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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
  the EPA."
  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
  phenomenon, an
  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
  radioactive waste
  by licensing it as a liquid fertilizer and spraying it over 9,000 acres of
  grazing land.
  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
  mill is
  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
  heavy industries.
  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
  money and
  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
  beneficial materials."
  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
  metals are
  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
  many other
  industrialized nations. The laws in most states, including Washington, are
  far from
  stringent. The lack of national regulation makes it virtually impossible to
  measure the
  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
  Monsanto official
  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,
  lead, arsenic,
  radionuclides and dioxins, at levels some scientists say may pose a threat
  to human
  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
  strict regulation.
  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
  proven unsafe.
  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
  Texas A&M
  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
  the Potato
  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
  situation in
  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
  under the
  harshest attack, he tells her she's doing the right thing.
  "I just have the unfortunate distinction of having stumbled across this
  question and
  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
  of toxic
  waste into fertilizer begins at a man-made, concrete pond across the street
  from Quincy
   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
  required by
  federal law.
  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
  hazardous wastes.
  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
  and seed.
  Soon after, Cenex bought the land from the financing company.
  "They run a farmer out of business, then they get his land," DeYoung said.
  "Now isn't
  that something."
  DeYoung sued Cenex for damages for ruining the soil, lost in summary
  judgment but
  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
  manager were
  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
  Chewelah, near
  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
  they never
  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
  Cenex had
  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
  CalMag to
  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
  Cenex. But
  Mutschler said the company didn't realize the Bay Zinc fertilizer contained
  hazardous waste.
  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
  reason he
  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
  samples. "I
  thought it was kind of creepy, really - all the people, really headed for a
  serious health
  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
  nobody would
  know about it," DeYoung said.
  Martin, Witte and DeYoung felt their discovery explained the heavy metals
  found in
  Witte's crops. They wondered if the toxic metals in the Cenex pond came
  from fertilizer
  residues rinsed from equipment, a theory Cenex vigorously denies.
    Most importantly, the mayor and farmers knew that while they might never
  sort out
  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,"
  Martin said.
  "There's no enforcement. Nobody is watching the companies. Nobody can tell me
    what's really happening. Nobody knows."
  Frustration grew
  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
  contamination of
  fertilizers," he wrote then-Gov. Mike Lowry last year. "Fertilizer is only
  tested for
  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
  of the
  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
  Mitchell of
  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
  these questions
  are even asked, and that doesn't seem to me to be a good sign that we've
  been very
  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."
  Laurie Valeriano
  WA Toxics Coalition
  4516 University Way NE
  Seattle WA 98105
  206-632-8661 (fax)
  Laurie Valeriano
  WA Toxics Coalition
  4516 University Way NE
  Seattle WA 98105
  206-632-8661 (fax)