By Cookson Beecher
Capital Press Staff Writer

SEATTLE - Calling for tougher standards on fertilizers that contain toxic waste, more than 150 citizens pitched their pleas during last week's public hearing held by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The Seattle hearing was set up to gather comments on EPA's proposed rules on zinc-based fertilizers containing recycled industrial waste. Depending on where it comes from, that waste can contain dioxins, as well as heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, arsenic, mercury, nickel and chromium, all potentially harmful to human health.

Nationwide, it was the only hearing held on this subject although citizens have been sending in written comments since last November.

"People no longer want farms to be the dumping grounds for toxic waste," said Erika Shreder of the Washington Toxics Coalition. "EPA needs to STOP polluters from putting waste in their fertilizer."

A representative from the fertilizer industry said that in most of the Pacific Northwest, this is a moot issue.

"The net effect of this (EPA's proposed rule) on our members is almost negligible," said Pete Fretwell, spokesman for Far-West Agribusiness Association.  "We're already down the road on this. But by forcing the industry away from using recycled waste products, it has raised the price of fertilizers to farmers."

Zinc-based micronutrient fertilizers make up a very small part of the fertilizers used in Washington state. But for growers, especially those in Eastern Washington, zinc is essential for a wide variety of crops, among them corn, onions, potatoes, dried edible beans, hops, flax and most tree fruits.

  • EPA - Recycling Deoxins ~ Hazardous Waste
In the Manufacture of Fertilizers Since 1988 !!
Is the fertilizer you're using safe? Or do you even know?
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Starting in 1988, the EPA encouraged the use of hazardous waste from sources such as pulp mills, mining tailings and steel mills in the manufacture of fertilizers.

EPA's philosophy was that it made more sense to use these in fertilizers, where they would be spread out in infinitesimal amounts on large tracts of land, instead of dumping them into landfills. The agency also saw recycling these by-products as a wiser course than mining zinc, since mined zinc can also contain cadmium and other heavy metals.

But few people, including farmers, realized that micro-nutrient fertilizers contained these heavy metals -- and in some cases, dioxins. In 1997 when the Seattle Times did a series about this practice, public sentiment quickly swelled in favor of fertilizer reform.

The following year, the state passed new regulations on fertilizers containing recycled industrial waste. That same year, the Washington Toxics Coalition and Sierra Club sued the EPA, demanding that the federal agency regulate recycled toxics in fertilizers.

EPA'S rules are expected to be completed by April and could go into effect in early 2003.  Here's what EPA is proposing to do:

- Create stricter limits on the amount of lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, nickel and chromium in recycled-waste zinc fertilizers. Levels would be set based on the lowest amount achievable through technology.

- Limit the allowable amount of dioxin to levels found naturally in the soil.

- Tighten up regulations for steel mill waste.

Shreder calls the proposed standards a "good start" but says they don't go far enough.  During the recent hearing, the Washington Toxics Coalition and Washington Public Research Interest Group called on the EPA to ban toxic waste in fertilizer, starting with the wastes containing dioxin.

They also asked EPA to eliminate loopholes giving special treatment to steel-mill and mining wastes.  They want EPA to require labeling and reporting, as well as a tracking system for all wastes going into fertilizer.

Among those calling for tougher standards were four doctors from the Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, and representatives from March of Dimes; Puget Consumer Co-op; League of Women Voters; Diocese of Olympia and Lutheran Public Policy Office; Seattle Audubon; and Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network.

Lynn Sheridan, who works in the state Agriculture Department's fertilizer registration division, said those testifying "definitely raised some good points."

When asked if Washington state's new fertilizer regulations are helping reduce levels of recycled by-products in fertilizers, Sheridan said they have.

Nevertheless, Sheridan said scientists still don't know "the fate" of heavy metals in fertilizers.

"Where will they end up -- in the soil, the dust, the water, the air?" she said. "We really don't know."

Questions like this are driving the research on this topic, she said.

Comments about EPA's proposed fertilizer rules can be sent to:

Christine T. Whitman
1101A, US EPA Headquarters
Ariel Rios Bldg.,
120 Pennsylvania Avenue
NW, Washington, D. C. 20480
Comments accepted through February 2002

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