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Dioxin and other Toxics in Fertilizer-Part 1
Here is the full article (Part 1 & 2) that Susan Snow provided as an AP
story. Any questions give me a call or e-mail. Laurie Valeriano
Copyright © 1997 The Seattle Times Company
Thursday, July 3, 1997
Fear in the fields: How hazardous wastes become fertilizer, part 1
by Duff Wilson Seattle Times staff reporter
When you're mayor of a town the size of Quincy, Wash., you hear just about
So it was only natural that Patty Martin would catch some farmers in her Central
Washington hamlet wondering aloud why their wheat yields were lousy, their
corn crops thin, their cows sickly.
Some blamed the weather. Some blamed themselves. But only after Mayor Martin led
them in weeks of investigation did they identify a possible new culprit:
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 found shocking
and that 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.
"It's really unbelievable what's happening, but it's true," Martin said.
"They just call
dangerous waste a product, and it's no longer a dangerous waste. It's a
Across the Columbia River basin in Moxee City is visual testimony to
Martin's assertion. A dark powder from two Oregon steel mills is poured
from rail cars into the top of silos 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
What's happening in Washington is happening around the United States. The use of
industrial toxic waste as a fertilizer ingredient is a growing national
investigation by The Seattle Times has found.
The Times found examples of wastes laden with heavy metals being recycled into
fertilizer to be spread across crop fields.
In Gore, Okla., a uranium-processing plant is getting rid of low-level
by licensing it as a liquid fertilizer and spraying it over 9,000 acres of
In Tifton County, Ga., more than 1,000 acres of peanut crops were wiped out
by a brew
of hazardous waste and limestone sold to unsuspecting farmers.
And in Camas, Clark County, highly corrosive, lead-laced waste from a pulp
hauled to Southwest Washington farms and spread over crops grown for livestock
Recycling said to have benefits
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 a
variety of other
Federal and state governments encourage the practice in the name of
recycling and, in
fact, it has some benefits: Recycling waste as fertilizer saves companies
conserves precious space in hazardous-waste landfills. And, mixed and handled
correctly, the material can help crops grow.
"It's a situation where we are facing an overabundance of these materials
in landfills and, of course, landfills are getting full," said Ali Kashani,
who directs fertilizer regulation in Washington state. "So they (waste
producers) are constantly looking for ways to recycle when they have
The problem is that the "beneficial materials" in industrial waste, such as
nitrogen and magnesium to help crops grow, often are accompanied by
dangerous heavy metals such as cadmium and lead.
"Nowhere in the country has a law that says if certain levels of heavy
exceeded, it can't be a fertilizer," Kashani said. "That would be nice to
Instead, officials rely on fertilizer producers to document that their
products are safe, and never check back for toxic components. There is not
even a requirement that toxics be listed on ingredient labels.
The Times also found that:
-- There is no national regulation of fertilizers in this country, unlike
industrialized nations. The laws in most states, including Washington, are
stringent. The lack of national regulation makes it virtually impossible to
volume of fertilizers produced by recycling hazardous wastes.
-- Some industries dispose of tons of toxic waste by giving it free to
manufacturers, or even paying them to take it.
-- 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
The waste contained cadmium, a heavy metal that studies show can cause
cancer, kidney disease, neurological dysfunction, diminished fertility,
immune-system changes 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.
"What really is a concern is product liability," said Robert Geddes, a
and Idaho state senator. "Is somebody going to sue Monsanto because we
allowed it to
be made as a fertilizer?"
-- Among the substances found in some recycled fertilizers are cadmium,
radionuclides and dioxins, at levels some scientists say may pose a threat
health. Although the health effects are widely disputed, there is
undisputed evidence the substances enter plant roots.
Just as there are no conclusive data to prove a danger, there are none to
prove the safety of the practice.
In other nations, including Canada, that lack of certainty has led to
There, the approach is to limit toxic wastes in fertilizer until the
practice is proven safe. Here, the approach is to allow it until it's
Although experts disagree as to whether these fertilizers are a health
threat, most say
further study is needed. Yet, little is under way.
Few farmers, and probably even fewer consumers, know about the practice.
"This is a definite problem," said Richard Loeppert, a soil scientist at
University and author of several published papers on toxic elements in
fertilizers. "The public needs to know."
