A Journey Through Oligarch Valley, Pt 3: Septic Tank (Exit 244)
Previously: Tejon Ranch (Exit 215)
Back on to Interstate-5 and a short drive 30 miles north to a little slice of agricultural heaven called Green Acres Farm. It’s not nearly as grand or picturesque as Tejon Ranch. In fact, it’s a place that civilized society would rather not discuss. That’s because Green Acres is not so much a farm, as a place where the great big city of Los Angeles dumps just about all of its shit.
I mean that literally: Green Acres is a giant, outdoor septic tank.
Every day, Los Angeles loads up a dozen big-rigs at its sewage processing plant with the concentrated fecal matter (aka sewage sludge) of four million people and sends them on a long scenic journey north. The line of trucks, spewing fecal dust, rumbles up the 405, past LAX, past Venice, past Andrew Breitbart’s old house in Brentwood, past porn capital Sherman Oaks. The trucks merge with I-5 in the Valley, drive past Six Flags Magic Mountain, mount the Tehapachi Mountains, crawl past Tejon Ranch and then coast down into Oligarch Valley. It’s a 125-mile trip one way, and takes over two hours with no traffic. Los Angeles does this every day, day after day, rain or shine, dumping more than 200,000 tons of excrement in one year.
Something like 99% of all L.A.’s shit winds up on Green Acres. You could say that Los Angeles residents flush their toilets twice: The first flush gets it out of their bowl. The second flush gets it out of their county. Outta sight, outta mind.
Naturally Los Angeles doesn’t like to advertise its shit-dumping operation, but there’s nothing covert about it. In fact, the city bought the land two decades ago for about $10 million just for this reason: so that it could have somewhere to dump its coastal-elite shit—and it’s been doing it for decades, with the total support of Oligarch Valley's farming elite.
The bright green website run by L.A.’s Sanitation Department doesn’t use the word shit. It describes Green Acres as an green/eco farm that allows “beneficial reuse” of “biosolids” into a “soil conditioner” that helps “promote growth on sites where chemical fertilizers would otherwise have to be used to produce crops” like wheat, corn and alfalfa.
Natural soil conditioning instead of chemical fertilizers? That makes concentrated human feces sound almost organic and healthy. But in case you’re worried: No, Green Acres doesn’t grow food for human consumption. That would be disgusting and uncivilized! No, the crops that Green Acres fertilizes with concentrated human feces are grown only as feedstock for farm animals, primarily to feed dairy cows. So everything’s legit! It’s part of the natural cycle of life!
There is of course a catch: Ask any scientists who isn’t taking money from the sludge industry and you’ll get a unanimous verdict: fecal sludge is toxic. It’s not just the human shit, but everything else that’s mixed into it: a universe of bacteria, viruses, parasitic worms and fungi, as well as toxic metals, industrial solvents, radioactive matter, medical waste, antibiotics and a cornucopia of chemicals, including every pharmaceutical substance known to man. Some of the more common chemical ingredients include: polychlorinated biphenyls (the PCBs that produce flipper babies), various pesticides, asbestos, petroleum products, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury. By some estimates, plants can utilize only one to three percent of sewage sludge. The rest is simply toxic waste being dumped on the ground. “Land spreading of sewage sludge is not a true ‘disposal’ method, but rather serves only to transfer pollutants in the sludge from the treatment plant to the soil, air and ground water of the disposal site,” says Stanford Tackett, a chemistry professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Dumped in the open and left to dry, all that good stuff starts seeping into the groundwater and surfs on gusts of wind, spreading for miles and miles around.
If you start reading up on the subject, you’ll come across horrific stories of people who live close to sludge contracting exotic fungal infections that eat up their lungs and spread throughout their bodies. In Victorville, I read about a sludge composting plant that had been built in a neighboring town but was shut down after only three years of operation after residents suffered persistent, acute health problems. Swarms of flies covered everything around it. And locals came down with ear, nose and throat infections. At a nearby elementary school, children started to vomit, to suffer from dizzy spells and nausea, and to develop nose bleeds and recurring headaches.
Yep, this sludge is Grade-A deadly. And I was headed right for it…
It’s about 11 am when I finally find the yellow gates of Green Acres Farms. The website did not list an address, but the farm is easy to find. It’s right off the highway ramp, runs contiguous to a stretch of I-5 and is next door to a shooting range and Buena Vista Lake, a popular water hole for the local population. The main entrance is about a half-mile down from a Shell gas station and a Subway.
Green Acres sits in the midst of a bunch of dry, scraggly looking farm land. Beyond the irrigated fields is a rocky desert wasteland full of tumbleweed and dust devils. As I drive up to the main entrance, I watch two mini tornados dance along the shitcovered fields… a whirlwind of dry fecal matter.
At the entrance I’m met by a bunch of ominous signs. “All visitors must report to main office.” “Private Property: No Hunting or Trespassing Allowed.” But the closest the signs get to warning people of the true nature of Green Acres are the ones warning visitors not to drink the local tap water: “Notice—No Trespassing— Land is irrigated with reclaimed waste water…”
I roll down the window to get a better view of the signs and immediately regret my decision. It isn’t so much the stench—which is bad—as the flies. I roll up my window as quickly as possible, but it’s too late: a horde of thick black flies has muscled its way in. Some are on the dashboard, some are hanging on the windows, some are rummaging through my suitcase lying in the back. A few of the feistier ones are crawling on my face.
