Standing Up for Sludge Standards, Answering Attacks

On June 14, 2017 the City of Austin’s Water and Wastewater Commission passed a resolution attacking the Zero Waste Advisory Commission (ZWAC). In our view, ZWAC built upon the work of the Joint Committee on Bio-Solids Management and improved public oversight on a costly, environmentally sensitive program. Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE) does not support this resolution and urges our supporters to take action in favor of public oversight and environmental protection.

You can send a message to the Mayor and your City Councilmember in support of stronger standards here.


In July 2016 TCE learned that the Water and Wastewater Commission was set to approve a contract of up to $20 million that would essentially privatize Austin Water Utility’s biosolids management program, including the production of Austin’s famous Dillo Dirt brand of biosolids compost.

Biosolids are also sometimes called sewage sludge.  After human wastes and other materials  are flushed down all our drains, they are treated and the water is removed leaving the biosolids. TCE has become active in the last year or two in fighting proposals to dump this sludge onto agricultural land as fertilizer. Instead we support composting this material.

This $20 million contract was with a company called Synagro, whom we have now worked with through this process but at the time we were very concerned about environmental challenges to their practices in other communities. Furthermore, this privatization represented to us a major change in policy—the transfer of a public program to an out-of-state corporation—and to make matters worse Austin Water Utility claimed that all of the plans for this program were confidential and refused to answer our questions about Synagro’s intentions.

Essentially Austin Water asked for a $20 million blank check made out to a company with an imperfect environmental record so that they could privatize an iconic City program with zero details as to their plans.

In July 2016, the Water and Wastewater Commission approved this contract with only one vote in opposition. The Austin City Council responded by postponing their approval and directing the Water and Wastewater Commission and the Zero Waste Advisory Commission (ZWAC) to create a Joint Committee on Biosolids Management to examine policy options and make recommendations to Council. After a short and intense work process, the Joint Committee issued a recommendation in October 2016.

The Water and Wastewater Commission endorsed this policy with a unanimous vote with no amendments. ZWAC commissioners who were not on the Committee had additional suggestions for ensuring that the policies did the most to protect the environment and public interest. Commissioners are responsible to the people of Austin, not working groups or committees—ZWAC commissioners took this obligation seriously.

Austin Water Utility staff—used to minimal oversight from commissioners—have expressed opposition to the ZWAC protections at a subsequent City Council committee stakeholder meeting in May 2017. Unfortunately on June 14, 2017, Austin Water and Wastewater Commission passed a resolutionwith  false and misleading claims about the ZWAC amendments.

We need better public oversight, and we need accountability for how OUR money is spent. We need the best possible protections for our environment and health—especially when there is a risk of human wastes being disposed carelessly—tell your Councilmember right now!

Compare the Policies

The ZWAC changes protect the environment and public interest while allowing for flexibility and innovation. Don’t take our word for it—you can see the Water and Wastewater Commission version of the policies here, and the Zero Waste Advisory Commission version here.

This is a pretty obscure topic, and a lot of folks don’t want to think about what happens to the stuff we flush, but the differences are clear.

  • Require a specific definition for “compost.” TCE and others have been concerned that some sludge is not being treated enough to actually be turned into compost, but it’s being called “compost” anyways. All parties want to compost all material; ZWAC simply wants to ensure that we all have a common standard for what “compost” means that prevents lower quality material from being dumped on land near you.
  • Make sure testing is independent and accountable. The definition that Synagro and others would use requires sample tests on a regular basis, and allowing a private company to sample their own product leaves the door open to abuse—it’s self-regulation. The ZWAC recommends that either a City employee or a third party conduct these tests instead. Abuse still might happen, but we can more easily hold them accountable when it is uncovered.
  • Use best practices for keeping plastic pollution off the land. These biosolids have LOTS of trash and other debris mixed in. Insufficient screening means plastic pollution getting tilled into the soil, or even delivered to your garden. All parties want to keep those materials out of the final product, ZWAC simply insists that the best practices be used for this so that the screening is as thorough as possible—namely the use of screens small enough to capture this waste.
  • Prevent indefinite “emergencies” that harm the environment. If things go wrong in the composting process, the vendors have the power to shift back to “land application” on an emergency basis. History has shown that sometimes companies or governments can use “emergencies” to allow abuses on a long-term basis. ZWAC insists that any “emergency” declaration outline the plan for returning to normal operations.
  • Commission review of pest and odor policies. All parties want the City to set policies to keep odors and pests—like insects, rats, and feral hogs—to a minimum. ZWAC simply wants a specific timeframe—90 days–for these policies to be adopted so that they don’t drop through the cracks and the chance for the public to see how their health and quality of life are being protected.
  • Protect the Dillo Dirt brand. Austin was one of the first cities in the world to compost our biosolids, and our Dillo Dirt brand compost has set a high standard for this product. If another company is going to market materials under this name, they need to meet the same standards, and ZWAC makes that clear.
  • Keep toxic bulking agents out of our compost. One exciting feature of the new biosolids compost program is that it will use waste lumber from construction and demolition projects for some of the “bulking agents” that turn the sludge into compost—keeping these materials out of our landfills. ZWAC wanted to make it clear that toxic materials like asbestos and painted or treated lumber are not included in this process.
  • Let ZWAC and other commissions review pertinent contracts. City commissions ensure that the public is represented in the policy process and makes contracts subject to public scrutiny. This saves money and protects our health, welfare, and environment. ZWAC wants sludge contracts reviewed by that commission and others to make sure we are safe with these risky materials.