Some remember the Alar scare
Patty Martin is not a popular politician in parts of Grant County these days.
Since she began raising the alarm about the use of toxic waste as
fertilizer, she has been
threatened with a lawsuit by a local farmer, been verbally attacked in town
meetings and seen the City Council - led by a son-in-law of the local
manager of the Cenex fertilizer company - pressure her to shut up or quit.
Many farmers in and around Quincy, a town of 4,030, say they're doing very
well, thank you, with the fertilizer and the help and advice they've
received from Cenex Supply and Marketing, which sells expertise, financing
and farm supplies in the West and Midwest.
They call Martin a troublemaker and fear she's fomenting a scare akin to
the Alar alarm that nearly ruined Washington's apple industry in 1989.
In that case, the CBS television show "60 Minutes" reported that a
substance sprayed on Washington apples to preserve them in packing was
dangerous to consumers. CBS later admitted it had made some mistakes in the
story, and the Washington apple growers sued the network. But the suit was
dismissed, and in the end, Alar was classified by EPA as a carcinogen and
banned for all food uses.
"We had a woman starting that one, too, and a lot of people got hurt by
it," Bill Weber,
an apple and potato farmer, said at one council meeting, bringing nods and
"We don't see a problem," said Greg Richardson, Quincy-based president of
Growers of Washington and a staunch defender of recycling wastes into
Richardson wrote Martin a letter telling her to make "a statement of your
trust in the
appropriate government agencies and their ability to deal with . . . the
waste in fertilizer issue."
Martin is standing firm, and a dozen or so Quincy-area farmers are standing
at her side. They insist they, their families and their fields have
suffered from bad fertilizer.
State environmental, agriculture and health officials have looked at the
Quincy. The environmental and agriculture officials, who encourage
recycling waste into fertilizer, say that as far as they can tell, there's
no danger to crops or people.
But some admit they wish they knew more. Kashani wants standards for heavy
metals in fertilizer. Absent that, he said, he has to apply a general
standard that recycled products
cannot "pose a threat to public health or the environment."
Regulators in California have been studying the issue for years and still
cannot say what constitutes a safe level for lead, cadmium and arsenic in
Mayor Martin's husband works for a potato processor, and when she feels
harshest attack, he tells her she's doing the right thing.
"I just have the unfortunate distinction of having stumbled across this
asking questions of the regulatory agencies," she said. "I didn't get the
Trouble was brewed in pond
How Martin and her supporters stumbled upon the discovery of the recycling
waste into fertilizer begins at a man-made, concrete pond across the street
High School. The pond, 36 feet wide, 54 feet long and 5 feet deep, was
built in 1986 and
used by Cenex to rinse fertilizer from farm equipment.
State investigators later found that the company also illegally used the
pond to dump
Cenex closed the pond in 1990. By then, it contained about 38,000 gallons
of toxic goo,
with heavy metals, suspected carcinogens, even some radioactive materials. State
investigators couldn't determine how all this toxic material ended up there.
Cenex memos show how the company got rid of the sludge. John Williams, the
Quincy branch manager, wrote his boss to say the "product," as he called
it, would cost
$170,000 to ship and store at the Arlington, Ore., hazardous-waste site, as
So Cenex decided to save money by spreading it on a rented plot of
cornfield and let
nature take its course. The land would act as a natural filter for the
Cenex struck a deal with lessee farmer Larry Schaapman. He was paid more than
$10,000 to let Cenex put the material, which the company claimed had
fertilizer value, on his 100 acres.
It killed the land.
The corn crop failed there in 1990, even though Schaapman and Cenex applied
water to try to wash the toxics through the soil. Hardly anything grew
there the next year, either.
The land belonged to Dennis DeYoung, whose family had farmed it since the
early 1950s before he leased it to Schaapman. Since the land was poisoned,
DeYoung couldn't make his payments, and the company that financed him
foreclosed on a $100,000 debt. DeYoung also owed Cenex money for fertilizer
Soon after, Cenex bought the land from the financing company.
"They run a farmer out of business, then they get his land," DeYoung said.
