SFPUC Sludge Controversy Timeline

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

SFPUC Sludge Controversy Timeline is a documented, ongoing timeline of the actions of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in giving away toxic sewage sludge as "organic biosolids compost." The many internal SFPUC documents that are attached as PDFs were obtained by John Mayer of the Food Rights Network. The FRN is conducting an ongoing investigation of the behind-the-scenes conflicts of interest, collusion and PR crisis management of this issue by San Francisco officials including the staff of the SFPUC, Mayor Gavin Newsom, and Alice Waters and her Chez Panisse Foundation which is run by SFPUC Commissioner Francesca Vietor.

Photo by San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

Chez Sludge

The Food Rights Network released a major investigative report on July 9, 2010 titled: "Chez Sludge: How the Sewage Sludge Industry Bedded Alice Waters." [1] It examines collusion between the Chez Panisse Foundation and the SFPUC based on an extensive open records investigation of the SFPUC internal files. SFPUC Open Records Investigation 2010 is an article in progress containing a list of individuals mentioned in the internal SFPUC documents. The internal documents are attached as PDFs below:


The City of San Francisco Public Utilities Commission initiates a program to give away composted toxic sewage sludge from San Francisco and 8 other counties, promoting it as "organic Biosolids compost." [2] This sludge give-away amounts to a hazardous waste disposal program masquerading as an "organic compost" give-away. The program is discontinued temporarily on March 4, 2010, after a KCBS Television report (viewable online [3]) and just before a demonstration on the steps of City Hall by the Organic Consumers Association on March 4.[4]


Mayor Gavin Newsom names philanthropist Francesca Vietor to the five member SFPUC. She is currently the Vice President. Previously she served under Mayor Willie Brown as President of the San Francisco Commission on the Environment from 1997 to 1999 and as Director of the Department of the Environment from 1999 to 2001. She runs an environmental consulting firm, Ecoworks, with current contracts at Commonweal, an environmental health nonprofit in Marin County, and the Green Schools Initiative serves on the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund board of and directors, the Bioneers board. Her husband is the environmental author and writer Mark Hertsgaard of The Nation Magazine. In February, 2010, she become the Executive Director of celebrity chef Alice Waters' foundation, the Chez Panisse Foundation, promoting organic gardens in schools. [5]


September, 2009

    • September 23, the Center for Food Safety and the ReSource Institute for Low Entropy Systems (RILES) file a formal legal petition (PDF attached) with the SFPUC "to immediately suspend the SFPUC’s Compost Giveaway program because the compost distributed by the City of San Francisco is made with sewage sludge and contains toxic chemicals and hazardous materials." [6] PDF of 9/23 Petition
    • September 27, the San Francisco Chronicle reports on the controversy.[7]

November, 2009

    • November 19, 2009: The SFPUC CAC Wastewater Subcommittee, chaired by Alex Lantsberg meets and hears testimony from both CFS and Laura Orlando of RILES in support of their petition. Ultimately the PUC rejects via inaction the CFS petition to stop the sludge give away. "In late November the groups got an answer to their petition. Speaking before a citizens' advisory committee, Natalie Sierra of the public utilities commission, said that, far from ending the program, 'the city hoped to expand it ten-fold.'" (Emphasis added.) [8]

December, 2009

    • December 1, 2009: Barry Estabrook of The Atlantic reports on the controversy. "Although the current flashpoint is San Francisco, municipalities across the country are looking for places to put their sludge. The ... Organic Consumers Association, an advocacy group, announced last month that it is about to launch a 'major campaign against the sewage sludge industry.'" [9]


February, 2010

** February, 2010: Famous celebrity chef and Organic food advocate Alice Waters chooses her friend Francesca Vietor, a Bay Area philanthropist and liberal political activist, to be the new Executive Director of her Chez Panisse Foundation, raising money to promote ESY's, or Edible Schoolyard gardens, and to spread the Chez Panisse brand and philosophy, a brand that Waters' biographer dubbed "a standard-bearer for a system of moral values."

** February 8, 2010: PRWatch.org reports that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission "has come up with an ingenious plot to trick city residents into taking their toxic sewage sludge back and disposing of it in their own gardens. San Francisco is having Synagro, the corporate giant of the toxic sludge industry, 'compost' some of the toxic sewage sludge. Then they give it away to San Francisco's gardeners telling us it's 'high-quality, nutrient-rich, organic Biosolids Compost.' " [10] John Stauber emails this article to a number of Bay Area liberal activists and reporters; Francesca Vietor is on the list of recipients.

** February 8, 2010: Francesca Vietor, the Vice President of the SFPUC and the new head of Alice Waters prestigious Chez Panisse Foundation, reads this article after receiving it in an email from John Stauber and forwards it on February 10, 2010 to Ed Harrington, the General Manager of the SFPUC. She writes in her email to Harrington, "fyi, please copy me on the response as Stauber is a colleague." PDF of Veitor 2/8 email to Harrington

** February 8, 2010: Public interest researcher John Mayer launches an ongoing open records investigation of the SFPUC, resulting in dozens of internal documents attached to this Timeline, with more to come.

