Sham recycling? 

Hazardous waste finds new lease on life—as fertilizer

When Helen Waller discovered that manufacturing companies were recycling hazardous waste into fertilizer, she became concerned for her crops—and her family.

Waller, a wheat farmer in Circle, Mont., took soil samples of her field in 1998 and sent them to a lab for testing. The results, she says, showed high traces of arsenic in the soil and shockingly high levels of cadmium.

Waller then wondered whether her family’s health was at risk. “We’d handled [fertilizer] for some time with our bare hands,” Waller says. “We’ve never been warned that we should use masks or anything.”

Cadmium is extremely toxic to the kidneys, according to Suzanne Wuerthele, a toxicologist in the Denver office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Cadmium is a carcinogen and can cause thinning of the bones.

Waller sent samples of both her husband’s and her son’s hair away for more testing. When the results came back, she says, “both of their cadmium levels were off the charts.”

In 1997, the Seattle Times published a series of articles by reporter Duff Wilson, revealing that some manufacturing companies in the United States are legally disposing of hazardous waste by adding it as inert ingredients to fertilizer.

Nearly five years later, the practice is still legal in 47 states, including Montana. Only Washington, Texas and California regulate hazardous waste in fertilizer. There is no federal law that regulates fertilizer ingredients.

Not all metals are dangerous to crops or people. Fertilizers can include nutrients such as magnesium, which is good for crops, says Wuerthele. However, depending upon what ingredients have been added, fertilizer can also contain heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead, which are then spread over crops. If people eat those crops, they may consume the heavy metals, which can cause health problems years later. Farmers who are exposed to the fertilizers may also be harmed by them.

Whether the heavy metals in fertilizer can be absorbed by crops depends on many factors, including the type of soil, the source of the heavy metal, existing metal concentrations in the soil and tilling.

A two-year study released in December, 2001 on plant absorption of heavy metals in fertilizer revealed that cadmium can accumulate in soil over time with the continual use of fertilizer. The study, titled “Influence of Metal Rates and Forms on Crop Productivity and Metal Uptake in some Washington Soils,” by the Washington Department of Agriculture, Department of Ecology, Department of Health and Washington State University, examined the effects of heavy metals in fertilizer on lettuce, cucumber, wheat and potato. Of these crops, Montana grows mostly wheat and potatoes, ranking sixth in wheat and 13th in potato production.

The study revealed that arsenic and lead were less likely to transfer from soil to crop. However, lettuce and wheat crops can accumulate relatively high amounts of cadmium with the continual use of heavy metals in fertilizer. Cadmium could also be absorbed by the cucumber’s vine.

“It’s escaped the federal law,” says Wuerthele, about fertilizer’s regulatory loophole. The EPA regulates hazardous waste, she says, but hazardous waste is defined as something that has no use. So when industries recycle it into fertilizer, it is no longer considered a hazardous waste.

“I guess we just haven’t gotten around to making a law for fertilizer,” says William Rothenmeyer, an environmental engineer for the EPA in Denver. [The EPA provides assistance, rather than regulations, he says, so it’s more the user’s responsibility to monitor fertilizers.]

But some farmers in Montana aren’t aware that their fertilizer may contain hazardous waste.

Lola Raska farms out of Belt, Mont., 40 miles east of Great Falls. She applies nitrogen, phosphate and potassium to her crops.

“I am not aware that there are any other products in the fertilizers,” she says.

Raska buys some of her fertilizer from Agrium. Alan Blaylock, an agronomist for Agrium in Denver, says the fertilizer contains some heavy metals. However, they occur naturally, he says, because “virtually all soils in the world contain heavy metals.”

Agrium labels some, but not all of their fertilizers’ ingredients.

“We do label nutrients,” Blaylock said. “We follow all of the standards that are required.”

Fertilizer companies in the United States are not required by law to label every ingredient in their product.

“Farmers have no idea that the fertilizer, particularly phosphorous, almost always fully qualifies as a hazardous material, something that they could not legally dump in their local landfill,” argues Wade Sikorski, a wheat farmer in southeastern Montana. “They haven’t been warned and don’t understand that they should be protecting themselves. They breathe the dust, they get it on their hands, perhaps eating it with their lunch, without even giving it a thought.”

Sikorski’s mother died of breast cancer. His father is suffering from leukemia.

“I think that it has something to do with all the chemicals that they were exposed to while farming,” Sikorski says.

Nevertheless, some EPA officials argue that heavy metals in fertilizers pose no health threat to farmers.

“This whole talk of waste in fertilizers has been blown way out of proportion,” says David Fagan, a special assistant at the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste (OSW) in Arlington, Va. In 2000, the OSW tested commercial fertilizers and found that they did not pose “a clear and present health threat,” he says.