DeYoung sued Cenex for damages for ruining the soil, lost in summary
won a reversal in the State Court of Appeals earlier this year. He's
preparing for a new
He also managed to stir up an investigation by the federal Environmental
Agency, which regulates pesticide use. In a plea bargain, Cenex and its
given one year of probation for illegal disposal of a pesticide in the
"product" spread on DeYoung's land.
The company never had to explain how the heavy metals - enough cadmium,
beryllium and chromium to qualify as a Superfund site - got into the rinse
pond in town.
That's where Martin and her supporters come in.
Farmers began comparing notes
Tom Witte is a 53-year-old farmer with 200 acres and about 100 cows a few
miles east of
Quincy. His father purchased the farm in 1956.
Witte had a disastrous year in 1991. His red spring wheat, silage corn and
grain corn all
yielded about one-third the normal levels.
"You always blame yourself, you know," Witte said. "You always think you screwed
up. But then it wasn't just the crops. Then I started having all these
weird problems with the cows."
Six of his cows got sick and died. The veterinarian found cancer in the
three that were
When Dennis DeYoung told Witte about his problems, Witte got to wondering
about the effects of fertilizer on his fields. Although he hadn't used
material from the rinse pond, he had used products from Cenex.
Witte still had the rusty, steel fertilizer tank Cenex had delivered and
set up on his
property in 1991.
Witte reached in the tank and scooped about two pounds of dust, rust and
residue from the bottom. He sent the material to Brookside Farms Laboratory
in Ohio, which found levels of arsenic, beryllium, lead, titanium,
chromium, copper and mercury.
A reporter showed Max Hammond, the top Cenex scientist in the area, the
test results last fall. Hammond, since deceased, said some of the metals
might have come from dust or rust in Witte's tank, but he could not explain
the beryllium or arsenic.
Arsenic, a known carcinogen, is a highly toxic residue from mining and smelting
Mayor Martin, who had been closely tracking the rinse-pond controversy,
caught wind of Witte's and DeYoung's problems.
Martin, Witte, DeYoung and others began researching fertilizer
manufacturing. In their reading, they discovered that, as a result of
landfill costs and the stringent environmental laws of the 1970s, a lot of
heavy industries were recycling and marketing their hazardous waste as
In their research, they came upon an Oregon lawsuit they think provides a
critical insight to Quincy's problems.
Aluminum case was studied
Northwest Alloys, a subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), has a
smelter in Addy, an hour's drive north from Spokane. Between 1984 and 1992, the
company recycled more than 200,000 tons of hazardous waste from the smelter
through a smaller company that sold it as a fertilizer and road de-icer.
Based on industry research that said the material was safe, state officials
in Washington,Oregon and Idaho allowed the waste to be sold as "CalMag" and
"AlMag" fertilizers and"Road Clear" de-icer.
The fertilizer was produced and marketed by L-Bar Products Inc. of
Addy. With the recycling, Alcoa saved at least $17 million in disposal
costs, according to company documents, and many farmers used the products
with apparent success.
But one Oregon farmer who used it saw his red-clover crop mysteriously
wilt. In 1993,
he hired James Vomocil, an Oregon State University soils expert, to test
his fields and
Vomocil said L-Bar's sales flier was "designed to deceive" and the product
was volatile, unpredictable and unsafe.
With that ammunition, farmer Wes Behrman of Banks, Ore., won an out-of-court
settlement from L-Bar. He refused to discuss terms of the settlement; he
has told other
people it was substantial.
So what did that have to do with Quincy?
Perhaps nothing. Cenex managers in Quincy and in its regional office say
bought anything from L-Bar Products and had never even heard of the company,
according to Cenex spokeswoman Lani Jordan.
But a 1994 fax from L-Bar owner Frank Melfi indicates otherwise. It says
already bought the L-Bar product and was considering buying 30,000 tons
that year in
"some sort of mutual marketing or venture relationship."
Although that deal never happened, Melfi says now that he definitely sold
Mayor Martin thinks some of it wound up on fields in Quincy, among a
variety of other recycled hazardous wastes.
And although Cenex denies buying recycled wastes from L-Bar, it has bought
from Bay Zinc to add to custom fertilizer mixes, said Pete Mutschler of
Mutschler said the company didn't realize the Bay Zinc fertilizer contained
Dennis DeYoung began to wonder if fertilizer was to blame not only for his
problems, but also for his land turning unproductive in the late 1980s, the
decided to lease it to Schaapman in the first place. At the time, his corn,
beans and hay
were going bad and he didn't know why.