** February 9, 2010: John Mayer, then with Organic Consumers Association, sends an email to Francesca Vietor, the new Executive Director of the Chez Panisse Foundation [11] whose mission is to promote organic gardens in schools. John Mayer asked "whether Chez Panisse Foundation might sign on to our letter [to Mayor Gavin Newsom calling for an end to the toxic sludge giveaway] and otherwise offer its support. We are trying to get the below information and sign-on link disseminated as far and wide as possible, are hoping to interest people in attending our rally at City Hall, and would love to have someone from Chez Panisse speak at the event. I hope you will find this a worthy effort to support." PDF of Email to Vietor at Chez Panisse

** February 10, 2010: Francesca Veitor, Excecutive Director of the Chez Panisse Foundation and Vice President of the San Franciso Public Utilities Commission, responds by email to John Mayer declining to support the campaign to stop the City's sludge give-away, writing: "Thank you for your note and the good work of the Organic Consumers Association. We do not generally sign on to letters so cannot offer you support at this time." PDF of Vietor Email to Mayer

March, 2010

** March 3, 2010: KPIX-TV (CBS Channel 5) news in San Francisco runs an extensive investigative report by Anna Werner on San Francisco's toxic sludge give away, reporting that the sludge is contaminated with, among other hazardous material, dioxins. [12]

    • March 3, 2010. Alice Waters, a member of the EWG Advisory Board, appears with EWG co-founder Ken Cook and board chair Drummond Pike at a gala event in San Francisco. "EWG staff and key supporters gathered ... to introduce the audience of environmental stalwarts to the increasing convergence of EWG’s two major fields of work -- how common toxic chemicals find their way into the bodies of America’s children and the impact of modern agriculture on the environment and human health. ... Alice Waters (pictured with Mr. Cook), celebrated chef, advocate, author, mother and pioneer of “The Edible Schoolyard” program in Berkeley, Calif, attended the Earth Dinner event. Mr. Cook payed homage to her impact on cuisine and the food system as a whole in his presentation. ... The sold-out Earth Dinner also would not have been possible without the generous support of our host committee [whose] members include Steven Addis, Meg Bertero, Eleanor Bigelow, Sally Bingham, Gabrielle Bravo, Jennifer Caldwell, Jenny Emerson, Christine Gardner, Frank Gerber, Carrie Gretsch, Gabrielle Layton, Leigh Matthes, Marie McGlashan, Carol McDonnell, Drummond Pike, Sandie Schmaier, Laura Spivy and Meredith Wingate." [13] The San Francisco Chronicle would report, "EWG President and co-founder Ken Cook welcomed new EWG advisory board member Edible Schoolyard founder Alice Waters and City Attorney Dennis Hererra as he unveiled EWG's 2010 Right to Know Campaigns. [14] On March 17, the SFPUC would write EWG and Cook into its PR management plan of the toxic sludge issue. [15]

** March 4, 2010: After the airing of Anna Werner's CBS news story, and before the afternoon protest by the Organic Consumers Association, the City of San Francisco decides to put the sludge giveaway on temporary hold, as reported by the San Francisco Appeal: "After making a mess and cleaning it up, the politicking planters will deliver a letter to Mayor Gavin Newsom, asking him to halt the city's biosolid giveaway program and demanding he get down and dirty with paying to 'clean up the school yards and backyard gardens that have been contaminated.' (The PUC's already halted the program.)" [16]

    • March 4, Organic Consumers Association delivers a letter PDF of letter to Mayor Gavin Newsom calling for an end to the city's toxic sludge giveaway. (This is the letter that Francesca Vietor, representing the Chez Panisse Foundation, declined to sign on February 10.) PDF of Vietor letter to Mayer OCA conducts a "toxic sludge dump" protest at San Francisco City Hall that receives much local and national attention including an Associated Press article that appears with a photograph in the Washington Post, New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and scores of other newspapers. [17]
    • March 4: The Organic Consumers Association demonstration on the steps of City Hall scores some major wins. Mother Jones magazine reports online that "In response to complaints from organic gardeners who say they were duped and to this CBS news segment [on KCBS by Anna Werner], San Francisco has at least temporary suspended its public 'compost giveaway events' and announced that it will no longer call the material 'organic.'" [18]
    • March 4: John Stauber sends a personal email to Francesca Vietor, writing: "Francesca, I had no idea until I was doing some googling around today that you are VP of SFPUC. [19] I would be very happy to talk with you, let me know if you' d like to! As you know, I wrote the book Toxic Sludge Is Good for You sixteen years ago and now that I have left my organization, Center for Media and Democracy, I'm digging into the sludge again. You can be a hero on this issue by stopping the sludge on gardens in San Fran." 3/4/10 Vietor Email to Harrington, forwarding email from Stauber, PDF]
    • March 4: Francesca Vietor forwards to Ed Harrington, SFPUC General Manager, Stauber's email with a note that says to Harrington, "I am getting deluged with toxic sludge info from the activist community!" 3/4/10 Vietor Email to Harrington, forwarding email from Stauber, PDF]

