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

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Fear In The Fields -- Mcdermott Drafting Bill To Regulate Fertilizers -- Report On Industrial Waste Used To Fertilize Food Crops Sparks Concern Across Nation

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Copyright 1997, Seattle Times Co.

Some are alarmed, some are angry and some are simply anxious, as state and federal officials around the country call for more study and more regulation of the fertilizer industry.

At the fore is Washington Congressman Jim McDermott, who called the recycling of hazardous wastes into fertilizer "dangerous" and even "unconscionable."

McDermott is drafting legislation to "remedy this potentially hazardous practice." The recycling of toxic wastes into fertilizer, without listing them on the label, was described in a Seattle Times investigation published July 3 and 4.

The newspaper investigation showed how heavy industries, such as metal smelters, cement kilns, pulp mills and even a uranium-processing plant, are encouraged to market their wastes as fertilizer to save money and landfill space. While those wastes may contain beneficial elements, some also have toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. Some include radioactive substances.

Most farmers and consumers didn't know about the practice.

The newspaper cited examples around the country where hazardous wastes have been spread over farmland, at times killing crops. In other cases, recycled wastes have been used with apparent success.

No harm to human health has been proved, but neither has the safety of the practice, which is legal in the United States.

Other nations are stricter

Other countries, including Canada and the European Community, have much stricter regulation, choosing to limit hazardous-waste recycling until it can be shown that their continued use will be safe for farmers and consumers.

"The fact that there is no conclusive evidence that such contaminants are safe for use as fertilizer is alarming," said McDermott, D-Seattle. "The consequences of using hazardous byproducts in fertilizer could be far-reaching."

As a physician, McDermott added, he has long been concerned about the health effects of lead, cadmium and arsenic, "even in small amounts." The materials are known or suspected carcinogens to which children are particularly vulnerable. There are no specific limits for those toxics in fertilizers.

In addition to working on a new law, McDermott has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency to immediately take a closer look at recycled fertilizers, saying "we have the right to know" what's in them.

Manufacturers are not required to list heavy metals and other hazardous materials on the labels of fertilizers. State regulators only check for the advertised ingredients listed by the manufacturers or fertilizer blenders.

Gov. Locke orders inquiry

At least five states, including Washington, are looking at changes to fertilizer testing or labeling. And one leading state regulator says he will propose full disclosure of fertilizer ingredients on labels nationwide.

"It's an idea whose time has come," said Texas state chemist George Latimer, last year's president of the American Association of Plant Food Control Officials.

Washington Gov. Gary Locke said he was surprised and concerned by the revelations. Locke ordered his directors of health, ecology and agriculture to report back to him on what to do as soon as possible, including possible legislation.

Press secretary Marylou Flynn said the three officials told the governor the newspaper report was fair and accurate, and that they were already working on some of the issues the report raised in response to complaints from farmers and the mayor in Quincy, Wash.

The initial report focused on Quincy, a small, agricultural town in Central Washington torn apart by debate over whether it is safe to recycle toxic wastes into fertilizer, or whether it even happens.

The Times found a scientific consensus that heavy metals added to the soil are taken up in the food chain. The absorption varies widely by mix of chemicals, soil and crop type.

Dispute about what's safe

Some experts say there is no safe level, while others say these chemicals are present in trace amounts everywhere and pose little for concern in this form.

However, levels of the dangerous substances in some of the fertilizers, such as lead, far exceed those found naturally in soils.

Some crops, including peanuts in Georgia destined for human consumption, have been damaged by metals in fertilizer. The only proven link to human health was among subsistence rice farmers poisoned by long exposure to cadmium in Asia.

In an outpouring of response to The Times articles, nearly 200 people wrote or phoned the newspaper with thanks or requests for more investigation.

In the main criticism of the Times reports to date, some fertilizer-industry officials said the concerns about toxics were spread too broadly. They said the great majority of fertilizers are safe for the environment and public health.

Fertilizer is one of the only commodities not regulated by the federal government, Latimer of Texas said. And although he favors continued state regulation rather than federal control, Latimer said he is speeding up his previously started work with fertilizer producers to get a full label of ingredients so that farmers and consumers in that state know exactly what they're buying.

"This article will galvanize a lot of folks," Latimer said.

He also plans to propose the labeling requirement as part of a model law for other states. It will be discussed next month at the annual meeting of fertilizer regulators nationwide. Latimer said manufacturers who want to keep their products clean will support the change, too.

In New York, Agriculture Commissioner Donald Davidsen said the Seattle Times report made him decide to begin an investigation of fertilizers used in New York.

Davidsen said New York will also resume testing fertilizer products for the advertised ingredients, a practice it dropped in a budget cut four years ago, and which he had already started working to resume. In addition, Davidsen said, New York will start testing some fertilizers for the potentially hazardous ingredients not listed on the label.

In California, a staff attorney for the state's environmental agency said he was reviewing how the agency classifies hazardous wastes. In North Carolina, state chemist Joel Padmore said the articles show the need for more resources and more testing of heavy metals by fertilizer regulators.

And in Louisiana, an assistant attorney general said he was taking another look at a proposal to allow waste from fertilizer production itself to be used as a soil amendment under an "environmental excellence" recycling program.

"It was the right thing to do"

The Times found that environmental agencies have a conflicting role in promoting recycling and determining whether it is safe to recycle industrial byproducts onto agriculture.

Two nonprofit groups - the Western Environmental Law Center of Eugene, Ore., and the Columbia Basin Institute of Portland - say they're pondering court action against recycling wastes into fertilizer.

Several Quincy farmers met with lawyers from the Columbia Basin Institute Friday. The institute has filed litigation on behalf of farmworkers in other instances.

Bill Bean of the Institute said it is looking for grounds to sue in federal court, which might include right-to-know issues, product adulteration, hazardous-waste violations, private nuisance, or the Quincy City Council's actions to try to get Mayor Patty Martin to stop talking about toxic chemicals in fertilizer.

Martin said she's glad she spoke out even though a lot of people in Quincy are angry at her.

"It was the right thing to do," Martin said, "and the reason I did it was that people have the right to know what's in their fertilizer."

The "Fear in the Fields" series is available on the Web at:

The Times' Reader Response line is: 206-464-8533.

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

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


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