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Friday, August 15, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Locke: Test, Label Fertilizers -- Regulations Sought To Warn Farmers And Consumers About Recycled Waste

Seattle Times Olympia Bureau

OLYMPIA - Saying "people need to know what is going into the food supply," Gov. Gary Locke says fertilizer used in Washington should be tested and labeled to warn farmers about recycled hazardous wastes.

He is also likely to ask the 1998 Legislature to create state standards for recycling industrial-waste products into fertilizers and to push the federal government to do the same on a national basis.

Locke favors stricter testing and regulation rather than a ban on the practice, as proposed by U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle.

The Seattle Times reported last month that some industries dispose of hazardous wastes by turning them into ingredients for fertilizer to be spread on crops.

The practice is legal and has not been proved to be dangerous to humans. But fertilizers are so poorly regulated that potentially dangerous substances such as cadmium, lead, arsenic, dioxins and radioactive elements are sometimes included in their manufacture. There have been instances of recycled-waste fertilizers destroying crops.

"If the Department of Agriculture knew that there was a health hazard, they could ban it right now," said Marty Brown, Locke's legislative liaison. "They could take that stuff off the market, but there is nothing that has indicated to them that it's necessary."

Locke said that what's needed is information.

"I think that people need to know what is going into the food supply and I think from that public education and awareness they can make their decisions, and I think the farmers themselves would appreciate that information," Locke said.

Review of plans next week

Specific recommendations by the state departments of Agriculture, Health and Ecology will be reviewed early next week by Locke's chief of staff, Joe Dear.

The Department of Agriculture already has authority to require better labeling, said Bob Arrington, the department's assistant director for the Pesticide Management Division. But the 1998 Legislature would have to take action for the state to create permanent standards on the use of recycled industrial byproducts in fertilizer.

Federal standards will still be important, Brown said, because other states may allow material in fertilizer that Washington state considers dangerous.

"We need to let fertilizer manufacturers know `you can't use that stuff in our state; we don't consider that appropriate,' " Brown said.

Some Eastern Washington farmers in the area around Quincy, Grant County, say their fields were poisoned by fertilizers containing hazardous materials, and some suspect they and their families have suffered health problems as a result.

Industry support expected

Brown said he expects the fertilizer industry to be largely supportive of the governor's efforts.

"There is one distributor that was a bad actor that caused some problems over there" (in Quincy), Brown said. "Most of the industry is saying they have no problem with most of the recommendations that have been bandied about."

Scott McKennie, executive director of the Far West Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association in Spokane, said he didn't want to comment on Locke's plans until he had learned the details.

"We're continuing to be in discussions with the agencies that are looking at positive methods of dealing with the situation," he said.

Last month, the Northwest Food Processors Association, whose members produce or pack most of the region's fruit and vegetable crops, called for reforms. Craig Smith, the association's executive director, likes what he has heard about Locke's plan.

"I think the public-education part is right now," Smith said.

"We would like to see some kind of education process and at least some kind of ability to see what's in the product."

Links to The Seattle Times' "Fear in the Fields" series are on The Seattle Times Today's News Web site at: http://www.seattletimes.com

David Postman's phone message number is 360-943-9882. His e-mail address is dpos-new@seatimes.com

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

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