** March 5, 2010: Francesca Vietor emails to Harrington, "fyi," a new Stauber email in which Stauber, who had not heard back from his emails to Vietor, writes her: “Again, let me know of you’d like to discuss the toxic sludge given away as garden compost.”

    • March 5: Vietor and SFPUC General Manager Ed Harrington discuss Stauber's emails to Vietor in an exchange in which Harrington writes to inform her that he, Harrington, has put the sludge giveaway program on temporary hold: "We have told them we have no plans to do any further giveaways at this time - feel free to tell them that again. We do not want to promise anything more than that - our real concern is the larger issue of our disposal of sludge (not this compost) on land in Solano County which they may go after next." (Emphasis added.) Harrington also states to Vietor: "In my humble opinion these people are mostly being misinformed by a small group of people who don't really believe anything we tell them and don't particularly care for or trust whatever available science is out there. ... The people at Public Health said if folks dumped the compost on the steps of City Hall we should just put it on the grass because it is perfectly safe. And one test we did shows that the amount of minerals in the compost is less than what you would get if you ate a Centrum vitamin. Having said that, this was a giveaway program - no one was forced to take any. And we typically held it once a year in October. ... Our other choice for this would be incineration which no one seems to want to talk about because of some serious environmental issues (even though it could create renewable power). This compost was frankly our best, most 'recyclable' idea. Here is what we are sending out if someone asks about it." He attaches an SFPUC sludge promotion leaflet. Harrngton Tell Vietor the He Has Put the Sludge Give-Away on Hold PDF
    • March 5: Vietor finally responds to Stauber's emails of March 4 and earlier in the day March 5, telling him what Harrington told her, that the sludge compost giveaway is on hold: "My understanding is that there are no further plans for give aways. The bigger issue is how to best use, and disposal of, sludge and waste. I just received the notice that the PUC is distributing on this issue --I will forward it on to you." Stauber and Vietor Email Exchanges of March 5, 2010 PDF
    • March 5: Stauber reads the sludge promotion information sent to him by Vietor and responds to her: "Francesca, The statement you sent is the same sad, misleading, inaccurate statement that your staff has been disseminating. There is nothing in it that says PUC is discontinuing the giveaways, are you telling me they are? Sewage sludge is toxic material and needs to be treated as such. The 'beneficial use' ruse is a terrible scam." Stauber and Vietor Email Exchanges of March 5, 2010 PDF
    • March 5: Vietor responds to Stauber's email, and copies her response to Ed Harrington, SFPUC General Manager: "John, I have not had a chance to take a closer look as I have recently starting [sic] a new job [note - referring to her job as Executive Director of the Chez Panisse Foundation], and I won't be able to in the near future, as I need to focus on other PUC business at present. I have asked Ed Harrington to respond to your concerns but please, specifically outline them, and address the points you find 'sad, misleading and inaccurate' in the PUC staff response, as I do not find your reply below at all constructive." Stauber and Vietor Email Exchanges of March 5, 2010 PDF

** March 7, 2010: Vietor forwards to Ed Harrington an email she received from food writer, author and blogger Jill Richardson asking questions of Vietor. Vietor writes to Harrington, "can we talk in the morning re this and next steps?" Vietor Forwards Richardson's Email to Harrington PDF

    • March 7, 2010: Food writer, author and blogger Jill Richardson reports on her own blogsite and on FireDogLake that "I’ve come to find out that the Vice President of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) (Francesca Vietor) is now the Executive Director of Alice WatersChez Panisse Foundation. I’ve contacted her to ask for her comments on this, and I intend to continue following the story on my blog." [20] This is the first public mention of the conflict of interest between the SFPUC and it's dumping of toxic sludge on gardens, and the SFPUC's Vice President being the Executive Director of an Alice Waters-branded foundation promoting natural food and Edible Schoolyard gardens.
    • March 7: Vietor reads the Richardson blog revealing her two hats: SFPUC Vice President, and Chez Panisse Foundation Executive Director. She emails it to Harrington and writes him, “this is getting sticky. lets talk in a.m.” Vietor Emails to Harrington 'Getting Sticky, Let's Talk' PDF

** March 9, 2010: Vietor works by email with Harrington and the SFPUC's public relations spokesperson, Tyrone Jue, to write and edit biosolids promotional material on the SFPUC website. Vietor, Harrington, Jue draft and edit info on PUC Website PDF

