In an example of prevailing attempts to greenwash industries by co-opting progressive terminology, heavy industry has been selling its hazardous waste as fertilizer while claiming to be recycling byproducts. Federal regulation has made the cost of disposing of toxic waste a significant factor. A loophole in EPA regulations allows the use of industrial waste products as fertilizer, no matter what they contain. This is now a fast-growing phenomenon, saving industry millions of dollars at the expense of public health.
It’s really unbelievable what’s happening, but it’s true, Patty Martin, mayor of Quincy, WA, a small farming community, said. They just call dangerous waste a product, and it’s no longer a dangerous waste. It’s a fertilizer.
Ingredients Not Regulated
Unlike Canada and European countries, the U.S. has a hands-off policy as to what can constitute fertilizer. There are actually state programs to match up recyclers of toxic waste with fertilizer companies and farmers. Factories are building fertilizer plants close to their emissions control systems, to increase convenience and profitability. The resulting fertilizer needs no labeling as to the dangerous ingredients it contains. Industry representatives would like the public to believe that they are civic-minded (and smart and wise) enough to police themselves, but horror stories resulting from the use of such fertilizers indicate otherwise.
Consequences to Farmers
In Tifton, GA, more than 1,000 acres of peanut crops aimed for human consumption were killed by Lime Plus, a brew of hazardous waste and limestone that had been sold to unsuspecting farmers.
An Oregon farmer, Wes Behrman of Banks, OR, won an out-of-court settlement from L-Bar fertilizer company after seeing his red-clover crop mysteriously wilt. He refused to discuss terms of the settlement with reporters, but he had told other people it was substantial.
In Gore, Oklahoma, a uranium-processing plant is getting rid of low-level radioactive waste by licensing it as a liquid fertilizer and spraying it over 9,000 acres of grazing land (with 2-nosed cows, 9-legged frogs, and very high rates of cancer and birth defects occurring in the vicinity).
In Quincy, WA, to dispose of a 54-foot long concrete pond full of toxic waste, the Cenex fertilizer company struck a deal with lessee farmer Larry Schaapman. He was paid more than $10,000 to let Cenex put the material, which the company claimed had fertilizer value, on his 100 acres. It killed the land. The corn crop failed there in 1990, even though Schaapman and Cenex applied extra water to try to wash the toxics through the soil. Hardly anything grew there the next year, either.
The land belonged to Dennis DeYoung, whose family had farmed it since the early 1950s before he leased it to Schaapman. Since the land was poisoned, DeYoung couldn’t make his payments, and the company that financed him foreclosed on a $100,000 debt. DeYoung also owed Cenex money for fertilizer and seed. Soon after, Cenex bought the land from the financing company. DeYoung sued Cenex for damages for ruining the soil, lost in summary judgment but won a reversal in the State Court of Appeals earlier this year. He’s preparing for a new trial.
Tom Witte is a 53-year-old farmer with 200 acres and about 100 cows a few miles east of Quincy, WA. His father purchased the farm in 1956. Witte had a disastrous year in 1991, associated with the use of contaminated fertilizer. His red spring wheat, silage corn, and grain corn all yielded about one-third the normal levels. Six of his cows got sick and died. The veterinarian found cancer in the three that were tested.
Witte and DeYoung submitted hair samples to a laboratory that tests for heavy metals in human tissues. The lab found high levels of aluminum, antimony, lead, arsenic and cadmium in hair samples from DeYoung, Witte, and Witte’s children.
Jaycie Giraud of Quincy, WA, said that the Giraud family, which has been farming in the area for three generations, is now broke due to the use of toxic fertilizers. Her father-in-law, a farmer for 50 years, lost a $1 million potato crop. Her husband and their two children, aged 7 and 14, have all developed respiratory problems that she believes are related to fertilizer products.
The industries that are benefiting financially from recycled waste are claiming that there are no known risks in the use of toxic waste in fertilizer. However, farmers‚ land has been destroyed, livestock has been dying of cancer, and the health of the farmers themselves has been damaged by recycled waste. After determining that these problems coincided with the application of these fertilizers, some farmers have begun to protest the devastation of their lives and livelihoods.
Monsanto Corp., a major pesticide manufacturer, sold the toxic waste from its Soda Springs, ID factory as a fertilizer component for six years. In 1994, they became the first company so far to STOP, because of fear of possible liability. They are still selling some waste to Kerr-McGee, who have taken over the process of turning it into fertilizer. A Monsanto rep stated that, in effect, Kerr-McGee is being paid to take on the risk of liability. Kerr-McGee is a pretty big company. If they have a (liability) problem, they’ll probably face their problem without dragging Monsanto into it.
A Growing Phenomenon
Although a big corporation like Monsanto has seen the liability at the end of the tunnel, this phenomenon is not about to go away. It is increasing. Soil scientists report that waste brokers from metal-, cement-, paper- and wood-products companies call constantly, trying to get matched up with farmers who will accept their waste products so that they will not have to pay to dispose of them.
Nor is it just currently produced toxics that are being cycled into fertilizer. Toxic waste from old dump sites is also making its unregulated way into fertilizer. And at one of the sites on the EPA’s Superfund list, Lowry Landfill near Denver, there is a plan to send liquid waste from the site through sewage treatment and apply it to government-owned wheat farms. The EPA is considering the novel disposal plan in a pending ruling that may set a precedent for new ways to clean up Superfund sites. The official EPA fact sheet on the landfill omits the fact that the waste is radioactive.
Follow-ups and Food Slander
Fertilizer industry reps seem willing to admit that mistakes were made (by scofflaws), but seem to define mistakes as the instances in which crops or livestock were destroyed or obviously damaged. They do not seem to acknowledge that (1) poisons put into the soil will become part of the plants or (2) eating such plants will have harmful effects. They would like to deny the following:
- Toxic heavy metals build up in soil.
- Radioactivity does not go away.
- Pesticide residues have harmful effects.
- Some plants take up more or less of certain chemicals from the ground than others.
- When the plants are eaten by animals, the toxins build up and multiply in their tissues. It’s the animals at the top of the food chain (such as predatory animals and meat- and dairy-eating humans) that receive the heaviest doses of toxins.
There has been very little coverage of this issue in the mainstream press, possibly because of the new Food Slander laws in 13 states, which warn that anyone saying bad things about agribusiness is likely to be sued (e.g., Oprah Winfrey is being sued by Texas cattle business for her show about mad-cow disease).
But the one major article, which appeared July 3 in the Seattle Times, apparently did have an effect. On August 7th regulators from states all over the US convened to discuss the labeling of fertilizers. A panel of regulators and fertilizer executives was appointed to come up with a policy on labeling, and it was announced that it would be proposed in six weeks. One thing that is not known is whether there will be actual testing, which would be difficult and expensive, especially since the toxic products are variable in nature.
Some Anti-toxics Organizations
The Pure Food Campaign
860 Highway 61
Little Marais, MN 55614
Citizen’s Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste
150 S. Washington, Suite 300
P.O. Box 6806
Falls Church, VA 22040
Pesticide Action Network