Consumers warned about metals in fertilizers 

Nearly two dozen environmental and public interest groups from Missoula and around the country are warning homeowners about a common but potentially hazardous lawn and garden fertilizer contaminated with heavy metals. And they have asked three major retailers to remove the product from their shelves.

The fertilizer is called Ironite, manufactured by an Arizona company of the same name, says Bonnie Gestring of the Mineral Policy Center in Missoula.

Ironite reportedly contains arsenic from mine tailings which the company has purchased from a closed zinc and lead mine in central Arizona, near the town of Humboldt. The mine is a proposed Superfund site.

Gestring says the Ironite company purchased the mine tailings, to which it adds sulfuric acid and urea. The mixture is bagged and sold as lawn and garden fertilizer worldwide. The iron in the mine tailings green up lawns without promoting growth, which makes it attractive to homeowners.

“The problem is that iron found in mine waste is also found in conjunction with arsenic and lead,” Gestring says.

Arsenic is a known carcinogen, while lead is a toxic substance. The federal government has not established acceptable rates of either substance for fertilizer. Gestring calls it a “missing part of federal law.”

In fact, federal law makes the practice of selling mine waste as fertilizer all but inevitable. Federal law requires that all hazardous waste be properly disposed of in regulated landfills.

Mine tailings contaminated with arsenic and lead would surely be considered hazardous by most definitions of the term. Congress, however, has exempted the mining industry from proper disposal by means of a 1980 loophole called the Bevill Exemption, which allows mining companies to dispose of its waste by turning it into fertilizer. In essence, once the waste has a use, it’s no longer considered “waste.”

The biggest culprit, says Gestring, is Ironite, which reportedly contains the highest amounts of arsenic of all fertilizers tested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for heavy metal content.

“So, because of the Bevill Exemption, the Ironite company is able to take mining waste that’s classified as hazardous waste, add urea and sell it to an unsuspecting public.”

As of press time, a spokesperson for the Ironite company did not respond to the Independent’s request for a comment.

Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) is spearheading the campaign in Montana to get Ironite off the shelves. The Mineral Policy Center and 21 other environmental and public interest groups joined WVE in a request last week to three retailers, Lowe’s, Home Depot and Target, to remove the product from their shelves. Gestring says there have been no replies as of yet.

Bryony Schwan of WVE says she hopes the retailers will comply. “I’m hoping we’ll win this by a consumer campaign. If we don’t get some kind of response from the company I would work with [the Montana Legislature] to get some kind of legislation to ban it.”

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