** March 10, 2010: Vietor emails Harrington language to include on the SFPUC's website promoting and defending its toxic sludge giveaway program in an email with the subject line "Biosolids Compost Statement for the SFWater.org homepage" Vietors' Suggestions for Biosolids Promotion Language on PUC Website PDF

** March 10, 2010: Ed Harrington, the General Manager of the SFPUC, sends a letter to John Mayer, then with the Organic Consumers Association, and an identical letter to the Center for Food Safety. In the letter (attached here as a PDF) Harrington writes: "Your organization in particular has raised concerns over the SFPUC's annual pilot biosolids compost giveaway at our wastewater treatment plants. ... During a March 2 media interview with Anna Werner, a KPIX Channel 5 reporter, she referenced an independent lab test on the SPFUC's biosolids compost that showed the presence of dioxins. We were told that this lab test was authorized by the Center for Food Safety. As we had not received a copy of this report we were unable to properly analyze or respond at the time of the interview." The OCA and the CFS respond to Harrington's letter on March 26. Interestingly, San Francisco's own testing of its toxic sludge in 2009 showed it to be contaminated with dioxins, but Harrington ignored this in his letter. PDF of Harrington Letter to OCA and CFS

** March 11, 2010: Jill Richardson thanks Vietor for talking with her, and educates her in an email about toxins in sludge and the laxity of the EPA regulations, referring in her email to the EPA's 2009 Targeted National Sewage Sludge Survey. Richardson Educates Vietor About the Toxins in Sludge and Laxity of EPA Regs PDF

** March 12, 2010: Vietor emails to Harrington the Richardson email of 3/11/10 suggesting a change in wording on the SFPUC website promoting and defending their toxic sludge: "one other edit on the response that Ty is creating -- I think the word 'stringent' should be taken out of the federal guidelines descriptor as I am learning that the fed guidelnes do not regulate a lot of toxins so may not be as stringent as we may want." Richardson Educates Vietor About the Toxins in Sludge and Laxity of EPA Regs PDF

** March 16, 2010: Author and activist John Stauber reports on the conflict of interest at the Chez Panisse Foundation: "I suspect that Bay area celebrity chef Alice Waters would never dump sewage sludge onto her own organic garden, nor serve food grown in sludge in her world famous natural foods restaurant Chez Panisse. The mission of her Chez Panisse Foundation is to create 'edible schoolyards' where kids grow, prepare, and eat food from their own organic gardens. But Francesca Vietor, the new executive director of the Chez Panisse Foundation, is at the same time actively promoting dumping toxic sludge on gardens in her role as Vice President of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission."[21]

** March 17, 2010: Vietor emails the link to Stauber's 3/16 article to Ed Harrington writing, “I will call you this morning to discuss.” Vietor to Harrington, Will Call and Discuss Stauber 3/16 Article PDF

    • Tyrone Jue and Laura Spanjian of the PUC put together a "Draft Biosolids Compost Strategy," [22] essentially a PR management plan. They planned to conduct tests on the San Francisco sludge product and on "steer/chicken manure and USDA Organic compost," and compare the results with a small test conducted in 2009 for the Center for Food Safety, the results of which the SFPUC had apparently obtained, although publicly they claimed not to be in possession of the CFS test results. (Note: When the SFPUC released its test results on July 28, 2010, the testing did not compare sludge to these products, but to other sludge products and commercial fertilizers, begging the question of when and how this protocol was changed, and whether these tests were every conducted.) PDF of Draft Biosolids Compost Strategy
    • Ken Cook and EWG are written into the SFPUC Draft Biosolids Compost Strategy. Jue proposed to utilize the Environmental Working Group when it launched its media campaign around the test results, writing: "Contact Environmental Working Group (Becky Sutton - soil scientist in East Bay; Ken Cook - Washington)." Alice Waters is on the EWG Advisory Board, appeared at a March 3, 2010, fundraiser for EWG, and later on April 1st when her Chez Panisse Foundation attacked the Organic Consumers Association and John Stauber by name (in a statement that appears to have been written for Chez Panisse Foundation by Laura Spanjian of the PUC) Ken Cook also weighed in to attack Stauber and OCA and to defend Chez Panisse Foundation.

