By Duff Wilson, Seattle Times reporter
When you’re mayor of a town the size of Quincy, Wash., you hear just about everything.
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: 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 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 dangerous waste– it’s a fertilizer.”
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 Tift 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 consumption.
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 have.”
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:
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.”
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 laughter.
“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 fertilizer.
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 fertilizer.
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 answers.”
How Martin and her supporters stumbled upon the discovery of the recycling of toxic waste into fertilizer begins at a 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 pesticides.
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 extra 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 and Schaapman 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 trial.
He also managed to stir up an investigation by the federal Environmental Protection 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 tested.
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 processes.
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.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 fertilizer.
In their research, they came upon an Oregon lawsuit they think provides a critical insight to Quincy’s problems.
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 fertilizers.
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 Cenex.
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 material 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 recycled hazardous waste.
Dennis DeYoung began to wonder if fertilizer was to blame not only for his recent 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 children.
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.”
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 worms”?
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 environment. 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.”
1. Heavy industries producing metals, wood and paper products, and cement are some of the leaders in collecting dangerous wastes for recycling. These wastes can contain lead, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals, dioxins and radionuclides.
2. Waste comes out of factories in the form of dark ash, collected from pollution-control equipment in the smokestack, or sometimes in rock or liquid forms as a manufacturing byproduct.
3. Fertilizer manufacturer takes the waste, often with payment from factory. The manufacturer may further refine waste, adding liquids to make it into granules for consistency, dust control and easier spreading.
4. Recycled fertilizer, often blended with other fertilizing material, is spread on agricultural land. Farmers and state regulators can’t be sure what’s in the product because the manufacturer has to report only the beneficial ingredients.
5. Plants take up some of the heavy metals along with other nutrients and water from the soil. Grazing animals eat plants and soil.
Of the 112 chemical elements known to man, only 16 are essential to plants. Carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are taken from air and water. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are primary nutrients in fertilizers. Ten others are secondary nutrients. Some fertilizers, especially those derived from recycled wastes, also contain the following chemicals of possible health concern – but they are never listed on the fertilizer label.
Arsenic Comes from mine tailings and smelting residue. Highly toxic to animals; carcinogenic. Plants most vulnerable are root crops such as carrots, onions and potatoes.
Cadmium Has half-life in soil of 15 to 100 years. Long-term exposure may cause cancer, kidney disease, neurological dysfunction, diminished fertility, immune-system changes and birth defects. Crops most vulnerable are lettuce, corn and wheat and rice.
Lead Can cause seizures, mental retardation and behavioral disorders. Most vulnerable crops are fruits and grains, mostly from contact with air but also through roots.
The Environmental Protection Agency also has identified these metals as potential health concerns under its standards for land application of sewage sludge: chromium, copper, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium and zinc. Sources: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, U.S. Public Health Service, Environmental Protection Agency