Two more questions about Sweet Water Organics

Last week I asked some questions about the finances and “job creation” efforts of Milwaukee’s Sweet Water Organics (SWO). As a followup to that original entry, I wanted to delve into two issues that I felt weren’t germane to the point of my original entry.

So what’s buried outside?

As reported by Michael Timm of the Bay View Compass back in July 2010, nine 5,000-gallon insulated trenches were being built on the grounds outside of SWO’s main building to raise 35,000 fish. However, it’s been reported that those insulated trenches have since been completely filled in and buried where they stood, leaving the chemically treated lumber and polystyrene insulation used to insulate the trenches still in the ground (see attached).

I attempted to contact Todd Leech, Sweet Water Organics’ VP/Sales Manager, regarding the outdoor trenches having been buried, and he responded that due to a family emergency I should, “just read the other articles about it.” I attempted to find out more information about why the decision was made to bury SWO’s outdoor fish trenches, and though I did find articles mentioning the construction of the trenches, I was not able to find any articles mentioning why the trenches were ultimately buried.

So my questions remain: Why were SWO’s outdoor fish trenches buried, and were they buried “as-is,” with the chemically-treated lumber and polystyrene insulation still in the ground?

Is Sweet Water Organics really organic?

The name “Sweet Water Organics” seems to make it pretty clear that the products produced by SWO (fish & produce) are organic, but I’ve not been able to find any mention of SWO having been certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USA) National Organic Program as being “organic.” The Sweet Water Organics website does not carry the USDA’s Organic Seal, and a search of the Midwest Organic Services Association’s (MOSA) MOSA Associate Directory did not return any results for Sweet Water Organics. It’s worth noting MOSA is an accredited certifying agent for the USDA’s National Organic Program, so it would seem logical their Associate Directory would include Sweet Water Organics if SWO was in fact certified as being organic.

So is Sweet Water Organics really organic? It certainly seems that the answer to that question is no, which would certainly be a disappointment.

So what’s next?

In the next couple of weeks, my plan is to share some thoughts (not mine, but those of folks much more knowledgeable than me) about how aquaponics/urban gardening can be done right, because I believe that there’s plenty of opportunity for aquaponics/urban gardening to be done properly (and profitably).

22 comments to Two more questions about Sweet Water Organics

  • My two guesses? The tanks leaked. And/or they figured out that the insulation was not sufficient to keep the water warm enough during our Wisconsin winters (and/or that they weren’t willing to pay that heating bill.)

       3 likes

    • Jesse

      The tanks were never filled to capacity with water, actually.
      Except for rain collecting to a few feet in the ones not covered with a greenhouse, one wouldn’t even know if they could have held water or not (although my guess is that they could).
      Either way, none of the nine tanks were ever used, & none of the materials were salvaged before back-filling them.

         10 likes

  • UrbanAg

    That is a lot of material that would have cost a good amount. The last article talks about employees not being paid and now there is mention of waste of funds and materials; it sounds as if there was/is no planning at SWO. Is this a legitimate business or a money making scheme?

       15 likes

  • JCG

    Thanks for asking the tough questions, Zach, of a locally beatified organization. Hopefully, there are good answers. But if not…

    A couple further questions this brings to mind:

    1. Though MOSA is an accredited certifying agency, is it the only such one available to local producers?

    2. If some of the info attached was taken from a DNR report, what, if anything, did the DNR have to say about the infill of the trenches?

    3. Infill of trench issue aside, I’ve always wondered, since the beginning of this operation, what the ramifications are of producing any food (organic certified or not) at a former industrial site. What measures were taken to avoid potentially contaminated ground leakage into the tanks that are in use?

       6 likes

  • JCG

    Adding to question 3…especially since this is in an industrial area right by the KK river that has been deemed one of the more polluted (BPA-wise) waterways in the country.

       3 likes

  • Jesse

    This is one of the saddest and most disturbing things that I am aware occurred at Sweet Water Organics to date.

    I remind myself that I wasn’t there at the time that these tanks were back-filled (those of us who left due to unsettling situations, including being owed weeks or months of back pay, had been gone for months prior to this happening), but it doesn’t really make me feel much better about it.
    In 2010, several of the then employees had insisted that putting the nine 5000 gallon tanks in the ground was the wrong way to proceed*; however, our attempts to convince those who led SWO at that time were unsuccessful.
    After the former employees left, SWO used the forgivable loan money they got from the city of Milwaukee to fly in and pay aquaculture/aquaponic consultants from Scotland (September, 2011). These consultants shared our views on the tank location, but certainly not our views on environmental ethics. The consultants suggested SWO back-fill the tanks in order to provide the flat surface they needed to build their system design (the one currently under construction using city money).

    Although we know that SWO used a tractor purchased with the forgivable loan money to do the back-filling, it’s currently unclear whether that money was also used to purchase the fill dirt and gravel needed to reverse course. More recently it was stated by a former volunteer (who was at SWO at the time the tanks were buried) that garbage and construction debris were dumped into the tanks prior to back-filling them.

    City (taxpayer) money given to a failing business, lies & half truths told to investors and the common council, employees being lied to and asked to continue working without pay, volunteers being promised paying jobs until they just gave up and left (volunteers working for a for-profit company in the first place?), disregard for the environment & the law – it’s such a mess, and it could/should have resulted in something so much better.

    Urban agriculture, aquaponics, and local food in general provide so many viable solutions to current and impending problems. But these are ideas and tools that should not be used by people willing to make these types of unacceptable shortcuts in order to ‘succeed’.

