Saturday, July 19, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Toxic Waste In Food Chain' Decried -- Group Of Farmers Presses State Officials For Action On Fertilizers

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

OLYMPIA - A small group of angry farmers yesterday demanded that state and federal agencies prohibit the addition of toxic substances to fertilizers, which they believe has ruined their land and threatened their health.

"The only legislation you need to work on is, `No toxic waste,' " Jaycie Giraud of Quincy told state Department of Ecology and Department of Agriculture officials at a meeting convened to air the farmers' concerns. "This isn't a rocket-science thing. Toxic waste in the food chain is wrong."

State officials said they would propose amendments to existing law as well as new legislation. But they stopped far short of agreeing to try to ban a fertilizer-industry practice that at present has the blessing of both the state government and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The Seattle Times on July 3 and 4 reported that some companies routinely include as fertilizer ingredients industrial wastes that contain substances beneficial to plants - but also include toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium and lead. The Times found the practice occurred in several other states, and that few states regulate the use of such materials in fertilizer. Such regulation is common in Canada and Europe.

Giraud, who owned Quincy Produce, a potato- and onion-packing company, with her husband, Duke, and father-in-law, Paul Giraud, said her family had been economically devastated by what she characterized as casual decisions by urban bureaucrats to allow the inclusion of dangerous substances in fertilizer without investigating the possible hazards and without requiring that fertilizer companies inform farmers of the contents of their products.

As a result, she said, the Giraud family, which has been farming in the area for three generations, is now broke. Her father-in-law, a farmer for 50 years, lost a $1 million potato crop. Her husband, after farming all his life, now drives a tow truck to make ends meet. And he and their two children, aged 7 and 14, have all developed respiratory problems that she believes are related to fertilizer products.

"You have no idea what goes on at farms," Giraud said. "We do."

Quincy Mayor Patty Martin also urged officials to consider air quality in determining what action to take. She said she was "extremely concerned . . . that people who are not farmers are at risk" during spring and fall, when winds whip up dust clouds from the fields.

There is as yet no conclusive evidence that including toxic substances in fertilizers is harmful to plants or people - nor is there any proof that it's safe.

Jim Pendowski, manager of the Department of Ecology's solid-waste programs, said programs intended to help the environment by encouraging industry to reduce, reuse and recycle wastes led to their inclusion in fertilizers. He agreed it was time to consider legislation, but contended it was too soon to say whether the department should seek to ban toxic materials in fertilizer altogether or regulate them.

Laurie Valeriano of the Washington Toxics Coalition, an environmental advocacy group, questioned whether new legislation is necessary, pointing out that state law now prohibits "adulteration" of fertilizer.

Ted Maxwell of the Department of Agriculture said the current law might be too narrow to address the toxic question and that his agency would seek clarifying amendments to make it illegal to include substances in amounts harmful to human health or the environment.

Also at the meeting:

-- Dennis Bowhay of the Ecology Department's Yakima office provided results of an analysis of 35 samples of fertilizer, most of which showed levels of toxic elements well below those set for sewage sludge approved for agricultural purposes. He cautioned, though, that because only one sample of each fertilizer had been tested, it was impossible to know if the numbers were representative. It is also unclear whether the standards for sludge, or biosolids, should be applied to fertilizers.

-- The Toxics Coalition released a letter it has sent Gov. Gary Locke urging him to immediately halt the use of toxic elements in fertilizer. The letter was signed by 86 environmental organizations and other groups and businesses in Washington and 15 other states, as well as 130 individuals.

Representatives of Locke's office, the Seattle office of the EPA and the offices of U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, also attended the meeting.

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