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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
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
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
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
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
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,
"They're congratulating people for recycling things without understanding
problems are with the recycled material."
In Canada, Blair said, "We're a little beyond the point where we wait till
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
COSTS INTO PROFITS."
"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
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
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
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
"We feel the direction they're going is not always in the interest of
Maryam Khosravifard, staff scientist for the California Department of Food and
Agriculture. "EPA is in charge of getting rid of these materials. They do
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
"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."
WA Toxics Coalition
4516 University Way NE
Seattle WA 98105
WA Toxics Coalition
4516 University Way NE
Seattle WA 98105