    *Putting the tanks in the ground creates a situation where you have to pump the effluent from the tank up and then out to the destination (e.g., hydroponic beds or greenhouses). The bio-solids (fish poo, detritus, etc) are ground up in the pump’s impeller making them harder to be captured and removed from the system. This then requires more expensive and also labor and/or water intensive filtration. The smaller solid particles that aren’t captured are extremely dangerous to the fish’s health when they return to the tank.

       17 likes

  • TF

    There is yet another question to be addressed and that is SWO’s use of PVC pipe in their infrastructure. PVC leaches organotin compounds into water. These compounds bio-accumulate in fish in the wild (SE Asia fisheries have been particularly hard hit) and it is reasonable to assume that these compounds would find their way into fish at SWO. Organotin compounds are very dangerous to consume.

    SWO had the opportunity to use a much less dangerous material to build their infrastructure but chose not to.

       2 likes

  • TF

    I wonder if SWO’s big fish kill had anything to do with these tanks being filled in. http://www.aquaponiclynx.com/sweet-water-organics

       2 likes

  • jimspice

    I’d suggest contacting Jim Godsil (or just plain Godsil). I’ve worked with him in the past and have always found him an approachable straight shooter.

       1 likes

  • Jim Bob

    I think the big fish kill was well before the tanks were filled in. Read the link that TF posted.

       0 likes

  • TF

    Thanks Jim Bob. I didn’t check the dates. Wonder what happened to those fish.

       1 likes

  • Paul B

    Wow. Looks like may have turned out to be a bit of a cesspool instead. (figuratively speaking). Shame on those who may have taken or given money on false pretenses. They had better check their karma account balance. It might be overdrawn.

    Btw, organic certification is only available to farms that grow food in soil. Aquaponic operation cannot receive organic certification at this time. Hopefully they will someday.

    Public funding of private enterprise tends to hide too many sins. If a business can’t produce both a desirable product and a profit, it should fail so that others that do better can survive.

       9 likes

    • Molly

      Actually Paul, there have been several aquaponic operations that have achieved organic certification so far. One is Aquaranch, based out of Flanagan, IL, and the others are based out of Hawaii.

      It is certainly more challenging to achieve organic certification without soil, but it can be done.

         4 likes

  • UrbanAg

    Now that the vote is over and Tony Z win alderman, will he be answering any questions as to how Sweet Water got the loan in the first place.

       9 likes

  • AK

    Has there been any City or DNR investigation on the infilling and other environmental concerns?

       6 likes

    • Jesse

      I’ve had several reporters approach me in the last year for the “real story” behind SWO. I turned them all down because in the beginning I believed that it would cause a “black eye” on the urban farming movement, or because the reporters said they wanted to do a “down side of urban agriculture” story.

      Anyway, one of the reporters had already spoken with the Waukesha DNR office concerning a letter issued to them (October 2011) by several former employees and volunteers regarding:
      >SWO’s dumping of thousands of gallons per week of liquid fish waste down a storm sewer located in the center of the building (employees were lied to about SWO having a discharge permit)
      >Overcrowded fish in the indoor tanks with sores and their side and tail fins missing and fish deaths tallying in the hundreds per day (I have a copy of the vet report on this)
      >Burying of dead fish on the property
      >The back-filled outdoor fish tanks, etc.

      The images of the outdoor tanks while under construction (attached to the above blog post) were taken from that DNR report.
      The earlier mentioned reporter told me that the letter to the DNR was “under investigation”, according to the agent they spoke with.
      That was nearly 3 months ago… I haven’t heard anything about it since.

      From what I understand from those who were there, the tanks weren’t buried that deep. The parts of the structures that were above ground were cut off and thrown in the tanks (along with other garbage and debris) before back-filling.
      So many people in this town know that those are there anyway, but it wouldn’t take more than some rakes and hand shovels to physically expose the top portions of the tanks.

      I keep hearing about this verbal defense tactic citing “inevitable imbecilities” regarding the “mistakes” made by those in charge of SWO.
      A mistake would be accidentally kicking a few bits of gravel into the tanks. Once large amounts of construction debris, garbage, and a city funded tractor get involved… well, to many of us that seems like something else entirely.

         15 likes

      • AK

        What about complaints filed with the City? They should be concerned not only because it was their (our) money used, but they also have a certain amount of enforcement power over building codes, land use, and so on.

           5 likes

        • Jenny

          Hopeless to look to the city when they’re complicit in the malfeasance, their interest is in ignoring it if not actively hiding it. That would be like going to Zielinski and asking him to admit that he was wrong and apologize for giving our money away to a lost cause, politicians like him, the mayor, etc., similar to unscrupulous salespeople, never admit they were wrong, its part of their operations manual practically, lie, deny, and attack anyone who questions you as a disgruntled crazy – like “Bliffed” did in the earlier thread about sweetwater, “Bliffed” is probably Zielinski.

             5 likes

      • TF

        Dumping thousands of gallons of fish waste down the sewer? This is insane. The potential consequences are enormous. What about spreading hemorrhagic septicemia virus (deadly fish virus)?

        What kind of operation is SWO? They use materials that leach toxic compounds into their product, they take public money, they dump waste illegally, they obtain labor under false pretenses ….

        The model for aquaponics is just the freakin’ opposite! They are not an asset to the people of Milwaukee.

        Their argument has always been that the ends they are seeking justify their means. As bogus as that argument is we should still ask: What ends are they really seeking?

           10 likes

  • AK

    You can still file the complaints or service requests and at least have it documented that such were filed and never investigated. Jesse, I hope you are still in touch with those journalists. If what has been stated is truly going on, that is a big deal and a violation of the public trust in which a lot of people are complicit.

       7 likes

  • […] a followup to my original report, I also asked whether Sweet Water Organics was really producing organic produce, and apparently now […]

       2 likes

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