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Sunday, July 20, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Even Advocate Of Using Waste In Fertilizer Wants Tighter Laws

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

One of the nation's most prominent advocates of recycling industrial wastes into fertilizer now says the practice should be better regulated.

Rufus Chaney, a federal scientist whose research is touted by the industry to defend the presence of heavy metals and toxic chemicals in fertilizers, says a recent Seattle Times investigation showed the need for regulatory change.

He said regulators need to start testing for, and including on ingredient labels, all the chemicals in fertilizers - not just the advertised nutrients, as is done now.

"It's inappropriate to put it in there without saying it's in there," Chaney said. "Let it be part of the monitored program, instead of saying, `We do it and we don't have to tell you,' which is the way it's been for all of our lifetime."

The Times series, published July 3-4, showed how some industries are disposing of hazardous wastes by turning them into ingredients for fertilizer to spread around farms. The practice, which is legal, saves waste producers - such as steel and aluminum companies - millions of dollars and saves landfill space.

Environmental agencies encourage the practice in the name of recycling. It has never been proved dangerous to humans, although there have been instances where recycled-waste fertilizers have destroyed crops. Nor has the practice been proved harmless, and Canada and other Western nations have more strictly regulated and restricted the use of these fertilizers.

Chaney, a specialist in food-chain toxicology with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was quoted in the earlier Times articles as saying it would be irresponsible to place unnecessary regulations on fertilizer. In a follow-up interview Thursday, he said he has thought about supporting full testing and labeling in the past but hasn't spoken on it publicly until now. Also, he added, new technology makes testing for toxics much more affordable.

"We have no excuse to not do it better," Chaney said.

Chaney and some other experts say truth-in-labeling would bring market forces into play to reduce the toxic elements in fertilizer.

U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, is working on legislation to restrict recycling of wastes into fertilizers, calling the practice "dangerous" and "unconscionable."

Five states re-examining laws

At least five states also are looking at changes in testing and labeling requirements.

Texas' top fertilizer regulator, state chemist George Latimer Jr., says he will propose a full-labeling law at an upcoming national convention of regulators. Such a law would then have to be enacted by state legislatures.

Washington Gov. Gary Locke is asking three department directors to propose legislation. Officials here have previously tested a few dozen waste-recycled fertilizers, as well as potatoes grown with them, and declared them safe.

Scott McKinnie, executive director of the Far West Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association in Spokane, said any new law needs to come from a careful process involving the industry, regulators and other unspecified groups.

"I'm not going to say yes, I like (full labeling), or no, I don't," McKinnie said. "Let's have it part of a process."

McKinnie said any new legislation should focus on recycled-waste products, which generally are higher in heavy metals such as lead and cadmium.

But Chaney said that approach would be a mistake. He said all fertilizers should be tested and labeled, not just those from recycled waste.

For example, phosphate from Idaho rock deposits contains an average of 92 parts per million of the suspected carcinogen cadmium. That's 340 times higher than the level found in most soils in the agricultural Plains states, and exceeds fertilizer limits in Canada and several European nations.

The Idaho phosphate, widely used in U.S. fertilizer, has higher levels of cadmium than all but two of 35 recycled-waste fertilizers, the analytical results of which were obtained by The Times. Some European countries won't buy the Idaho rock because they say it is unsafe to health, Chaney said. Canada won't take it because it is trying to protect its wheat exports to Europe.

Cadmium gradually is building up in farm soils and accumulates over the years in animal livers and kidneys, Chaney said.

"This is an issue we can't keep ignoring," Chaney said. "It's not a crisis yet, but we have to deal with it.

Who controls the laws

"Fertilizer companies control the laws that are written about them" through strong lobbying efforts, Chaney added. "That's a problem. As long as we have that problem, the public interest isn't going to be served."

McKinnie said Chaney is "certainly an eminent scientist," but said the fertilizer industry would look to another leading soils expert, John Mortvedt, for his opinion on testing and labeling.

Mortvedt, a retired Colorado State University professor, was noncommittal. He said the heavy metals in fertilizer have not been shown to hurt our food supply, so labeling isn't needed. And, he said, it would increase the cost.

"But with the consumer interest in some of these things, probably it should be," Mortvedt said. "I guess I can look at it both ways."

David Terry of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, that state's fertilizer regulator, said the label is "the linchpin of the whole thing." He recommended checking all fertilizers for ingredients, and labeling them.

"Even traditional fertilizers might have some of these heavy metals that we haven't looked for in a while," Terry said. "It's all over the range what might be in there - from nothing to something that might be harmful."

Industry likely to heed changes

Terry said he thought the industry would go along with full labeling.

"The legitimate industry is protected, and the farmers and consumers are also protected by the, hopefully, clear and understandable labeling."

Alan Rubin, a senior scientist with the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Water, said The Times investigation showed, for the first time, the lack of documentation, tracking and control of heavy metals in fertilizer.

"It just has not been on the radar screen," he said. "Congress and the regulatory agencies have not focused on traditional fertilizers as a source of contaminants, or as a vehicle to receive waste materials."

Rubin said there is a potential for harm to health and the environment, but how much harm, nobody can say. Rubin, who is the EPA's premier biosolids researcher, said it took 10 years to set limits on metals in sewage sludge applied as fertilizer.

"The higher you go in lead, the more probable, the more severe the effects can be," Rubin said. "Any exposure to carcinogens gives you an incremental, albeit small, increase in risk to cancer."

--------------------------------------- `FEAR IN THE FIELDS' REPRINTS AVAILABLE ---------------------------------------

Reprints of "Fear in the Fields," a recent Seattle Times investigation of the recycling of hazardous wastes into fertilizer, are available free at Seattle Times offices and for a nominal cost by mail.

While supplies last, reprints are available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at Times offices at Fairview Avenue North and John Street in downtown Seattle; 10777 Main St., Suite 100, Bellevue; 31620 23rd Ave. S., Suite 312, Federal Way, and 1211 164th St. S.W., Suite 101, Lynnwood.

For copies by mail, send your name, address and $1 postage-and-handling fee for each copy to:

"Fear in the Fields" Reprints

Seattle Times

P.O. Box 1926

Seattle, WA 98111

For information about bulk orders (five copies or more), call (206) 464-8516.

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

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