** March 18, 2010: Vietor emails Ed Harrington, who forwards her email to SFPUC staff Laura Spanjian and Tyrone Jue. She asks for the SFPUC's help in responding to Stauber's article of 3/16: "I really need answers to my questions of yesterday asap so I can prepare a response." Vietor to Harrington re Answers for Response to Stauber's 3/16 Article PDF

** March 19, 2010: SFPUC's Tyrone Jue provides a draft response (NOTE - not yet released by the PUC) for Vietor to use in responding to Stauber's 3/16 article. He writes: "Sorry for the delay. Here is a draft response. Please note that the SF Bay Guardian has been working on a biosolids compost article the past few days and just sent some questions to the Mayor's Office. I'm drafting a response for them as well. I have no indication or notion that this article will include any mention of you at all. So far, based on our web monitoring [emphasis added] the blog posting of Mr. Stauber was pretty isolated. I would recommend not personally posting this response under your name [emphasis added]. We certainly want to make sure it covers everything you would like said, but I'm hesitant to dignify his post and create a mechanism for further online back and forth dialogue that includes you. The response instead would be posted under the name of Ed, Tommy or I. Laura and I definitely want to talk to you about our next steps. Ed, Laura and I have outlined a draft strategy moving forward. Let us know when you are available and if you have changes." PUC Staff and Vietor Strategize How to Respond to Stauber's 3/16 Article PDF

** March 23, 2010: The Organic Consumers Association hand delivers a letter (PDF attached) to Alice Waters at the Chez Panisse Foundation that reads, "we imagine that you would want to be one of the first to unequivocally and publicly state that sewage sludge is unacceptable for farming and gardening - organic or conventional," pointing out that it "seems to us a clear conflict of interest that Francesca Vietor should serve as both the Executive Director of the Chez Panisse Foundation and the Vice President of the SFPUC. In light of your dedication to non-GMO foods, would you have the Vice President of Monsanto as your Executive Director? The two do not seem much dissimilar as both work for organizations that compromise the integrity of the movement for which you are both a pioneer and a leading voice. ... In 2000, you took a stance against GMOs by telling your food suppliers they had to stop using all GMOs and stating publicly, 'Flat out, no genetic engineering.' We at the OCA applaud this position and ask that you now do the same for toxic sewage sludge: 'Flat out, no toxic sewage sludge for our food!'" (Emphasis added.) PDF of 3/23/10 OCA letter to Alice Waters at CPF [23]

** March 24, 2010: Vietor emails to the SFPUC staff the OCA letter to Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse Foundation. She writes, “Alice and CPF are not going to respond but it’s really important for SFPUC staff to come up with answers about whether the stuff does or does not contain the chemicals that Stauber, et al, say it does, and if so, in what doses and what those dose levels mean. It’s not enough, at least in San Francisco, to say it’s better than fed and state regs require. Can you get these answers quickly -- as now that people are trying to oust me from the PUC -- so I can decide whether to go on the offensive against these guys.” Vietor Sends OCA Letter to Alice Waters to SFPUC and Asks for Help PDF

** March 25, 2010: Mark Dowie, journalist and friend of Vietor's husband Mark Hertsgaard, steps in to manage the issue for Vietor. He sends a threatening email to his friend John Stauber, regarding Stauber's 3/16 article. Dowie writes to Stauber, in part: "I have conducted a small private investigation of the PUC Toxic Sludge situation in San Francisco and found some problems with your reporting, problems that could land you in trouble. Let me cut right to the quick. From what I can find Francesca Veitor, has never 'actively promoted' the PUC giveaway of sludge, nor has she ever defended it. If you have hard evidence to the contrary I suggest you produce it quickly or at least have copies ready to produce if you need them. ... I also understand that when you e-mailed with Francesca she told you that that was the first she had heard of the whole matter, and you left that statement out of your report. I suggest you find a way to work it back into your reporting if possible. I am not doing this in defense of Francesca Vietor, who is, I admit, an acquaintance. But as I told you a while back, that it is her husband Mark Hertsgaard who is my friend. And I am not doing this as a favor to him either. I am doing it in defense of good journalism and to protect you from possible litigation. This is not a threat, John, from me, Francesca, Mark or the PUC, just my observation and the observation of others who have read your reports (and OCA's letter to Alice Waters) and who know the facts behind the story, that you are treading a thin fine line between truth and libel. ... In short I encourage you to step back, take a closer look at everything you have, and if you can prove your case against Vietor with strong documentation, fire away [emphasis added] .... Very Best, Mark" Dowie Letter Threatening Stauber on Behalf of the PUC and Vietor PDF

** March 30, 2010: Vietor emails Harrington a draft version of Alice Waters response to the OCA letter of March 23, writing “pls review, we are going to try to send this out end of day.” Harrington responds, “Sounds perfect to me. Let me run it by a couple of folks in case I’m missing something and get back to you quickly.” Vietors Sends a Draft Version of Alice Waters Response to OCA to the PUC Staff for their Reviews and Comments PDF

** March 30, 2010: Alice Waters issues her statement, reviewed by the SFPUC staff, to John Stauber in response to the OCA letter. She does not publicly oppose growing food in toxic sludge and her statement publicly marries Waters and her Foundation run by Vietor to the goals of the PUC. Her letter reads in part: “I look forward to reviewing the science and working with the SFPUC to ensure the safety of composting methods. I support Francesca Vietor, Executive Director of the Chez Panisse Foundation and a PUC commissioner, whose environmental work I have admired for many years and whose integrity has been questioned." PDF of Alice email sent to John Stauber [24]

