Throughout The Country: Example After Example Of Hazardous Wastes Being Turned Into Fertilizer

Copyright 1997, Seattle Times Co.


More than 1,000 acres of peanut crops were killed by Lime Plus, a toxic brew of hazardous waste and limestone that had been sold - legally - to unsuspecting farmers.

It is the worst confirmed case in the United States of heavy metals in fertilizer destroying crops aimed for human consumption.

The farmers don't want to talk about it. But Jessica Davis, a soils scientist who has studied the incident, is more than happy to. She says the fields of Georgia show why government officials need to tighten waste-recycling rules and restrict the hidden toxic elements in fertilizer.

"Anything that's fed directly to humans or even to animals, I really don't understand why this is permitted," Davis said.

Five steel mills in the Southeast paid Sogreen Corp. an undisclosed amount to take their gray, powdery dust from electric-arc furnaces. The waste material was 10 percent zinc, a whopping 3.6 percent lead, and highly alkaline.

Sogreen mixed one part waste with three parts limestone and sold it as Lime Plus with approval of the state of Georgia. Sogreen "made money coming and going," said Davis, formerly with the University of Georgia, now with Colorado State University.

The peanut crops needed liming to raise the pH of the soil. They didn't need zinc, but it was advertised as a micro-nutrient, or added benefit. The farmers weren't told about the lead, cadmium or chromium.

The practice of allowing steel-mill waste to be plowed into fields is nationwide. Some soil experts say there is a safety net in biology: The plants would die from too much zinc before they'd absorb dangerous levels of lead.

In Tifton, that was true. However, Davis said, peanuts are more sensitive to zinc than are other crops.

"Let's say you're planting a crop that's not sensitive to zinc and so it doesn't die," Davis said. "Well, this material is high not only in zinc, but it's got lead and cadmium and chromium - all kinds of fun stuff that could be hazardous to humans.

"Somebody uses this on their sweet corn and eats it. Nobody knows how much lead they'll be eating."

Davis worked with three farmers to detoxify their soil. Under a confidentiality agreement, she can't reveal who they are.

"They're afraid if people know they had this problem on their land, they won't be able to sell what they've grown there and they won't be able to sell their land, either."

For the same reason, the farmers wouldn't sue Sogreen.

But the fertilizer manufacturer had other legal problems. Owner Herman Parramore Jr. had a permit to store 500 cubic yards of the toxic waste. He was stockpiling 75,000 cubic yards. And it wasn't covered up, as the permit required.

Parramore pleaded guilty to two felonies under environmental laws.

The mountain of hazardous waste was near a school in a low-income neighborhood. Residents said it dusted their homes whenever the wind blew.

The residents won a big lawsuit for damages, and the steel mills that had supplied the dust are paying more than $10 million to clean it up. But they're still selling Lime Plus.


A uranium-processing plant is disposing of low-level radioactive waste by spraying it on 9,000 acres of company-owned grazing land.

Three and a half years after the shutdown of the Sequoyah Fuels Uranium Processing facility, workers are still sprinkling its waste, diluted by rain, from a holding pond at the rate of 10 million gallons a year.

It is called Raffinate and is registered as a fertilizer with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture.

State and federal officials approved the fertilizer plan in 1986. Raffinate, the main waste from a solvent used to extract uranium for nuclear-plant fuel, is slightly radioactive and contains 18 heavy metals.

"We were screaming our heads off when all this was happening," says Kathy Carter-White, an attorney representing residents of the area. "But it was just like the powers-that-be were going forward. We just felt violated by what happened because the land will never recover."

John Ellis, Sequoyah Fuels president, said the company is piping the material to 75 acres of bermuda grass where as many as 400 cattle graze.

Some people blame the fertilizer for such mutations as a nine-legged frog and a two-nosed cow. They also say it could be a factor in some of the 124 cases of cancer and birth defects counted in families living near the plant.

There's no proof, though.

"It's hard to separate out what damage came from the chimneys at Sequoyah Fuels and what was from the pallets on the ground and the groundwater and the land disposal," said Carter-White.

"But the frog was found by a little boy at a country pond that was real close to where this surface application was taking place. The boy shot it and turned it over, and found it had legs sticking out all over its sternum."


Stoller Chemical of Charleston exported 3,000 tons of especially toxic material to Bangladesh and Australia in 1992. The material was loaded with cadmium and lead, far beyond even what is in the recycled-waste fertilizers used on U.S. farms.

The company failed to notify the EPA of the toxic shipment, as required by law, and was fined $1 million. Stoller went bankrupt.

"We just happened to catch it," said Ben Haygood, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case. If the fertilizer had been used domestically, he said, the government might not have known about its high toxicity.

Some of the fertilizer was spread on rice fields before it was recalled from Bangladesh. Some of it also was used by market gardeners and pasture owners in Australia.


Frit Industries attached a fertilizer factory to the Nucor steel mill to recycle the mill's hazardous waste for agriculture.

By operating on site, Frit avoids any chance of spillage, and also avoids having to get the federal permits required of other hazardous-waste recyclers.

The chalky, black waste is collected from a pollution-control device in the mill's chimney. Since it is rich in zinc, a nutrient for many plants, the dust has been recycled onto farms for years. It's also laden with lead and cadmium.

The industry won an exemption from an environmental law passed by Congress in 1976. The flue dust is a federal hazardous waste unless it is processed into fertilizer.

"We think it is an intelligent and safe and reasonable thing to do with the material," said Carl Schauble, executive vice president of Frit, based in Alabama. "I feel that the fertilizer industry has done a real service being able to utilize some of these byproducts."

Schauble said the lead doesn't have much effect on plants. Frit sells its Nucor zinc product to nearby fertilizer dealers in the heart of corn country and to custom blenders throughout the Midwest.

