River of Sludge

Wearing all-black, flowing garments, red-haired Maureen Reilly looked like a would-be high priestess as she addressed the Hollywood City Commission last week. But she went by another title: The Sludge Queen.

Reilly flew from Canada at the invitation of Schwing Bioset, the sewage company that was lobbying to keep a contract to treat the city's biosolid waste. A Sierra Club member, she was there to tout the firm's environmental record. Her lack of either a science degree or professional experience didn't stop a company lobbyist from touting her as an expert.

She gave a rambling dissertation, laying out bits of wisdom like "The issue is the issue" and asking the cutting question: "What are the modalities?" But she didn't really seem to know much about the deal. When Commissioner Beam Furr asked whether she really thought it was a good idea to put the city's waste in the Everglades, she stammered and avoided the question.

Turned out she didn't realize she was touting a deal to dump 65,000 tons of treated but still toxic sewer sludge into the River of Grass each year.

"What is this woman doing here?" 76-year-old Commissioner Sal Oliveri asked loudly.

Good question, but not one Mayor Mara Giulianti had any intention of answering. The mayor, who led the meeting even though she acknowledged a conflict of interest with Schwing Bioset, tried to shut up Oliveri by passing him down a little bag of goldfish crackers. Oliveri waved off the snack with disgust.

Welcome to another act in the absurd theater of Hollywood politics. In the end, Commissioner Peter Bober, who earnestly questioned the Sludge Queen as if she were the second coming of Albert Einstein, flipped his vote to give Schwing Bioset the contract.

Now Bober, a bespectacled lawyer, can boast at future campaign fundraisers that he's responsible for polluting the Everglades with 1.3 million tons of sewage sludge. That's how much of the stuff will be taken there on trucks over the next 20 years if the original contract and three five-year options are exercised.

So far, the controversy surrounding the Schwing Bioset deal has centered on Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom, who has financial connections to the company. Giulianti recused herself from the vote because her son, Stacey, is Wasserstrom's law partner. The Broward State Attorney's Office is investigating the deal.

The real crime, however, may be the plan to dump the sludge into the Everglades, which is undergoing an $8 billion effort to clean up some of the same toxins that the concentrated waste would bring.

The sludge is slated to be dumped on 135,000 acres of cattle pastures owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Water from those pastures runs off into the wetlands, according to David Lewis, a University of Georgia microbiologist who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency for 30 years. The soft-spoken, Tampa-born scientist has done research in the Everglades and conducted several groundbreaking studies on the effects of human waste on the environment.

He's a real expert; few people know more about sewage than the 56-year-old Lewis. He told me from his Georgia home that Schwing Bioset's superheated and lime-treated byproduct is as clean and environmentally friendly as any on the market. But when it comes to dumping sludge, it's all about location. "Wetlands are the worst place on the face of the Earth to put sewage sludge of any type," he said in his lilting Southern accent. "It's like hooking up humanity's rectum to nature's kidneys."

If that sounds grotesque, then you're beginning to understand the Hollywood plan.

Even in the case of Schwing Bioset's EPA-approved sludge, some toxins -- including heavy metals, PCBs, pesticides, household chemicals, and petroleum byproducts -- survive, Lewis said. Basically, it's impossible to remove all the nasty stuff, including industrial and medical waste, that goes down our drains.

In the shallow, slow-moving water in the Everglades, those toxins cause contamination and become dangerous to wildlife. "Dumping sewage sludge in wetlands areas causes a lot of the toxic chemicals to build up and become more concentrated over time, because they are not breaking down," he explained. "Endangered species in the Everglades, such as birds like the woodstork and snail kite, living in the area where the sludge is kept, will be impacted by this accumulation of toxic chemicals."

Sam Shepherd, who invented the Bioset process and still owns about 20 percent of the company, notes that the Seminole have long used commercial fertilizer on their pasture land, sullying the wetlands with phosphates, one of the worst kinds of pollution in the Everglades. The Bioset byproduct doesn't include any water-soluble phosphates, so that part of the problem will be solved.

But Lewis noted the obvious: The sludge just adds another form of pollution.

Commissioner Furr, a school teacher who has done has homework on the matter, sees the problem: "We're spending so much to restore the Everglades on one hand, and then on the other, we're going to be putting an enormous amount of sludge out there."

Even the Sludge Queen doesn't think that's a good idea.

There may still be hope that the Everglades won't be sludged. Last week, I wrote that the Seminole hadn't agreed to accept Hollywood's waste. Jim Talik, executive administrator of the tribe, and Seminole attorney Travis Trueblood told me no contract had been signed regarding Hollywood, though they did mention a vague and poorly worded document that bound the Seminole only to evaluate the product and accept relatively small amounts of it from plants in Lakeland and Pahokee.

But at last week's Hollywood commission meeting, Scott Marder, who represents Schwing Bioset partner Bionative Technologies, claimed he had a copy of a signed contract. Marder was flanked by Richard Bowers, the tribe's director of natural resources, who also insisted that the Seminole were ready to accept all the sludge the city could muster.

Marder, though, wouldn't give me a copy of the agreement. Neither would Bowers, though he admitted it made no mention of Hollywood and was signed more than a year ago. City Manager Cameron Benson said the city didn't have a copy of it either. (In Hollywood, they call that due diligence.) Talik declined to comment further but did confirm his earlier statement that the contract doesn't bind the tribe to Hollywood.

It's hard to say what exactly is going on with the highly secretive and decentralized tribe and the companies involved in the sewage deal, but it's clear they're all playing loose with the truth. I have a solution for the Seminole: Go organic. It'd be a nice thank you to the people of Florida for all the millions made in the casinos.