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Home > Archives > 2nd Quarter 1995 > A R.O.S.E. By Any Other Name
PR Watch Archives

Volume 2, No. 3

Flack Attack

Let Them Eat Sludge

A Brief History of Slime

Secret Ingredients

A R.O.S.E. By Any Other Name

Bypassing Barriers with "Active" and "Passive" Public Relations

Donate Now


A R.O.S.E. By Any Other Name

by John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton

To educate the public at large about the benefits of sludge, the EPA turned to the "Water Environment Federation." Although its name evokes images of cascading mountain streams, the WEF is actually the sewage industry's main trade, lobby and public relations organization, with over 41,000 members and a multi-million-dollar budget that supports a 100-member staff. Founded in 1928 as the "Federation of Sewage Works Associations," the organization in 1950 recognized the growing significance of industrial waste in sludge by changing its name to the "Federation of Sewage and Industrial Wastes Associations." In 1960, it changed its name again to the cleaner-sounding "Water Pollution Control Federation."

In 1977, Federation director Robert Canham criticized the EPA's enthusiasm for land application of sludge, which he feared could introduce viruses into the food chain. "The results can be disastrous," he warned. By the 1990s, however, Federation members were running out of other places to put the stuff. The Federation became an eager supporter of land farming, and even organized a contest among its members to coin a nicer-sounding name for sludge.

The proposal to create a "Name Change Task Force" originated with Peter Machno, manager of Seattle's sludge program, after protesters mobilized against his plan to spread sludge on local tree farms. "If I knocked on your door and said I've got this beneficial product called sludge, what are you going to say?" he asked. At Machno's suggestion, the Federation newsletter published a request for alternative names. Members sent in over 250 suggestions, including "all growth," "purenutri," "biolife," "bioslurp," "black gold," "geoslime," "sca-doo," "the end product," "humanure," "hu-doo," "organic residuals," "bioresidue," "urban biomass," "powergro," "organite," "recyclite," "nutri-cake" and "R.O.S.E.," short for "recycling of solids environmentally." In June of 1991, the Name Change Task Force finally settled on "biosolids," which it defined as the "nutrient-rich, organic byproduct of the nation's wastewater treatment process."

The new name drew sarcastic comment from the Doublespeak Quarterly Review, edited by Rutgers University professor William Lutz. "Does it still stink?" Lutz asked. He predicted that the name "probably won't move into general usage. It's obviously coming from an engineering mentality. It does have one great virtue, though. You think of 'biosolids' and your mind goes blank."

According to Machno, the name change was not intended to "cover something up or hide something from the public. . . . We're trying to come up with a term . . . that can communicate to the public the value of this product that we spend an awful lot of money on turning into a product that we use in a beneficial way."

Sludge critic James Bynum saw a more sinister motive behind the name change. In 1992 the EPA modified its "Part 503" technical standards which regulate sludge application on farmlands. The new regulations used the term "biosolids" for the first time, and sludge which was previously designated as hazardous waste was reclassified as "Class A" fertilizer. "The beneficial sludge use policy simply changed the name from sludge to fertilizer, and the regulation changed the character of sludge from polluted to clean so it could be recycled with a minimum of public resistance," Bynum wrote. "Sludge that was too contaminated to be placed in a strictly controlled sanitary landfill was promoted as a safe fertilizer and dumped on farmland without anyone having any responsibility. . . . There is a real concern for everyone, when a bureaucrat can write a regulation which circumvents the liability provisions of the major Congressional mandated environmental laws, by simply changing the name of a regulated material."

"It does have one great virtue. You think of 'biosolids' and your mind goes blank."
--William Lutz,
editor of the Doublespeak Quarterly Review


A few months after the debut of "biosolids," the Water Pollution Control Federation dropped the words "pollution control" from its own name and replaced them with "environment." At the group's 64th annual conference, WEF President Roger Dolan explained the reasoning behind the latest name change: "We don't control pollution anymore; we eliminate it. To the outside world, our people came to be seen as pollution people. In today's world, the word 'control' just isn't good enough." In fact, this claim was largely rhetorical. "Virtual elimination has not been achieved for one single persistent toxic," said E. Davie Fulton, a Canadian official involved in sagging efforts to clean up the Great Lakes.

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.

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