Toxic Waste: 270 Million Pounds On Farm Fields -- Washington State 4Th In Nation Among Recipients, Report Says

A new report documents the scope of the practice of turning toxic waste into fertilizer: 606 companies in 44 states sent more than 270 million pounds of toxic wastes to farms and fertilizer companies in the first six years of this decade.

Washington state was one of the biggest recipients, ranking fourth in the nation with 20 million pounds of toxic wastes received by state farms and fertilizer companies.

The report was released today by the Environmental Working Group, a national research organization whose work has been generally accepted by the scientific community. Information in the new report comes from federal records.

While the practice of turning toxic wastes into fertilizer was first reported by The Seattle Times last July, this is the first account of how widespread the practice has become.

"We found a bustling toxic commerce between factories and fertilizer makers," Ken Cook, the group's president and a soil scientist, notes.

Cook warned of possible health hazards and called for more study.

Although no health or environmental risks from the practice have been proved, another soil scientist said the report raises more questions about the long-term impact of substances such as methanol, lead, cadmium, arsenic and dioxin.

"It does not make sense to spread toxic materials at whatever level out on the land that is producing our food and fiber," said Bill Liebhardt of the University of California at Davis, who previously worked for fertilizer companies.

"The preponderance of evidence would say if you're adding heavy metals and dioxins into fertilizer and mixing them up around the countryside, you're playing Russian roulette with the food supply."

The steel industry provided nearly 30 percent of the toxic wastes sent to farm and fertilizer companies: 80 million pounds from 1990 through 1995, the report says. Other leading sources were electronics manufacturers and the chemical industry.

Nucor Steel of Norfolk, Neb., led the way with 26 million pounds of hazardous ash collected from a pollution-control device and sent to a nearby fertilizer factory owned by Frit Industries.

Frit took in more heavy-metal waste than any other fertilizer company, followed by Bay Zinc of Moxee City, Wash.; Tri Chem of Atlanta; Hynite of Oak Creek, Wis.; Stoller Chemical of Jericho, S.C.; Midwest Zinc of Chicago; American Microtrace of Fairbury, Neb.; and Big River Zinc of Sauget, Ill.

The report said the government is breaking its promise to track toxic wastes "cradle to grave." Instead, the federal Toxics Release Inventory - intended to track every movement of hazardous wastes - stops at the fertilizer-factory door. Only two states, New Jersey and Massachusetts, require reporting of where the wastes end up.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., is proposing a right-to-know amendment to the federal Superfund law under review this week by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. It would require manufacturers to say whether their products contain recycled hazardous waste, but it is considered unlikely to pass.

"Unfortunately, the lack of federal reporting requirements makes it impossible to estimate how many pounds of those toxins were actually mixed with fertilizers, where those fertilizers were used, and what effects those fertilizers have had on the food supply," the report said.

The toxics inventory also misses industrial byproducts that bypassed fertilizer factories on their way to farms; those labeled as fertilizer products instead of wastes; and some hazardous wastes from the copper, brass, bronze, steel and galvanizing industries.

So the researchers said they almost certainly underestimated the amount and types of toxic wastes sent to fertilizer makers for cheap disposal in the early 1990s.

Cook said the report took six months of research, inspired by articles in The Times disclosing the waste-to-fertilizer trade and the lack of testing, standards or disclosure to farmers and gardeners.

The researchers took a close look at Bay Zinc of Yakima County, which sells toxic-waste-derived products in 10 states and two foreign nations. They concluded that farmers and gardeners received more than 300 tons of lead, 41 tons of chromium and 9 tons of nickel from Bay Zinc between 1991 and 1995.

Bay Zinc President Richard Camp says his products are safe and approved by government agencies, even in Canada, the only nation with standards for a range of heavy metals in fertilizer.

Oregon ranked high as a toxic-waste exporter because two steel mills sent their ash to Bay Zinc.

But Oregon Steel Mills of Portland, identified as the sixth-largest waste-to-fertilizer company in the nation during the early 1990s, has ceased the practice. The company's 1997 annual report said it stopped sending its toxic waste to Bay Zinc "because of potential risks associated with the use of these materials as a soil supplement."

Fertilizer dealers bristle at the suggestion their products may be harming crops, but many of them say they're asking suppliers more questions than they used to, trying to make sure they get clean products to sell.

Larry Gies, president of Imperial Products of Winter Park, Fla., said waste from the steel industry is "not a material you want around people, and it's not a material you want in fertilizer."

While many of the chemicals reported in the Toxics Release Inventory could be beneficial to plant life - zinc with 90 million pounds shipped, copper with 49 million pounds and sulfuric acid with 34 million pounds - there is no monitoring of harmful chemicals that often accompany them, the report said.

In addition, the report said the industry sent farms and fertilizer companies chemicals which they know cause cancer and reproductive problems. Those included 6.2 million pounds of lead compounds, 1.3 million pounds of chromium compounds, 233,000 pounds of cadmium compounds, 212,000 pounds of nickel compounds, 16,000 pounds of mercury compounds and 223 pounds of arsenic compounds. Dioxins weren't measured.

There are different ways of picturing the total of 270 million pounds of toxic wastes that went to farm and fertilizer companies during this period. On one hand, it would comprise a huge mountain. On the other, it represents a trickle compared with the river of 500 billion pounds of fertilizer products sold in the U.S. those five years.

A spokeswoman for The Fertilizer Institute, which represents manufacturers, declined immediate comment on the report. The institute's board, however, has approved a resolution acknowledging that some of these substances are "minor constituents" in fertilizer and calling for any regulations to be "scientific, health-risk based" and uniform nationally.

"We recognize that regulation is inevitable," the institute's Kathy Mathers said.

Washington state has already adopted some regulations, in a bill signed by Gov. Gary Locke last week. But many environmentalists said the new state law isn't tough enough.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is considering a broad federal effort, but may defer to state regulators.

There are three legal loopholes that allow toxics to flow into fertilizer. One allows steel companies to sell their smokestack ash with no tests, while another permits use as fertilizer if the material is considered safe for landfills. Finally, companies can transfer waste directly to farms if it can be safety rendered harmless on land.

Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said those loopholes need tightening and government should require all raw fertilizer materials be tested for toxic content. In addition, he said fertilizer labels should include such substances and farms that use them should be monitored.

"People have a right to know this kind of thing," he said.

"Everything from the Oprah Winfrey trial to this study we're releasing today suggests we should be taking a closer look at the food supply," Cook said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Danny Westneat contributed to this report. Information from the Associated Press is also included.

Duff Wilson's phone message number is 206-464-2288. His e-mail address is: