Study finds scope of toxic substances mixed in fertilizer 270 million pounds of industrial waste used in recent 5-year period

March 27, 1998|By SEATTLE TIMES

SEATTLE -- 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 five years of this decade.

The report was released yesterday by the Environmental Working Group, a national research organization whose work has been generally accepted by the scientific community. Its data comes from federal records.

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

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

Although no health 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 Leibhardt 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 you're playing Russian roulette with the food supply."

The steel industry accounted for about 30 percent of the waste sold over the period, led by Nucor Steel of Norfolk, Va., at 26.2 million pounds. Other leading sources were electronics manufacturers and the chemical industry.

While many of the chemicals reported in the Toxics Release Inventory could be beneficial to plant life, there is no monitoring of harmful chemicals that often accompany them, the report said.

The leading chemical, by weight, was zinc, with about 90 million pounds, followed by copper, 49 million pounds, and sulfuric acid, 34 million pounds.

The report said the government broke 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.

The board of the Fertilizer Institute, which represents manufacturers, 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.

Pub Date: 3/27/98

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