The arrangement works for Nucor, the steel company, too.

John Hatfield, an Idaho fertilizer manufacturer, says he was asked to build the plant on the Nucor site before Frit stepped in.

"Nucor didn't want to ship their lead zinc dust to Monterrey, Mexico, at $100 a ton, and so they got Frit Industries to move in there," Hatfield says. "You say how do I know that? Because they asked me to do it before Frit."


Tom Wimmer is seeing more and more industrial waste from Washington state being pushed on farmers in Oregon, and liking it less and less.

Wimmer owns Marion Agriculture Service, which supplies and advises farmers south of Portland.

He says waste brokers from metal-, cement-, paper- and wood-products companies are calling, hoping he'll find them farmers to take their dangerous wastes as fertilizer.

"There's a lot of it out there now," Wimmer says. "They've got to get rid of it or put it in a landfill somewhere. That's what it boils down to."

In many cases, companies offer to pay the farmer to take the wastes. Sometimes, Wimmer believes, it's good business and good recycling. Other times, it's neither.

"We've even had a situation where the paper byproduct was not mixed in the soil well enough and the paper product ended up with vegetables in a cannery," he says.

"The farmers, they're getting something free - or so they believe. But it does come at a cost. It just depends on who's picking up the cost."


Seven hundred tons of ash is collected each month from the chimney of a giant pulp and paper mill on the Columbia River.

It is a highly corrosive ash laced with heavy metals such as lead, chromium and zinc. The ash is classified as dangerous waste by state authorities because 30 out of 30 rainbow trout died in a test using a 1 percent mixture of the ash in water.

But this is no ordinary dangerous waste. It's also a product called NutriLime, registered for farm use in Washington and Oregon.

James River Corp. workers take the ash from the pulp-mill chimney, add water to hold down dust, pour it into trucks and haul it to six farms in Clark and Skamania counties. There, it is spread out on 425 acres.

NutriLime is plowed into soil growing oats, clover, grass and other crops for livestock consumption.

Farmers signed contracts to receive the lime at cut-rate prices and to get their fields plowed. James River was happy to supply them: It was less expensive than paying to dispose of the ash in a landfill.

And company-paid scientists say it helps the crops by raising the pH of the soil.

The heavy metals in the ash varied widely over a series of tests. Lead was just 4 parts per million in a sample of ash tested for state regulators in 1991, but up to 562 parts per million in later tests.

At that rate, Canada wouldn't have allowed it to be used as fertilizer.

The United States, though, has no limit, just a state-by-state discretion based on a general principle that fertilizers shouldn't hurt plant or human health when properly used.

NutriLime was re-registered as a farm product, not a dangerous waste, in 1993. The company paid a $35 filing fee and sent results of what it said were random analyses on 18 samples. Only one of the 18 was tested for heavy metals.

"The popularity of NutriLime is growing daily," wrote mill manager A.G. Elsbree, "and we look forward to serving the agricultural community."


Two fertilizer companies are being investigated for illegal use of toxic wastes in California, which has some of the nation's toughest environmental laws.

One company was mixing zinc into a waste product so it could be marketed as a zinc-based fertilizer instead of having to pay for disposal, said Larry Matz, chief of compliance for the Department of Toxic Substances Control. The waste had no fertilizing qualities of its own, so could not be sold as fertilizer.

Leads from the California investigations have sparked similar probes in Missouri, New York and Texas.


Farmers here say they are unconvinced of the safety of a plan to send liquid waste from a Superfund site through sewage treatment and apply it on a 50,000-acre, government-owned wheat farm.

Lowry Landfill is one of the worst Superfund sites in the country, with a brew of industrial solvents, petroleum oils, pesticides and radioactive material.

The EPA is considering the novel disposal plan in a ruling that may set a precedent for new ways to clean up Superfund sites. A public comment period ended June 30.

One EPA official said the agency will be sure the landfill water will be neither radioactive nor hazardous. Another questioned the idea.

The wheat field is owned by Denver's Metro sewage agency, which would mix the waste with sewage sludge.


The big hill on Monsanto's property here grows taller every day with the addition of big steaming vats of hot ash.

It's the same ash Monsanto used to sell to a nearby factory as an ingredient in fertilizer.

No more.

Monsanto is the first major company to stop selling its toxic byproduct to fertilizer factories, even though there is no regulatory pressure to stop.

Robert Geddes, the environmental specialist at Monsanto's Soda Springs phosphorous plant and a Republican state senator, said the company is concerned about safety and liability.

Until 1994, Monsanto had been selling 6,000 tons a year of the ash. It was a fine source of nutrients for plant growth. But it also contained heavy metals, including significant levels of cadmium.

Since then, Monsanto scientists in St. Louis have been studying the material to see if it is safe. Company lawyers are studying the liability, and marketing officials are trying to figure out what to do with it.

"Because we've got everything in the world in it, there isn't any easy process," Geddes said.

Even though the government allows selling the ash for fertilizer, Geddes said Monsanto still could be stuck with the bill for a mistake. He remembered when Asarco had to pay to clean up sawmill yards in Tacoma covered with arsenic-laced slag from a government-approved program.

"Sometimes we pay for mistakes the federal government even helps us make," Geddes said.

Monsanto sells one of its other byproducts to a nearby plant operated by Kerr-McGee. Kerr-McGee extracts vanadium and is building a plant to process the byproduct into - what else? - fertilizer.

"Kerr-McGee is a pretty big company," Geddes said. "If they have a (liability) problem, they'll probably face their problem without dragging Monsanto into it."

In the end, Geddes said, such decisions are "all about money."

"It's kind of a symbiotic relationship. Everybody's trying to work together to get as much value out of this stuff as we can."