And the more he and others read about what went into recycled fertilizers,
the more they began to worry about possible health effects. Martin
encouraged Witte and DeYoung to submit hair samples to a Chicago laboratory
that tests for heavy metals in human tissues.
The lab, Doctor's Data Inc., found high levels of aluminum, antimony, lead,
arsenic and cadmium in hair samples from DeYoung, Witte and Witte's
Joseph DiGangi, a scientist with Greenpeace in Chicago, reviewed the hair
thought it was kind of creepy, really - all the people, really headed for a
problem, if not now, then later," he said.
And it was all perfectly legal.
"It's amazing that something like this could run across the nation and
know about it," DeYoung said.
Martin, Witte and DeYoung felt their discovery explained the heavy metals
Witte's crops. They wondered if the toxic metals in the Cenex pond came
residues rinsed from equipment, a theory Cenex vigorously denies.
Most importantly, the mayor and farmers knew that while they might never
exactly what had happened in their town, they had discovered something
other farmers and consumers deserved to know about.
"This recycling might be great in theory, but in fact it's being abused,"
"There's no enforcement. Nobody is watching the companies. Nobody can tell me
what's really happening. Nobody knows."
For a man with rough hands and dirty shoes, Tom Witte writes a good letter.
"The state has no mechanism set up to prevent toxic heavy-metals
fertilizers," he wrote then-Gov. Mike Lowry last year. "Fertilizer is only
fertility elements. Nobody checks on what is in the inert ingredients, so
we have a
situation tailor-made for abuse.
"People in industry think that the best way to dispose of waste is to sell
it for fertilizer
and let unsuspecting farmers spread it on their land."
Agriculture Director Jim Jesernig wrote back, agreeing there were problems and
promising to look into it further. The departments of agriculture, ecology
and health have
set up a staff group that plans to issue a report later this year saying
the practice, which
they have encouraged for years, is safe. State officials say they have
tested a sampling of
27 potatoes and that heavy-metal readings were well within safe limits.
Meanwhile, Mayor Martin and Witte's sister, Nancy, a nurse, went to EPA
Administrator Carol Browner's Children's Health Conference in Washington,
D.C., in February. Nancy Witte prodded a nervous Martin to go to the
microphone and ask a question of Browner.
Martin asked whether the EPA knew about companies making toxic wastes into
fertilizer. Browner said she didn't know anything about it but she'd look
into it. Later, an aide to Browner contacted the mayor, explained the
benefits of waste recycling and assured her there would be further study.
Frustrated with the lack of action by public officials, Martin contacted
The Times, asking the newspaper to develop this information.
Potential for danger unclear
So what to make of Mayor Martin and her crusaders? Are they, as Richardson
Potato Growers of Washington insists, unnecessarily "opening up an ugly can of
All that's clear is that the potential for danger is unclear. Some
scientists and public
officials say the benefits of recycling waste outweigh the possible risks.
"The farmer is coming out a little ahead," said soils specialist Charlie
Alabama's Auburn University. "The person spreading it is getting his profit. The
company is using its waste instead of dumping it. So we're helping the
We're creating jobs. If it's done right, it can really be a win-win situation."
But Ken Cook, a soils scientist who heads the nonprofit Environmental
Working Group,said no one yet knows what constitutes "doing it right."
Mayor Martin and friends are raising good questions, Cook says.
"Let's put it this way: We're well into the use of these materials before
are even asked, and that doesn't seem to me to be a good sign that we've
rigorous in our science on this."
Meanwhile, Quincy farmers such as Witte, DeYoung and Duke Giraud want some
action. Giraud lost his family's onion business because of poor yields, and
he suffers from respiratory problems. He figures he unknowingly spread
recycled-waste fertilizer on his fields.
It might be too late for him, he says, but he wants government agencies to
look out for
the welfare of other farmers.
"They have to start testing fertilizer for what they don't say is in
there," Giraud says,
"because they have no problem letting them add who-knows-what."
WA Toxics Coalition
4516 University Way NE
Seattle WA 98105
WA Toxics Coalition
4516 University Way NE
Seattle WA 98105