** March 31, 2010: Organic Consumers Association announces a lunch-time leafletting at the Chez Panisse cafe and foundation office for the following day, April 1st: [25]

April, 2010

** April 1, 2010: Suzanne Goldenberg of the UK's Guardian newspaper reports on the controversy. [26]

    • April 1, 2010: Francesca Vietor emails Suzanne Goldenberg, the author of the UK Guardian article above. The subject line of Vietor's email reads "You have libeled me." (Emphasis added.) The email is copied to her friend and who she calls "my attorney" Christina Desser. The email reads in part, "I was unaware of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission's program until I was contacted by John Stauber on March 4 , 2010, after which I took immediate steps to have the program suspended and additional testing undertaken." (Emphasis added.) This statement is false, as this Timeline clearly documents. Vietor writes, "I hereby demand that the Guardian publish an immediate retraction and correction of the false and libelous statement contained in your article." Vietor Letter to the Guardian Saying in Subject "You Have Libeled Me" and Sent to PUC PDF

Note: The Guardian stands by its reporting and the following week places this statement in bold on the Guardian website: "This article is the subject of a legal complaint made by Francesca Vietor."

    • April 1, 2010: A search of the CA Bar Association website reveals that the California law license of Vietor's attorney, Chris Desser, is "inactive," and so Desser cannot legally be held out to be, or to act as, Vietor's attorney.[27]
    • April 1, 2010: Francesca Vietor and Alice Waters issue a news release through the Chez Panisse Foundation attacking by name John Stauber and the Organic Consumers Association. The statement includes claims shown to be false and inaccurate by the documentation in this Timeline. For instance, the statement claims that Francesca Vietor was personally and directly responsible for putting a halt to the sewage sludge give-away. The statement says that "Ms. Vietor has never promoted the SFPUC program. In fact, as soon as Mr. Stauber brought the program to her attention, Ms. Vietor asked the staff of the SFPUC to do three things: 1. Put the program on indefinite hold until sound scientific data can be gathered and evaluated; 2. Conduct additional, rigorous testing of the material the PUC had been giving away; and 3. Issue a public call for solutions to the larger question of how San Francisco and municipalities everywhere should be dealing with their waste. ... The Foundation looks forward to ensuring public review of the science on this matter and working with the SFPUC and other relevant stakeholders to insure that safe practices are followed, here in the Bay Area and beyond. But we have no confidence, in view of their actions, that Mr. Stauber or the OCA share these goals. By refusing to acknowledge and correct their false accusations, Mr. Stauber and the OCA have attempted to taint the reputations of Alice Waters and Francesca Vietor, both of whom have long and outstanding records as environmental advocates. The Chez Panisse Foundation calls on Mr. Stauber and the OCA to retract their false statements and issue Alice Waters and Francesca Vietor a public apology." PDF of CPF Press Release [28] Stauber stands by his statements and refuses to retract anything said or written.. [29]

** April 4, 2010: Vietor emails Harrington (cc to Laura Spanjian) forwarding her threatening letter to the UK Guardian regarding their April 1st article. She tells Harrington, "I have asked Laura to sit tight with any PUC statements at this point. I need to be in touch with the City Attorney’s office, and I would like it to be with Theresa Mueller, with whom I have a long standing relationship from my days with the Dept of Enviro. Would you please forward me her contact info and if need be, give her a heads up on all of this?" Vietor Letter to the Guardian Saying in Subject "You Have Libeled Me" and Sent to PUC PDF

** April 7, 2010: Food writer Jill Richards, noticing that the UK Guardian website mentions that Francesca Vietor has filed a legal complaint against Suzanne Goldenberg's April 1 article, reviews Goldenberg's article for accuracy in her blog. Richardson's piece is titled "Vietor Takes Legal Action Over Sludge Article." In it she concludes that the UK Guardian article is accurate. Richards levels a tongue-in-cheek criticism at Vietor: "Just because someone is Vice President of an organization doesn't mean she has any clue what the people under her are doing or whether their actions are harming the environment or public health." [32]

