Killing Fields? Toxic waste being spread as fertilizer
BY DUFF WILSON
(reprinted in the San Jose Mercury News 7-5-97, front page)
QUINCY, Wash. Some farmers blamed the weather for their lousy wheat crops, stunted corn and sick cows. Some blamed themselves.
But only after Patty Martin, the mayor of this small, dusty town 100 miles east of Seattle, led them in weeks of investigation did they identify a possible new culprit: fertilizer.
They don't have proof that the stuff they put on their land to feed it actually was killing it. But they discovered something they think other American farmers and consumers ought to know:
Manufacturing industries are disposing of hazardous wastes by turning them into fertilizer to spread around farms. And they're doing it legally.
"They just call dangerous waste a product, and it's no longer a dangerous waste," Martin said. "It's fertilizer."
An investigation by the Seattle Times has found the practice occurs around the country. Industrial toxic waste is being used increasingly as a fertilizer ingredient.
There is no conclusive data to prove the practice poses any risks, and none to prove its safety.
Experts disagree on the risks and say further study is needed. However, little study is under way.
As things stand now, any material that has fertilizing qualities can be labeled and used as a fertilizer, even if it contains dangerous chemicals and heavy metals.
The wastes come from iron, zinc and aluminum smelting, mining, cement kilns, the burning of medical and municipal wastes, wood-product slurries and other heavy industries.
Across the Columbia River basin from Quincy, in the town of Moxee City, Wash., a dark powder from two Oregon steel mills is poured from rail cars into the top of a silo attached to Bay Zinc Co., under a federal permit to store hazardous waste.
The powder, a toxic byproduct of the steel-making process, is taken out of the bottom of the silos as a raw material for fertilizer.
"When it goes into our silo, it's a hazardous waste," said Bay Zinc President Dick Camp. "When it comes out of the silo, it's no longer regulated. The exact same material. Don't ask me why. That's the wisdom of the (Environmental Protection Agency)."
In its investigation, the Seattle Times learned:
- In Tift County, Ga., more than 1,000 acres of peanut crops were wiped out by Lime Plus, a brew of hazardous waste and limestone, sold legally to unsuspecting farmers in the early 1990s.
Jessica Davis, a soils scientist who helped the farmers detoxify their soil afterward, said the incident shows why government officials need to tighten waste-recycling rules and restrict the hidden toxic elements in fertilizer.
"Anything that's fed directly to humans or even animals, I really don't understand why this is permitted," Davis said.
- In Gore, Okla., a uranium-processing plant is getting rid of low-level radioactive waste by licensing it as a liquid fertilizer and spraying it over 9,000 acres of grazing land.
The substance is registered as a fertilizer with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. Some people in the area blame it for such mutations as a nine-legged frog found in a pond next to the fertilizer land.
- In Chewelah, Wash., a subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America saved $17 million in cleanup costs by obtaining state approval to make 200,000 tons of dangerous wastes into fertilizer and road de-icer.
Oregon State University soils expert James Vomocil said the fertilizer was unpredictable and unsafe and killed an Oregon clover crop. The farmer whose crop was destroyed won an out-of-court settlement.
One major producer, Monsanto, has stopped recycling waste into fertilizer on its own because of concerns about health and liability. For years, it sold 6,000 tons a year of ashy, black waste from its Soda Springs, Idaho, phosphorus plant to nearby fertilizer companies.
The waste contained cadmium, a heavy metal that studies show can cause cancer, kidney disease, neurological dysfunction and birth defects at certain levels of consumption. Company scientists are trying to determine whether the material is safe to be used as fertilizer, even though the federal government allows it.
Regulators in California have been studying the issue for years and still cannot say what constitutes a safe level of lead, cadmium and arsenic in fertilizer.
There is no national regulation of fertilizers in this country. The laws in most states are far from stringent. The regulators are also charged with encouraging recycling, and they work hand in hand with industry.
When EPA Administrator Carol Browner was questioned by Mayor Martin at a children's health conference in Washington, D.C., in February, she said she didn't know anything about toxics in fertilizer.
In other countries, including Canada, regulations are strict. Canada requires tests every six months for metals in recycled waste and micro-nutrient fertilizer.
In the United States, states require one test before a product is regulated, then they never check again.
"In the United States, I hear them say, 'OK, how much can we apply until we get to the maximum people can stand?'" said Canada's top fertilizer regulator, Darlene Blair. "They're congratulating people for recycling things without understanding what the problems are with the recycled material."
The U.S. government and the states encourage the practice in the name of recycling, and, in fact, it has some benefits: Recycling waste as fertilizer saves companies money and conserves precious space in hazardous-waste landfills.
"I feel the fertilizer industry has done a real service by being able to utilize some of these by-products," says Carl Schauble, executive vice president of Frit Industries, a major recycler with fertilizer factories in Norfolk, Neb.; Chesapeake, Va.; and Walnut Ridge, Ark.
And the material can help crops grow. A number of scientists say the recycled fertilizer is sprinkled so thinly across farm fields that it poses no risk if handled correctly.
But in recent years, doctors and scientists learned that trace amounts of lead can cause developmental problems in children and high blood pressure in adults. Lead is prohibited in gasoline, paint and food-can solder, but not in fertilizer.
It is never disclosed on the label, even when it is as high as 3 percent of the product.
Hazardous-waste recyclers say they they could remove more lead before their products are sent out to make fertilizer blends, but it would cost more and make it harder to compete on price unless everybody had to do it.
Janet Phoenix, a physician with the National Lead Information Center, said she had no idea industries were recycling lead into fertilizer.
"I, personally, was under the impression that, at least in this country, lead was no longer allowed to be an ingredient in fertilizer," Phoenix said. "Clearly, it seems to me that a process recycling industrial waste into fertilizer that contains lead would be at odds to efforts to reduce lead in soil. There is no safe level."
Bill Liebhardt, chairman of the Sustainable Agriculture Department at the University of California-Davis, previously worked for fertilizer companies but says the industry is wrong to oppose regulation.
"When I heard of people mixing this toxic waste in fertilizer, I was astounded," he said. "And it seems to be a legal practice. I'd never heard of something like that getting cadmium or lead when you think you're only getting zinc.
"Even if it's legal, to me it's just morally and ethically bankrupt that you would take this toxic material and mix it into something that is beneficial and then sell that to unsuspecting people. To me, it is just outrageous."
So far, no study has documented harm to human or animal health in the United States from the recycling of hazardous materials into chemical fertilizers. In Japan, however, studies showed that subsistence rice farmers had been sickened by ingesting cadmium that had passed from fertilizers through the rice crop.
Although the health effects are widely disputed, there is undisputed evidence the substances enter plant roots.
"Some crops may not take up hardly any of it," says Bill Liebhardt of the University of California-Davis, "and other crops may take up quite a bit and not be affected in terms of their external appearance. This has the potential to move up the food chain.
"When these inert ingredients have the potential for moving up the food chain, then it's not just the farmer that ought to be concerned, it's the consumer, because we all consume these products."