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Sunday, July 13, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fear In The Fields -- Alcoa Building Own Plant To Use Waste In Fertilizer

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

STEVENS COUNTY, Wash. - The world's largest aluminum company is going into the fertilizer business to recycle tens of thousands of tons of state-listed dangerous waste into material to spread on farmland.

Northwest Alloys, a subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), is trying to dispose of a 4-acre, 25-foot-high mountain of powdery waste off Highway 395 near Chewelah, Stevens County, a small town about 50 miles north of Spokane.

The 120,000-ton mountain contains insoluble metal salts, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and small amounts of arsenic, lead, molybdenum and nickel, byproducts of Northwest Alloys' magnesium smelter in Addy, north of Chewelah. The company is spending $6 million to build a fertilizer-production plant in Addy to try to recycle the powder and other byproducts in the future.

The move is part of a nationwide practice by heavy industries to market hazardous wastes as fertilizer, a practice described in a Seattle Times investigation published earlier this month.

Although industrial wastes are heavily regulated, the same materials have virtually no regulation when they're licensed as fertilizer products. More and more industries are seeking to turn their wastes into fertilizer, even if they contain potentially dangerous chemicals. The state review process is often based on company-financed research.

Doing so saves companies tens of millions of dollars it would cost to dispose of wastes in licensed landfills. And, mixed and handled correctly, the material can help crops grow. So far Washington state officials have approved of the Northwest Alloys plan, although more review remains to be done.

Northwest Alloys is transporting 15,000 tons of the powder mountain to a dangerous-waste landfill near Arlington, Ore., at an estimated cost of $10 million, to stop it from leaching into the nearby Colville River.

The rest will go either to the landfill or to the new factory to be blended with other material for fertilizer.

The company is also planning to clear out 25,000 tons of the material from storage facilities in other parts of the Columbia River basin, including three publicly owned warehouses by the airport in Ephrata, Grant County.

"A diabolical question"

The Port of Ephrata got stuck with 6,000 tons of the powder when a business partner of Northwest Alloys abandoned it in a bankruptcy action. The Port then tried to entice another business to take the powder away and use it as a fertilizer or road de-icer, the two uses approved by state officials, paying only the cost of transportation. The potential buyer decided against it.

"Obviously, we would rather be sitting with an agricultural product stored in our building than a dangerous waste," Port attorney Katherine Kenison said recently.

"When you look at it, it is kind of a diabolical question, whether it's a hazardous waste or a farmer's best friend," she added.

Northwest Alloys officials insist the material is the farmer's friend, and to prove it, they've agreed to manufacture and market the fertilizer themselves. They're even considering setting an industry precedent by listing all ingredients on the label.

State law requires fertilizer marketers to list their plant-food ingredients, but not the full contents, including potentially hazardous materials.

Project managers Ed Hatcher and Ozzie Wilkinson said they are so confident their fertilizer will be safe that they will propose to label it 100 percent.

"We want everybody to know exactly what they're getting," Hatcher said. "And if metals are going to be an issue in the future, I'm for labeling them."

First of all, though, the company will have to do a series of new tests of metals in its products and then get approval from Alcoa headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pa. Wilkinson said that is far from certain. Alcoa would be the first company in the chemical fertilizer business to list all ingredients on the label.

Clover crop destroyed

Northwest Alloys and its recycling partners have been stockpiling waste since the magnesium plant opened here in 1973. They are left with about five pounds of sludge for every pound of magnesium extracted from a nearby quarry.

A company called L-Bar Industries bought the Chewelah recycling business in 1986, just as environmental rules got tougher and Northwest Alloys needed to figure out how to dispose of its wastes.

L-Bar President Frank Melfi's answer was: Make it a fertilizer.

"This was the solution to the waste-disposal problem," Melfi said in an interview. "If they did not do this, their alternative would cost them about $2 million a year to take it to a special dump."

L-Bar's cash crop was the magnesium recovered from the waste, but it also hoped to make more than $1 million a year by selling the remaining waste as "Cal Mag" fertilizer or "Road Clear" de-icer.

The waste was classified "dangerous" by the state because it killed fish in a state test. But the Department of Ecology waived many restrictions when L-Bar got approval from the state Department of Agriculture to use it as a fertilizer. The company says the ammonia that kills fish helps plants.

An Oregon State University extension agent who helped L-Bar get state approval wrote a letter thanking the company for its financial assistance during his tests. He could not be reached for comment.

Some farmers used L-Bar's products with success in the Palouse, Yakima and Wenatchee areas of Washington and the Willamette Valley of Oregon. But one Oregon farmer's clover crop was destroyed by the salts in the product, which were not advertised.

James Vomocil, a retired Oregon State University soils scientist, studied the fertilizer and reported it was volatile, unpredictable and potentially poisonous to farmlands. His report helped the farmer win an out-of-court settlement in a civil lawsuit.

In an interview, Vomocil called for federal regulation of fertilizers and spot checks of the ingredients that aren't listed on the label.

Northwest Alloys officials said they hadn't even heard of Vomocil's analysis of their product, now 4 years old, until a Times reporter showed it to them. State officials were never notified of the critical analysis when they relicensed the product as a fertilizer in 1993 and 1995. If Northwest Alloys had known about the Vomocil report, they would have been required to tell state officials about it.

State inspectors never took an independent sample of the fertilizer product until two weeks ago.

Commitment to "do it right"

The Northwest Alloys officials say they've learned from L-Bar's mistakes and will produce a better, safer product. They say their fertilizer will be mixed better and granulated to be less dusty, and will be distributed through three trusted fertilizer dealers. L-Bar sold to farmers directly and was cited for deceptive advertising. Northwest Alloys plans to sell 10,000 tons to 20,000 tons a year.

"This is a commitment to say we're going to do it for the long haul, do it right," Hatcher said.

But Wilkinson said he would still not be in favor of more outside testing of fertilizer.

"It's a much more efficient system to have self policing than to have government go out and do it," he said.

------------------------ For copies of our series ------------------------

Reprints of "Fear in the Fields" will be available free at The Times' downtown and suburban offices from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, starting this Wednesday. The downtown office is at Fairview Avenue North and John Street. Others are at 10777 Main St., Suite 100, Bellevue; 31620 23rd Ave. S., Suite 312, Federal Way; and 121l 164th St. S.W., Suite 101, Lynnwood.

For reprints by mail, please send a request to:

"Fear in the Fields" Reprints

Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70

Seattle, WA 98111-0070

Please include $1 for postage and handling.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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