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Dioxin & Toxics in Fertilizer-Part 2

   Copyright © 1997 The Seattle Times Company
   Friday, July 4, 1997
  Fear in the fields: How hazardous wastes becomes fertilizer
   by Duff Wilson
   Seattle Times staff reporter
  Copyright 1997, Seattle Times Co.
   When a trucker picks up a load of gray, toxic ash from a metal-processing
  plant in California, he hangs a "hazardous waste" sign on his rig. On
  crossing the
  border into Nevada, he takes the sign down.
    In that state, what he's carrying is no longer considered hazardous
  waste, but fertilizer
  ingredients. The waste will be delivered to a factory in Reno, treated to
  remove part of the heavy metals, blended with other materials and sold as
  fertilizer to farmers in, among other places, California.
   Such is the fractured regulation of the fertilizer industry. Fertilizer -
  unlike food, animal feed, pesticides, herbicides and sewage sludge - is not
  controlled by federal law. To the degree it's regulated at all, it's on a
  state-by-state basis.
   A Seattle Times investigation found that, across the nation, industrial
  wastes laden with  heavy metals and other dangerous materials are being
  used in fertilizers and spread over  farmland. The process, which is legal,
  saves dirty industries the high costs of disposing of hazardous wastes.
    The lack of national regulation and of labeling requirements means most
  farmers have no idea exactly what they're putting on their crops when they
  apply fertilizers.
  There's a limit on the amount of lead in a can of paint, but not in
  fertilizer. There's a limit on the amount of dioxin in a concrete highway
  barrier, but not in fertilizer.
  If that same trucker tried to wheel that ash up Interstate 5, he could take
  off the
   hazardous-waste sign through Oregon and Washington, which both have less
  regulation than California.
   But when he got to British Columbia, he'd be turned away at the border.
   Canada and many European countries have stringent limits on toxic metals
  found in
   industrial byproducts. They refuse to buy products that, on American
  farms, routinely are sprinkled on the ground.
  Some U.S. experts say those nations are less interested in science than in trade
   protectionism. These experts, working for government agencies and the
   companies, say the products are safe and the process of recycling
  hazardous waste into
   fertilizer is good for America and Americans.
    "It is irresponsible to create unnecessary limits that cost a hell of a
  lot of money," says
    Rufus Chaney of the Department of Agriculture's Research Service.
    Canada's limit for heavy metals such as lead and cadmium in fertilizer is
  10 to 90 times lower than the U.S. limit for metals in sewage sludge. The
  United States has no limit for metals in fertilizer.
   Canada requires tests every six months for metals in recycled-waste
  fertilizer; the U.S.,
  "In the U.S., 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."
   In Canada, Blair said, "We're a little beyond the point where we wait till
  something is
   proved bad before we fix it. Sorry, but we won't compromise our health."
   Some health and environmental experts are pushing for similar regulation
  in this country.  But from Washington state to Washington, D.C., the
  fertilizer industry is waging a successful campaign against it.
    Industry opposes regulation
  The $15-billion-a-year business cultivates clout.
   In Congress three years ago, lobbyists for The Fertilizer Institute won
  removal of a
   section of the proposed Lead Exposure Reduction Act that would have banned
  fertilizers with more than 0.1 percent lead.
  Internal minutes of the institute, the industry's main lobbying group, show
  it wants to
  streamline hazardous-material laws and "manage the issue of regulation of
  heavy metals  in fertilizers."
  The industry also lobbies its own members to oppose fertilizer regulation.
   In Colorado, a manufacturer whose product does not include recycled
  hazardous waste was told by the director of the Far West Fertilizer
  Association to "stop adding fuel to the fire" by talking about the risks of
  heavy metals.
   "I told him there are things going on that are bogus and I won't be quiet
  because I think  this is unsafe," replied Kipp Smallwood, sales manager for
    "I'm crying for national regulation, or at least truth in labeling,"
  Smallwood said. There is no requirement that toxic substances be listed on
  fertilizer labels.
   The primary argument against labeling or regulating fertilizers with toxic
  wastes is that it would raise costs, both of waste disposal and food
   "Agriculture is being used as a dumping ground," Smallwood said. "They get
  away with it because there's nobody watching, nobody testing. It's the lure
  of the dollar."
   While all the substances in question occur in nature, science is finding
  there is no safe
   level for many of them. History has taught that many substances initially
  believed to be  safe were not.
   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
    In fact, lead is in many fertilizers. It is never disclosed on the label,
  though, even when it is as high as 3 percent of the product.
    As a result, farmers and orchardists are spreading up to one-third of a
  cup of lead per acre when they follow the manufacturers' recommendations.