Just inside the gate, a truck has parked up: its driver is washing gray clumps of sewage sludge off the underside of his rig before getting back on I-5. He’s an overweight black guy, and he isn’t wearing any protective gear, just jeans and a black T-shirt. It appears my timing is perfect: Green Acres is receiving its daily shipment.
“You truck this stuff from Los Angeles?” I ask. In my black Ford Taurus rental car, blue baseball cap, blue jeans and black T-shirt, I could be a cop, or some kind of government official.
He nods. A bit suspicious, not sure who I am or what I’m doing there.
“I’m from L.A., a tourist,” I explain. “I just learned that our sewage gets dumped out here. So I just wanted to see where my shit ends up after I flush it down the toilet.”
This relaxed him a bit. “Hah! Well, I’m sure yours is around here somewhere,” he says, laughing and looking out at the fields.
I try to ask him a couple of more questions, but he shrugs and turns back to finish his grim job, directing the hose at a gob of dried feces stuck to his rear axle. He has a schedule to keep.
The transportation of L.A.’s shit to Oligarch Valley began in the 1980s, when municipalities were ordered to comply—for the first time ever—with federal regulations that forbade them from dumping raw sewage into the ocean. Very quickly cities realized that getting rid of sewage sludge—the stuff left over after the wastewater purification process—was not going to be cheap. Landfills were safe and easy, but they cost way too much. The cheapest option was to dump the sludge in the open-air—either to pile it on directly as “fertilizer” on fields like in Green Acres or to process it in specialized outdoor “composting” facilities that ripened the sludge and turned it into commercial fertilizer products for unwitting consumers.
Where cities saw huge costs, big businesses saw huge rewards. Very quickly, a profitable industry of wastewater and sewage management came into existence. And, with it, a massive lobby and public relations campaign successfully convinced Americans that sludge was healthy and environmentally friendly. Equally successful was a campaign to officially rebrand sewage sludge into “biosolids.”
“Toxic Sludge is Good for You,” the definitive book on the sludge industry, describes in horrific and hilarious detail how the Water Environment Federation, the main lobby group of the sludge/waste management industry, came up with the word “biosolids” after convening a “Name Change Task Force.” It went through a couple of hundred suggestions— purenutri, biolife, bioslurp, blackgold, geoslime and humanure—before settling on “biosolids” and defining it as a “nutrient-rich organic byproduct of the nation’s wastewater treatment process.” My personal favorite is still “bioslurp.”
Even the biggest, most prestigious environmental groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Fund, backed the rebranding.
As healthy and enviro-friendly as sludge may be, people still balked at the idea of having it dumped into open-air composting facilities. So sludge processing gravitated to isolated, low-income regions where people were too poor, too tired and too powerless to do anything about it.
Nothing surprising about that. After all, it followed a basic freemarket principle of waste management outlined in a memo by Larry Summers in the 1991, when he served as the Chief Economist of the World Bank: “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”
That’s exactly the same conclusion that Los Angeles arrived at when it went shopping for a way of getting rid of its processed feces. Instead of shipping it to Mexico or Africa, Los Angeles settled on Oligarch Valley, California’s very own low-wage, thirdworld banana republic.
Los Angeles is not the only municipality dumping its shit here. Something like two-thirds of Southern California’s sewage sludge is trucked to this corner of Oligarch Valley.
Among the area’s big sludge players is Dublin Farms, a diversified farming/sludge/energy operation run by nine members of the McCarthy family. The family buzzes around Oligarch Valley by helicopter and has a small fleet of private jets for longer commutes. They’ve collected nearly $20 million in farm subsidies in the past decade, and make at least $5 million a year for composting Southern California’s shit, which they then use to fertilize their crops.
Sludge is big business and attracts the multinational corporate set as well. Next door to Green Acres Farm is a giant facility owned by Synagro, an international sludge processor that until recently was owned by the Carlyle Group. Synagro’s Oligarch Valley operation handles about 200,000 tons of Southern Californian sewage every year, most of it from Orange County. Synagro doesn’t grow crops like Green Acres; it produces compost that’s sold to “landscapers and supply yards throughout California for use on parks, sports fields, and golf courses.” Try not to think about that next time you’re lounging on a grassy knoll.
Yep, shit is the black gold of Oligarch Valley. There’s a lot of money to be made from sludge disposal. That’s why when Kern County voters passed a ballot measure forbidding the spreading of out-of-county shit on their land, a powerful coalition of coastal municipalities and private waste management companies took Kern County to court and got a judge to block the law. It’s still working its way through the courts, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes all the way to Supreme Court. But if Kern County voters win, Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California will have no choice but to start sending their human feces all the way to NSFWCORP’s home state of Nevada.
Next: Pt 4: Moron (Exit 225)
Editor's Note: This article also appears in NSFWCORP: A Long Fucking Story, an oral history of NSFWCORP including interviews with former writers and previously out of print long-form features.