Still, Fagan wrote a set of proposed regulations, which were published by the EPA in November 2000. The proposal establishes new standards for recycling hazardous waste into zinc micronutrient fertilizer, the type of fertilizer that most often has heavy metals as an additive. Zinc micronutrient fertilizer is primarily applied to corn, potato crops and fruit trees.

The proposed rules would also put limitations on material drawn from steel mills, which are currently exempt from regulations.

While the OSW does not currently regulate fertilizer directly, it does monitor the disposal of hazardous waste through the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, according to Marvin Frye, senior enforcement specialist for RCRA. Recently, RCRA officials have been wondering if recycling hazardous waste into fertilizer is “sham” recycling—a process that looks like recycling but is actually just dumping heavy metals into fertilizer—Frye says.

For example, some fertilizers contain high levels of lead, Frye says. “Is it actual recycling of those materials? [Or] is that sham recycling?”

But prohibiting the recycling of hazardous waste into fertilizer would be more costly for both manufacturers and farmers.

The EPA’s proposed regulations, written by Fagan, are expected to save the industry approximately $7 million a year because, “the makers of fertilizer can continue to use cheaper materials, such as hazardous waste,” Fagan says. As a result, farmers can continue purchasing fertilizer for a cheaper price.

“It is a form of exploitation,” argues Sikorski, because farmers are always looking to buy the cheapest fertilizers possible. “For big companies to come in and exploit farmers in circumstances like this means that they have no shame or sense of responsibility.”

The proposed regulations are expected to take effect in July. The regulations are what’s called model legislation, which means that states may or may not adopt these recommended standards.

Not all companies are careful of what they put into fertilizer, but most are, says Noel Larson, marketing manager for the northern regions of Cenex Harvest States.

Cenex, which sells fertilizer in 38 states, would not be affected by OSW’s proposed regulations because although it recycles hazardous waste into fertilizers, it follows the same stringent standards as Washington state—one of the three states that limits the toxic waste in fertilizer.

Regardless of the standards, says Waller, the wheat farmer from Circle, “the rules and regulations are not designed to prevent the dumping of heavy metals into fertilizer.”

During the 1999 legislative session, Rep. Gail Gutsche (D–Missoula) sponsored House Bill 453, which would have required the Department of Agriculture to test for hazardous waste in Montana’s fertilizer. The Department of Environmental Quality would have determined if the materials pose a health threat, and if so, the bill would have prohibited the sale of any harmful fertilizers in Montana.

“We saw it as a simple, effective and necessary way to protect our farmers and the public from spreading what may be toxic fertilizer on their wheat fields and tomato gardens,” Gutsche says. The bill died in the House Agriculture Committee.

A group of concerned citizens and farmers supported the bill, as well as the Montana Environmental Information Center, the Northern Plains Resource Council (of which Waller is a member) and Women’s Voices for the Earth, an environmental justice organization.

The vote was close, with Republicans mostly voting against the bill and Democrats for it, Sikorski says. However, one key Democrat, Monica Lindeen, voted against the bill.

“It’s not that I was against the idea,” says Lindeen (D–Huntley). But testimony at the hearing convinced her to wait for the EPA’s proposed regulations, which were scheduled to be released the following year, she said.

The Montana Farm Bureau, the Montana Grain Growers Association and the Montana Farmer’s Union all opposed the bill.

“I don’t think there’s a problem with that in Montana,” says John Youngberg, vice president of state governmental affairs at the Montana Farm Bureau. “We just don’t see a huge influx of hazardous waste in fertilizer.”

However, Youngberg says, there is no proof that fertilizer companies in Montana are not recycling hazardous waste into fertilizer, because under federal law they are not required to label their products’ ingredients.

“The only thing I’m going on, is when we did the testimony [in 1999],” says Youngberg, who referred to Waller’s case as the only one that surfaced.

The Montana Farm Bureau opposed the bill, arguing that Montana shouldn’t have to pay for fertilizer testing because the state doesn’t have a hazardous waste problem, Youngberg says.

But farmers like Sikorski and Waller aren’t so sure.

“I think hazardous waste in fertilizer is a much neglected environmental justice issue,” Sikorski says. “It is an outrage.”

Waller has since stopped using these products and is seeking a fertilizer that is anywhere from 90 percent to 98 percent pure.

“These fertilizers are sold by our local co-ops in bulk,” Waller says. “You have to search out sources that can provide you with a more pure product, one that isn’t laced with heavy metals. We are trying to search out sources where those toxic wastes are not part of the product that we buy.”

Although no one in Waller’s family is sick, illnesses from environmental exposure can take years to develop. When Waller’s family doctor saw the test results of her son’s hair samples, he seemed very concerned about his health.

“The doctor asked me, ‘Is this person sick?’” Waller says. “And I said, ‘no.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Well, he ought to be.’”

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