    • April 7, 2010: Tyrone Jue of the SFPUC emails reporter Jill Richardson on behalf of Francesca Vietor: "I believe your post about Francesca suing the UK Guardian is factually inaccurate. A legal statement asking for the correction of inaccurate information in a publication is not a lawsuit. Since she is not in any way instituting a legal proceeding or filing a suit in court against the The Guardian she is not 'suing' them. I would appreciate it if you could make that correction."
    • April 7, 2010: A front page article with photo runs in the San Francisco Chronicle, juxtaposing quotes from John Stauber with the SPUC's Tyrone Jue: "'The problem with sewage sludge or the euphemistic term biosolids that they use is that all of this is hazardous material that potentially contains thousands and thousands of contaminants,' said John Stauber, a member of the group's advisory board and the author of several articles and a book on sewage sludge. 'Everything that goes in the sewer potentially ends up in it.' The San Francisco PUC has largely dismissed the criticisms, saying the levels of toxins found in the compost are well below federal and state standards. 'We are giving away highly treated, heat-pasteurized biosolids,' said Tyrone Jue, spokesman for the Public Utilities Commission. 'It has been tested for metals and pathogens and is basically sterile.'" [33]
    • April 7, Brady Welch writes an article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian that carries the false claims in the April 1, 2010 statement by the Chez Panisse Foundation: "In an April 1 statement ... the organization claimed that, 'Ms. Vietor has never promoted the SFPUC program. In fact, as soon as [the OCA] brought the program to her attention, Ms. Vietor asked the staff of the SFPUC to do three things,' which the statement lists as putting the program on hold, conducting additional testing, and issuing a public call for alternative solutions.... [W]e’re willing to grant Vietor the benefit of the doubt regarding her initial ignorance about the giveaway program (and then successfully suspending it) ...." (Emphasis added.)[34]

** April 8, 2010: Tyrone Jue responds to an April 7 email from Brady Welch of the SF Bay Guardian. Welch had asked, “There is some confusion about when Vietor ‘found out’ about the biosolids compost program. Can you clarify this for me? Once she became aware of it, I have read that she raised concerns among staff, which led to the program's indefinite suspension. Is this accurate?” Jue repeats the falsehood created by Vietor in the April 1 Chez Panisse Foundation news release: "It is only recently after claims were made by organizations about the quality of our biosolids compost that she had a conversation with our General Manager to suspend the program and do the additional tests above and beyond what is required by federal and state guidelines in the interest of public transparency.” Exchange Between Reporter Brady Welch and PUC's PR Person Tyrone June, April 7/8, PDF

    • April 8, 2010: Jill Richardson reports that the SFPUC's own studies have proven the toxicity of their sewage sludge. She writes, "San Francisco HAS done tests of their own sludge in the past, and I've got a copy of the results." The "organic compost," which the SFPUC 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 the SFPUC has done is damning. 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. [35]

** April 9: Leora Broydo Vestel's blog for the New York Times repeats the false claims of Vietor and Chez Panisse: "The [4/1 Chez Panisse] statement noted that it was Ms. Vietor ... who put a stop to the S.F.P.U.C.’s compost giveaway program and asked for a scientific evaluation of the composting material." (Emphasis added.)[36]

May, 2010

** May 3, 2010: Barry Estabrook of The Atlantic quotes Vietor's false claim writing, "Chez Panisse Foundation claimed that as soon as John Stauber, who was working with the OCA, brought the sludge program to Vietor's attention in March, she asked the SFPUC staff to put the give-away on hold pending 'rigorous testing of the material.' The statement also accused Stauber and the OCA of 'attempting to taint the reputations of Alice Waters and Francesca Vietor' and called on Stauber and the OCA to 'retract their false statements and issue Alice Waters and Francesca Vietor a public apology.'" (Emphasis added.) Vietor told Estabrook, "'I think the OCA tried to make this link to me to draw some attention to the issue.... Forming an official policy on sludge is something that the foundation has not looked into.' " [37]

July, 2010

** July 9, 2010: Based on the documentation above, the Food Rights Network releases a major investigative report titled: Chez Sludge: How the Sewage Sludge Industry Bedded Alice Waters. [38] It examines the conflicts of interest and collusion between the Chez Panisse Foundation and the SFPUC based on an extensive open records investigation of the SFPUC internal files.

** July 12, 2010: Food Rights Network files a letter of complaint with the California Bar Association asking them to investigate attorney Chris Desser's apparent practicing of law with an expired license.[39]

August, 2010

** August 10, 2010: The Food Rights Network announced in a news release that "Independent tests of sewage sludge-derived compost from the Synagro CVC plant -- distributed free to 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. The independent tests were conducted for the Food Rights Networkby Dr. Robert C. Hale of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences." In an August 6, 2010, letter reporting on his findings to the Food Rights Network Robert Hale wrote: "A sewage sludge-derived compost from the Synagro CVC plant, distributed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in their "compost give away" program, was analyzed for synthetic pollutants. Several classes of emerging contaminants with endocrine disruptive properties were detected in appreciable concentrations, including polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants, nonylphenols (NPs) detergent breakdown products and the antibacterial agent triclosan." PDFs are attached here of the letter and the data: [40] [41] [42] [43]

