Water Environment Federation

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{{#badges: ToxicSludge|Front groups}} Although its name evokes images of cascading mountain streams, the Water Environment Federation (WEF) is actually the sewage sludge 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. In 2009, WEF had gross receipts of $21 million.[1]

The associated Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) had gross receipts of $12 million in 2010.[2] According to an internal WERF document, it has completed research focusing "on the treatment and management of residuals and biosolids" -- "biosolids" is a euphemism for sewage sludge invented by WEF -- "valued at well over $20 million."[3]

WEF's Position on Renewable Energy Generation from Anaerobic Digestion of Toxic Sludge

Todd Williams, Chair of WEF's "Residuals and Biosolids Committee," spoke at the 2011 BioCycle "11th Annual Conference on Renewable Energy from Organics Recycling" in Middleton, Wisconsin, on a panel entitled "Codigestion at Wastewater Treatment Plants," along with other sewage sludge industry representatives. BioCycle Magazine is a publication serving the interests of the sewage sludge industry.

Williams' segment was entitled, "Codigestion of Food Wastes and FOG with Municipal Wastewater Solids."[4]

According to Williams, on October 14, 2011, WEF's Residuals and "Biosolids" Committee adopted a position statement on "Renewable Energy Generation From Wastewater." The statement begins, "WEF believes that wastewater treatment plants are not waste disposal facilities, but rather water resource recovery facilities that produce clean water, recover nutrients (such as phosphorus and nitrogen), and have the potential to reduce the nation’s dependence upon fossil fuel through the production and use of renewable energy."[5]

This statement addresses the fact that using sewage sludge as the feedstock for anaerobic digestion, while it does reduce the overall volume of the sludge and pasteurize it, creating "Class A Biosolids," what the industry calls "digestate"-- what is left after the digestion-- still needs to be disposed of, by continuing to recommend "its beneficial use as fertilizer."[5] The digestion does not remove other contaminants such as Dioxins and Furans, Flame Retardants, Metals, Organochlorine Pesticides, 1,2-Dibromo-3-Chloropropane (DBCP), Naphthalene, Triclosan, Nonylphenols, Phthalates, Nanosilver, and thousands more substances.

According to Williams, the Residuals and "Biosolids" Committee also established a task force to develop a position statement on the "rebranding" of wastewater treatment plants. Their recommendation is forthcoming in February 2012. WEF has a history of inventing euphemisms in order to "rebrand" itself and Toxic sludge (see below).

WEF Finds Sudden Increase in Bacteria in Digested Sewage Sludge Dewatered by Centrifuge

According to the abstract of a research article in WEF's journal, Water Environment Research (September 2011), “Several investigators have reported higher densities of indicator bacteria after dewatering of anaerobically digested biosolids. The increases appear to occur at two points in the biosolids process: the first, referred to as ‘sudden increase’, occurs immediately after dewatering; the second, ‘regrowth’, occurs during storage over longer periods. The objectives of this study were to examine the effect of digestion and dewatering processes on sudden increase and regrowth of fecal coliform and E. coli.”[6]


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."

The WEF has been aggressively involved in promoting the so-called "beneficial use" of sewage sludge for fertilizer. To avoid the negative connotations associated with the word "sludge," WEF invented the euphemism "biosolids."

WEF gave PR agent Steve Frank of Metro Wastewater Reclamation District (Denver, Colorado) an award for his PR work which included a campaign designed to malign and attack one of the sewage agency's own board members, Adrienne Anderson, a University of Colorado Environmental Ethics teacher, appointed to represent workers' safety and health concerns. Anderson had turned federal whistleblower, revealing the agency's secret deal to accept wastes from a Superfund Site - the infamous Lowry Landfill southeast of Denver - as acceptable ingredients for its "beneficial biosolids" product meant to be spread on farmland, parks and public recreation areas in Colorado. Among the permitted ingredients allowed to be part of Metro Wastewater's "MetroGro" fertilizer is plutonium, a radioactive chemical element.

Federal Judge David W. Dinardi ruled that Metro Wastewater's campaign against Anderson was illegal, and ordered punitive damages for actions that "shock the conscience." Among the actions for which the sewage angency was found guilt were lies under oath about the WEF award to Metro Wastewater for its smear campaign against Anderson.

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.

To educate the public at large about the benefits of sludge, the EPA turned to the WEF.

Sludge makeover

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."

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.

Case studies

Contact Information

Water Environment Federation
601 Wythe Street
Alexandria, VA 22314-1994
Phone: 1-800-666-0206
Fax: 1-703-684-2492
Web: http://www.wef.org/Home
Email: csc@wef.org

Water Environment Research Foundation
635 Slaters Lane, Suite G-110
Alexandria, VA 22314-1177
Phone: 571-384-2100
Fax: 703-299-0742
Web: http://www.werf.org/
Email: werf@werf.org


Other SourceWatch resources

External links


  1. Water Environment Federation, 2009 Form 990, organizational IRS filing, July 14, 2011
  2. Water Environment Research Foundation, 2010 Form 990, organizational IRS filing, August 8, 2011
  3. Water Environment Research Foundation, WERF Research on Treatment and Management of Residuals and Biosolids, organizational research summary document, March 2012, accessed October 2012
  4. BioCycle, "11th Annual Conference on Renewable Energy from Organics Recycling" Program, October 31-November 2, 2011, on file with CMD (part, but not the biographies, is online here)
  5. 5.0 5.1 Water Energy Federation, Water Environment Federation Position Statement: Renewable Energy Generation From Wastewater, organizational position statement, adopted October 14, 2011, accessed November 1, 2011
  6. Chen, Yen-Chih; Murthy, Sudhir N; Hendrickson, Donald; Araujo, Gordon; and Higgins, Matthew J. "The Effect of Digestion and Dewatering on Sudden Increases and Regrowth of Indicator Bacteria after Dewatering." Water Environment Research. Volume 83, Number 9, September 2011 , pp. 773-783(11)