Washington Free Press Mar/Apr 2003 No 62

Poisoning Ourselves

Toxic Waste in Fertilizer

In 1997, the Seattle Times published an explosive series of articles by investigative reporter Duff Wilson: Fear In the Fields: How hazardous wastes become fertilizer . Wilson subsequently wrote a book: Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, A Global Industry, and a Toxic Secret, which came out in the unfortunate month of Sept. 2001.

Based on the fallout from the series of articles, a movement developed to regulate fertilizer content. The Washington State result, from the Department of Ecology, was a toothless, politically correct set of standards known as the Washington Fertilizer Act of 1998. Nothing was done to address the practice of adding dioxin to commercial fertilizer, even though the EPA Dioxin Reassessment Document estimates that average levels of dioxin in ALL Americans is "at or approaching levels" where we can expect to see a variety of dioxin induced health effects, including Immunosupression, reproductive irregularities, heart disease, and cancer. But, we are assured by Ecology's rule that the concentration of heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic in fertilizer is in compliance with dangerous waste regulations. These metals are highly toxic substances to both humans and the natural environment.. Lead has been known to cause behavioral problems, learning disabilities, seizures, and even death. Mercury may also cause neurological abnormalities, including cerebral palsy in children and severe deformations in animals. Arsenic and cadmium may damage internal organs, skin, and nerve function.

Hazardous waste derived fertilizers are not labeled; rather the product is said to be categorized on the internet, so just remember to take your PC and modem with you when you go fertilizer shopping.

On November 29th of 2001, an EPA National Public Hearing was held in Seattle. At that time, toxic wastes from mining, steel mills, pulp mills, and other industries were made into fertilizer with virtually no federal or state regulation. The EPA heard broad citizen support for prohibition of the addition of dioxins to any fertilizer product, the establishment of health based standards for heavy metals, and labeling requirements which inform the consumer of the quantitative amounts of all ingredients. The result was based on Washington State’s weak rule. While industries had long been disposing of hazardous wastes through "fertilizer", the practice was not officially authorized until passage of the federal rule.

Safe Food and Fertilizer, Family Farm Defenders, the Oregon Toxics Alliance, and the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) argue that the "land ban" provisions of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) prohibit hazardous wastes from being put in fertilizers that end up on farm fields and home gardens. While treated wastes may be placed in land disposal facilities, the facilities must be designed to prevent migration of the hazardous wastes and have, at a minimum, double liners and leachate collection systems. In 1994, the EPA banned a similar practice, in which hazardous wastes were being used in road de-icing chemicals. The EPA justified that ban by noting that hazardous wastes could not legally be applied to the land in an uncontrolled manner. The concern is, of course, is that heavy metals could migrate through the soil and run off into streams, possibly affecting marine and wild life, as well as contaminating downstream sources of human water supply.

These public interest groups filed a lawsuit to overturn the EPA rule in October 2002. Their legal brief will be due at the end of March, and the case will go to court in August or September. Contact Patty Martin, Safe Food and Fertilizer (509)787-4275 or (509) 679-8711, martin@nwi.net