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. John Stauber, Chez Sludge: How the Sewage Sludge Industry Bedded Alice Waters, PRWatch, July 9, 2010
  2. SFPUC Website Accessed July 4, 2010.
  3. Concern Over SF Compost Made from Sewage Sludge, CBS Channel 5, March 3, 2010.
  4. Chris Roberts, News Farmers Call PUC's Shit, Will Dump it on City Hall Today, San Francisco Appeal, March 4, 2010.
  5. Official Biography on the SFPUC Website Accessed July 4, 2010.
  6. [CFS Petitions San Francisco Mayor to Stop Giving Away Poison Compost to Public, Center for Food Safety Website, September 23, 2009.
  7. [Heather Knight, Nonprofit calls PUC's compost toxic sludge, San Francisco Chronicle, September 27, 2009.
  8. Barry Estabrook, Free Compost--Or Toxic Sludge?, The Atlantic, December 1, 2009.
  9. Barry Estabrook, Free Compost--Or Toxic Sludge?, The Atlantic, December 1, 2009.
  10. San Francisco's Toxic Sludge - It's Good for You!, PRWatch.org, February 8, 2010]
  11. Catherine Bigelow, And across the bay, Francesca Vietor is the new executive director of the Chez Panisse Foundation, San Francisco Chronicle, February 7, 2010.]
  12. Anna Werner, Concern Over SF Compost Made from Sewage Sludge, CBS Channel 5, March 3, 2010.
  13. EWG Website Accessed August 23, 2010.
  14. Catherine Bigelow, In School Kitchens with Alice Waters & the Environmental Working Group, San Francisco Chronicle website, March 30, 2010.
  15. PDF of PUC 3/17 Draft Strategy
  16. Chris Roberts, News Farmers Call PUC's Shit, Will Dump it on City Hall Today, San Francisco Appeal, March 4, 2010.
  17. Evelyn Nieves, Claim: San Francisco giving gardeners toxic sludge, Associated Press in the Boston Globe, March 5, 2010.
  18. Josh Harkinson, A Backlash After San Francisco Labels Sewage Sludge Organic, Mother Jones magazine, March 4, 2010]
  19. [http://sfwater.org/detail.cfm/MC ID/18/MSC ID/113/C ID/71 PUC website, Vietor VP of SFPUC
  20. Jill Richardson, Food Sunday: Toxic Sludge as 'Organic Fertilizer', FireDogLake, March 7, 2010.
  21. John Stauber, Waiter, There Is Toxic Sludge in my Organic Soup!, PRWatch.org, March 16, 2010.]
  22. PDF of PUC 3/17 Draft Strategy
  23. OCA, Alice Waters, Exchange on Toxic Sewage Sludge, March, 2010
  24. OCA, Alice Waters, Exchange on Toxic Sewage Sludge, March, 2010
  25. The Organic Consumers Association To Picket Chez Panisse Restaurant on Thursday, April 1st, Noon, in Berkeley, CA Alice Waters, World Famous Organic Food Chef and Promoter of Safe School Gardens, Does Not Oppose Growing Food on Toxic Sewage Sludge, News Release, March 31, 2010.
  26. Suzanne Goldenberg, US chef Alice Waters criticised over sewage fertiliser: Top US healthy-eating chef Alice Waters attacked for supporting fertiliser made of sewage that activists say contains toxins, UK Guardian, April 1, 2010.
  27. Search of CA Bar Association Website, July 7, 2010.
  28. PDF of Chez Panisse Press Release, April 1, 2010.
  29. [Barry Estabrook, Composted Sewage Stirs Up Bay Area Food Fight, The Atlantic, May 3, 2010.
  30. EWG To Monitor San Francisco Sludge Policy, Criticizes Unfounded Accusations Aimed At Vietor, Waters, April 1, 2010.
  31. EWG To Monitor San Francisco Sludge Policy, Criticizes Unfounded Accusations Aimed At Vietor, Waters, April 1, 2010.
  32. Jill Richardson, Vietor Takes Legal Action over Sludge Article, La Vida Locavore blog, April 7, 2010.
  33. Peter Fimrite, Groups make stink over S.F. 'biosolid' compost, SF Chronicle, April 7, 2010.]
  34. Brady Welch, The Shit Show's Extended Run SF Bay Guardian, April 7, 2010.]
  35. Jill Richardson, What San Francisco Found in Their Own Sludge, La Vida Locavore blog, April 8, 2010.
  36. Leora Broydo Vestel, Food Groups Clash Over Compost Sludge, New York Times Green Inc. blog, April 9 2010.
  37. Barry Estabrook, Composted Sewage Stirs Up Bay Area Food Fight, The Atlantic, May 3, 2010.
  38. John Stauber, Chez Sludge: How the Sewage Sludge Industry Bedded Alice Waters, PRWatch.org, July 9, 2010
  39. Chez Sludge: Complaint Filed..., PRWatch.org, July 12, 2010.]
  40. Hale Letter 8/6/10
  41. Hale Data NP
  42. Hale Data PAH
  43. Hale Data PBDE

External resources

External articles