Responding to Water and Wastewater’s Attacks

As you can see from a simple comparison of these policies, there should be no reason for serious or principled conflict between these commissions. ZWAC suggested improvements, but for whatever reason Water and Wastewater Commissioners not only disagreed with these suggestions, but also passed a resolution attacking ZWAC—you can see the document here.

A lot of the Commission’s concerns were addressed above, but here’s TCE’s response to the other relevant points made by that commission.

“Authoritarianism…” This claim is an attack on the character of ZWAC commissioners, an unprecedented and very irregular act for another commission to take. The idea that volunteer citizens can be authoritarian with regard to the government indicates either a misunderstanding of the term or a conception that puts the prerogatives of the state over those of citizens. Either way it is a reckless claim to make, one that threatens to derail the entire policy process on this question.

“One side’s objectives… May not be in the best interests of all stakeholders.” This statement assumes that there are distinct objectives and interests for the two commissions, though both are supposed to be committed to the same things—the public interest and environment. There is not a single ZWAC amendment that serves any interest other than greater oversight, improved accountability, and increased environmental protection. If these are their objectives and interests what are the Water and Wastewater Commission’s?

“Prevent the highest and best use of the biosolids commodity and limit it to a market of compost that is not currently sustainable.” This claim is absolutely false. In both documents point number one expresses a desire to “strive” to make compost with our biosolids—a verb that leaves room for other processes. Both include an identical hierarchy graphic that clearly leaves room for other processes (you can see it at the top of either the Water and Wastewater Commission recommendations or the ZWAC recommendations). And both documents have an identical point number 9 that encourages the department to “vet and pilot new technologies and management strategies.” Any party that claims that the ZWAC document precludes any other techniques besides composting either hasn’t read the document or is willfully misrepresenting what it says.

And as for the claim that compost marketing is unsustainable, Synagro and other vendors in this market have repeatedly claimed throughout this process that they can market 100% of Austin’s biosolids as compost. This is good news for rural Texans tired of land application in their communities.

“Mandate excessive testing methods which would delay the production of the commodity and increase production costs.” Whatever process is ultimately approved, the plan is to operate it at the City’s Hornsby Bend Wastewater treatment plant in conjunction with City staff. Samples will have to be taken in any case to meet the “Seal of Testing Assurance” (STA) standards supported by both sets of recommendations. If City employees are there, if samples have to be taken, and if the policy to have only City employees take the samples how does this raise costs? A third party might cost a small amount, but in a $20 million contract these costs are minimal.  This claim strikes us as an attempt to find something else to be “concerned” about in a document that has nothing to worry about in it.

 “Allow for third party review of proprietary information included in competitive bids which is not proper etiquette.” It is deeply concerning that any City commission or other body charged with oversight for the public would prioritize “etiquette” over thorough scrutiny of how ratepayers and taxpayers money is being spent. Contracts are reviewed by the public and Council prior to approval in San Antonio and Dallas, among many other cities—why not in Austin?


Take Action!

We need the Austin City Council to prioritize environmental protection, oversight, and the public interest in this and all City business. Tell Mayor Steve Adler and your City Councilmember to adopt the strongest possible policy—the ZWAC biosolids policy—right now!

Thanks for your support, always, and stay tuned on this important issue!