Copyright © 1997 The Seattle Times Company
Local News : Friday, July 04, 1997

Fear in the fields: How hazardous wastes become 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 fertilizer 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., none.

"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 Cozinco.

"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 production.

"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 fertilizer.

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 it.

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 years.

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 agricultural 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 agriculture."

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 Agriculture's 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 fertilizer.

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 Dubberly, 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 recycling.

"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."