Some farmers blamed the weather for their lousy wheat crops, stunted corn and sick cows. Some blamed themselves.
But only after Patty Martin, the mayor of this small, dusty town 100 miles east of Seattle, 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 a dangerous waste. It’s a fertilizer.”
An investigation by The Seattle Times has found the practice occurs around the country. Industrial toxic waste is being used increasingly as a fertilizer ingredient.
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 other heavy industries.
Across the Columbia River basin from Quincy, in the town of Moxee City, Wash., a dark powder from two Oregon steel mills is poured from rail cars into the top of a silo 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.”
In its investigation, The Seattle Times learned:
In Tift County, Ga., more than 1,000 acres of peanut crops were wiped out by Lime Plus, a brew of hazardous waste and limestone sold - legally - to unsuspecting farmers in the early 1990s.
Jessica Davis, a soils scientist who helped the farmers detoxify their soil afterwards, said the incident shows why government officials need to tighten waste-recycling rules and restrict the hidden toxic elements in fertilizer.
“Anything that’s fed directly to humans or even to animals, I really don’t understand why this is permitted,” Davis said.
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.
The substance is registered as a fertilizer with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. Some people in the area blame it for such mutations as a nine-legged frog found in a pond next to the fertilized land.
In Chewelah, Wash., a subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America saved $17 million in cleanup costs by obtaining state approval to make 200,000 tons of dangerous wastes into fertilizer and road de-icer.
Oregon State University soils expert James Vomocil said the fertilizer was unpredictable and unsafe and killed an Oregon clover crop. The farmer whose crop was destroyed won an out-of-court settlement.
Tom Wimmer, owner of Marion Agriculture Service in St. Paul, Ore., which sent the fertilizer to the clover farmer, has changed his mind about taking recycled dangerous waste, even if it’s free.
‘There’s a lot of it out there now,” Wimmer says. “They’ve got to get rid of it or put it in a landfill somewhere. That’s what it boils down to.”
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 fertilizer companies.
The waste contained cadmium, a heavy metal that studies show can cause cancer, kidney disease, neurological dysfunction 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?”
Just as there are no conclusive data to prove a danger, there are none to prove the safety of the practice.
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.”
Meanwhile, Mayor Martin is not a popular politician in parts of Quincy 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 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 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 growth regulator sprayed on Washington apples was dangerous to consumers.
CBS later admitted it made some mistakes in the story, and the Washington apple growers sued the network.
But the suit was dismissed at every level of court, 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.
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.”
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.
“I feel the fertilizer industry has done a real service by being able to utilize some of these byproducts,” says Carl Schauble, executive vice president of Frit Industries, a major recycler with fertilizer factories in Norfolk, Neb., Chesapeake, Va., and Walnut Ridge, Ark.
And the material can help crops grow. A number of scientists say the recycled fertilizer is sprinkled so thinly across farm fields that it poses no risk, if handled correctly.
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.”
So far, no study has documented harm to human or animal health in the United States from the recycling of hazardous materials into chemical fertilizers. In Japan, however, studies showed that subsistence rice farmers had been sickened by ingesting cadmium that had passed from fertilizers through the rice crop.
Although the health effects are widely disputed, there is undisputed evidence the substances enter plant roots.
“Some crops may not take up hardly any of it,” says Bill Liebhardt of the University of California-Davis, “and other crops may take up quite a bit and not be affected in terms of their external appearance. This has the potential to move up the food chain.
“When these inert ingredients have the potential for moving up the food chain, then it’s not just the farmer that ought to be concerned, it’s the consumer, because we all consume these products.”
No one knows how much fertilizer produced from toxic waste is plowed into the nation’s farm lands or how much toxic waste goes into fertilizer.
When EPA Administrator Carol Browner was asked about it by Mayor Martin at a children’s health conference in Washington, D.C., in February, she said she didn’t know anything about it.
There is no national regulation of fertilizers in this country. The laws in most states, including Washington, are far from stringent. The regulators are also charged with encouraging recycling, and they work hand-in-hand with industry.
“There’s a lot of materials out there that have plant nutrient values, but nobody knows what else is in them,” agrees Dale Dubberly, Florida’s fertilizer chief.
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.”