  The farmers and orchardists  aren't told about the lead, which has no
  nutrient value for plants.
   Hazardous-waste recyclers say they could remove more lead, but it would
  cost more and make it harder to compete on price unless everybody had to do
  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."
  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."
   Push is on to recycle
   Nobody really knows how much risk exists in waste-recycling programs that have
  sprouted since Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
  in 1976.
  The law raised the cost of disposing of hazardous substances fivefold in 12
   Soils specialist Charlie Mitchell, an Auburn University professor, says he
  gets 10 times
   as many calls as he used to get about recycling industrial byproducts into
   products. "Every industry is looking at it," Mitchell said.
   "People were scrambling," said John Salmonson, president of Monterey
  Chemical of
  Fresno, Calif. "What happened was they were trying to shove the waste onto
  At least 26 states, including Washington, have created programs to match
  generators of hazardous-waste with recyclers, like blind dates. A brochure
  from the King County
  Hazardous Waste Management Program tells companies: "TURN YOUR DISPOSAL
   "Recycle and reuse, that's our national strategy," said the Department of
   Chaney. "It costs so much more to put it in a landfill. And if the
  recycling program
   avoids any chance of risk, then it's a responsible program."
  That's the tricky part. While sewage sludge has been studied exhaustively
  for 25 years,
   there is little science on long-term effects of heavy metals in recycled
   Shiou Kuo, a Washington State University professor and a consultant to the
  state, says sewage sludge is a very different material from industrial
  waste. While he's not
  particularly worried, he said, "this is something that troubles my mind."
  "Deep down in my heart, I think the less amount a toxic substance like
  cadmium is in the soil, the better," Kuo said. "But, in reality, the
  question is really how much input can be tolerated. Until we know what the
  critical level is, this kind of question cannot be  answered."
    Every state has a fertilizer regulator. But they don't check for heavy
  metals even when they know the metals are included in the product. They
  only check for nutrients listed on the label.
  Washington's Department of Agriculture has three people who go around the state
  collecting samples of feed, seed and fertilizers. The state laboratory in
  Yakima analyzes
   the samples to make sure they match the advertised ingredients.
   It's the same story in other states.
   "We really don't have any rules or regulations addressing that," said Dale
  Florida's fertilizer chief. "There's a lot of materials out there that have
  plant nutrient
   values, but nobody knows what else is in them."
   Testing for heavy metals would cost $50,000 to $150,000 in capital
  investment for the
  typical state lab, plus additional staff, plus $10 to $60 per sample, said
  Dr. Joel Padmore,
  director of North Carolina's lab and an officer of the American Association
  of Plant Food Control Officials.
   Instead of making that investment, some states - most of them in the
  Northeast - are
   cutting back their labs and their regulation of fertilizers. New York
  doesn't even test for  nutrients anymore, he said.
  "Once a state has dropped its regulatory apparatus, then essentially
  anything can be
  registered because nobody is checking," Padmore said.
  The EPA, meanwhile, is focusing not on testing or regulating but on
  promoting waste
   "We feel the direction they're going is not always in the interest of
  agriculture," said
  Maryam Khosravifard, staff scientist for the California Department of Food and
  Agriculture. "EPA is in charge of getting rid of these materials. They do
  reuse and
  recycling. But we do agriculture; we're the stewards of the land."
   Edward Kleppinger, a chemist, wrote hazardous-waste rules for EPA in the
  1970s and is now a consultant for industry, environmental and health
  groups. He, too, dislikes EPA's posture on this issue.
    "The heavy metals don't disappear," Kleppinger says. "They're not
  biodegradable. They just use this as an alternate way to get rid of
  hazardous waste, this whole recycling  loophole that EPA has left in place
  these last 20 years.
   "The last refuge of the hazardous-waste scoundrel is to call it a
  fertilizer or soil
  amendment and dump it on farmland."
  Change might come, slowly
  If change is to come, it probably will come slowly.
  "It feels like it's the very beginning of this debate," said Ken Cook,
  president of the
    Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research agency.
    "Right now, it appears there's an economic use of this waste material.
  But it may just
   mean that we haven't looked at it yet," he said. "Sometimes it's a bonanza
  if it can be
   recycled, and sometimes it's just a shell game where we're transferring
  the risk back to
   the land.
   "Even if it gets flushed out, if 80 percent gets flushed out, it just
  takes longer to build up to the threshold effect," Cook says. "And maybe
  there is no threshold. Maybe there is no safe level."
    The bottom line, Cook says, and many others echo: "We really don't know."
  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)