spreading the sludge-containing compost far and wide.
The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), a watchdog group focused on exposing corporate spin and government propaganda, is alarmed by this trend. CMD refers to the USCC as “a front group for dumping sewage sludge onto gardens and farms.” John Stauber, founder of the CMD, first revealed the skullduggery in his book Toxic Sludge is Good For You released in 1995.
In retrospect, not much has changed.
Cities nationwide are still under the same pressures to do something with the never-ending flow of raw sewage. Since the 1992 federal ban on ocean dumping, the waste disposal industry has needed a new dumping ground. To this end, those involved have taken to packaging, selling, and somtimes giving sewage sludge away to farmers just to get rid of it. Purveyors of sludge hawk the hazardous waste as natural fertilizer and organic compost.
The founding of St. Louis Composting also dates back to the early 1990s. Geraty started up the company to take advantage of Missouri’s newly implemented waste-disposal reforms, which banned yard waste from landfills. Though he incorporated the company with business associates from Illinois, he now owns and operates the business with his wife Rebecca Geraty. The husband-and-wife team have built St. Louis Composting into the region’s most successful compost and mulch maker, processing more than one-third of the area’s wood waste, and selling it to municipalities and private individuals alike.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon (Dem) recently reappointed Geraty to the state board that oversees solid waste management. Rebecca Geraty is his alternate. The agency has no regulatory power but advises the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. As such, the board wields influence over the state’s waste-disposal policies and regulations.
Moreover, Geraty now holds sway on the national level through his newly gained seat on the USCC’s board, a non-profit trade group dedicated to promoting the compost industry. The association is also responsible for self-governing the fledgling industry, which lacks federal oversight. This voluntary system has gained widespread acceptance as the unofficial means of regulating compost and mulch quality. St. Louis Composting, for example, participates in the USCC’s Seal of Testing Assurance (STA) certification program.
In short, the fox is guarding the proverbial chicken coop.
“USCC [is] the only game in town for the promotion of commercial compost,” says Stauber. “They are dominated by sludge advocates but not exclusively.”
Peter Reppening, one of Geraty’s original Illinois partners, has different issues with the private organization’s rules. The former cronies represent a split within the industry. Reppening now owns his own composting business, GreenCycle Inc., based in the Chicago and New York City areas. More than a decade ago, Reppening publicly voiced his opposition to USCC’s voluntary enforcement program. In the absence of federal regulation, he didn’t want his company to have to jump through USCC hoops. GreenCycle is still not among the scores of USCC member organizations.
In keeping with its mission to develop new markets for compost products, the USCC has spurred the campaign to re-brand sludge as biosolids, a user-friendly term also promoted by the Water Environment Federation, Kellogg Garden Products, BioCycle magazine, and others. The makeover seems to have worked. The EPA now uses the two terms interchangeably.
As a result, “biosolids” can now be found among the listed ingredients in bags of fertilizer and compost sold at retail outlets coast to coast. Products labeled as such contain sewage sludge.
The U.S. Agriculture Department, however, bans using sludge to grow organic food. The department also refrains from using the term biosolids. Instead, it retains the term sewage sludge because it describes the gunk more accurately.
To make nice with the Agriculture Department naysayers and other mettlesome government bureaucrats, USCC recently relocated its headquarters to Washington D.C. The move puts the USCC closer to the federal agencies that it needs to influence, though from all appearances the EPA is already convinced of the efficacy of sludge-laden compost. By its own words, the agency unabashedly supports dumping sewage sludge in backyards.
“Approximately 12 percent of sewage sludge generated [nationally] is sold or given away for use on home gardens. As a method of managing sewage sludge, this is a highly beneficial practice and one the Agency encourages,” according to the EPA’s skewed view.
Michael Virga, the USCC’s executive director, shares this shortsighted perspective. The lobbyist touts the association’s cozy relationship with the EPA. “They love this council,” Virga bragged at the USCC conference in Austin earlier this year. “This is the nation’s regulatory watchdog and they love this industry.”
Despite his board seat alongside Virga, Geraty denies dealing in sludge. “St. Louis Composting does not compost biosolids,” says Geraty. “St. Louis Composting is not considering composting biosolids in the future.”
But the USCC’s noxious crusade has already invaded Missouri. St. Peters – a USCC member – has instituted an EPA-award-winning recycling program in which the city composts sludge with municipal yard waste at its facility on Ecology Drive. Across the state, Kansas City uses its sludge to fertilize its municipal street-tree stock.
Despite municipal officials’ assurances, evidence of adverse health effects has been mounting for more than a decade. At the same time, industry sources continue to claim sludge is safe and that existing industry standards protect people from harm.
But there’s a gaping hole in sludge industry’s assertions.
No scientific studies have tracked the consequences of longterm sludge exposure. This lack of epidemiological research has stymied efforts to correlate sewage sludge with a plethora of diseases even though many components of sludge are known to be dangerous and even lethal.
A partial list of reported illnesses associated with sludge exposure includes: headaches, gastrointestinal ailments, skin irritation, eye irritation, nose irritation, nosebleeds, seizures, heart palpitations, tapeworms, respiratory ailments, staph infections, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, pulmonary disease, antibiotic-resistant viruses, and death.
If this is not enough to raise concerns, nine water-treatment plants in the United States have allegedly had to deal with radioactively contaminated sludge in recent years.
Based on research by Cornell University, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the EPA, sewage sludge typically contains:
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
- chlorinated pesticides
- poly-nuclear aromatic hydrocarbons
- parasitic worms
- petroleum products
- industrial solvents
- fire retardants
The EPA tests only for specific substances it judges to be of concern. According to the EPA’s findings, the individual contaminants are all generally found at levels deemed safe by the agency. But the cumulative effect of chronic exposure to this toxic soup remains unknown.
Though the dangers are still being debated, there is one certainty: more sewage sludge is finding its way into compost that’s being sold to consumers masked as an environmentally safe alternative to chemical fertilizers.