Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry, and a Toxic Secret
Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry, and a Toxic Secret is a nonfiction book written by Duff Wilson, a reporter for the Seattle Times at the time. The book began as a series of newspaper reports, which made the issue a "national focus".
The small town in question is Quincy, Washington. Fateful Harvest won book of the year honors from the press group Investigative Reports and Editors and for which Wilson was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. It details Wilson's investigation into the recycling of fly ash, tire ash, flue dust, tailings, phosphoric acid from car factories, baghouse dust from recycling plants, zinc skimmings from galvanizing industries, and assorted other industrial byproducts with heavy metals such as arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, lead, titanium and other chemicals into plant fertilizer based on the agronomic benefits of their alkalinity (sold as lime) or their micronutrients zinc and manganese. Part of the reasoning behind this is that plants growing in alkaline soils do not uptake the metals as easily. The problem was brought to Wilson's attention in 1996 by a woman named Patty Martin, the mayor of a small rural town named Quincy, Washington, and together Wilson and a small group of farmers conducted the investigation. The issue of heavy metals in fertilizer is sometimes mistakenly confused with biosolids, although there may be some crossover.
Cenex and the rinsate pond
The story begins with farmer Dennis DeYoung outside of Quincy, who bought fertilizer in 1985 from the local Cenex/Land O'Lakes corporation, and subsequently experienced yields one-tenth of usual (21). DeYoung, who keeps his bills, notes later that he paid prices varying from 2.5 to 9 cents a pound for nitrogen fertilizer. (In 1985 the average price for nitrogen fertilizer was 11 cents.) In 1986 Washington began to pass stricter laws against dumping toxic waste. Cenex, the local agricultural company, dumped its excess chemicals into a concrete rinsate pond rather than on vacant land. The pond filled quickly. Len Smith, who worked there for a summer dumping cans into the pool, recounted seeing its levels drop mysteriously overnight (23). By 1990, however, Cenex wanted to get rid of the rinse pond. And so, it developed spreading technology that allowed it to use its chemicals on farms. Given the choice between spending $170,000 to put it in the Arlington, Oregon hazardous waste facility, or "sell" the mixture as fertilizer, the company's managers chose to sell it. Company officials later claimed under oath that state officials (whose names could not be remembered) had told them to dump the waste as fertilizer. The company avoided testing the pond for anything but fertilizers and pesticides.
Cenex paid DeYoung to apply the "fertilizer" to his land then attempted to dilute it with massive amounts of water. The spreader, Dane Lindemeir, remembers objecting to the spreading of what he was told was a mix of fertilizer, atrazine, and trifluralin, because it didn't look healthy and it didn't make sense to apply both atrazine, which kills beans, and trifluralin, which kills corn (28). Later that year, Cenex salesman Nerpel, a friend of DeYoung, told DeYoung that he should check into the fertilizer. The corn hardly grew; what was grown was sold as animal feed. DeYoung, worried about the liability of the toxic waste, tried to get Cenex to take over the land, which they reluctantly agreed to do. Cenex planted Sudan grass, known for soaking up heavy metals, but the "extremely rank stand" of Sudan grass only covered 22 percent of the land (41). Although Cenex promised it would not sell the grass, its Quincy manager John Williams sold it to a neighbor for her horses. Several of the horses died. Meanwhile, DeYoung hired lawyers, but did not make much headway against Cenex, which had the state government on its side (53). Another farmer purchasing from Cenex, Tom Witte, found his fields yielded substantially less, and his cows begin getting cancer. His field man got muscular dystrophy, and in 1991 Witte filed for bankruptcy.
The conflict drew the attention of several community members, led by Patty Martin. When Martin called the EPA, she was confused with Senator Patty Murray and the EPA descended upon the city for a thorough investigation. It found that the rinsate pond used to dump excess fertilizer and pesticides, and then later sold as fertilizer, had beryllium levels over 6 times toxic levels (1.39 ppm), cadmium over 12 times toxic levels (25.2 ppm), and chromium 3.6 times toxic levels (360 ppm), as well as a variety of other metals and materials. Titanium levels "hundreds of times higher than the highest level of titanium found in uncontaminated soil" (76) were also found in several fertilizer tanks used by affected farmers. The farmers had their fertilizers and crops tested independently and found them full of lead and arsenic (94). Martin and other farmers' families had their children's hair tested, and found high levels of all the metals previously mentioned. The homeopathist testing them claimed the families had the highest levels he'd seen (121). The affected farmers largely went bankrupt and lost in court. One lost because a memo, to the regional manager claiming Cenex could save $170,000 in hazardous waste costs by selling the waste as fertilizer, was discovered too late to use as evidence (82). In 1995 Cenex received a $10,000 fine for using a pesticide for an unapproved purpose, which has a maximum penalty of $200,000 (91).
Alarmed by this issue, Patty Martin ran for mayor of Quincy. She and her bankrupt farmer friends researched the mysterious origin of metals in fertilizer. They discovered that the ubiquitous practice of mixing tailings and other industrial waste with fertilizer is accepted and even encouraged as a way to recycle waste with some zinc or iron (97). Exploding landfill costs exacerbated this trend. Patty Martin discovered, for example, a proposed state rule for disposing of cement kiln dust by using it as agricultural lime. She also discovered that Alcoa sold waste product as a fertilizer or road deicer through L-Bar, a smaller company. The product was sued twice in Oregon, where farmers settled out of court (105). Martin also believed that cancer rates are higher in Quincy, but the state toxicologist dismissed her claims, although the state tracked deaths, not illnesses, and tracked them by place of death when many of the victims' traveled out of county to die in advanced hospitals. Later, five people in Quincy came down with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Dr. Ganesh Raghu told author Duff Wilson that this phenomenon strongly suggests environmental factors, as the disease is extremely rare (167).
Heavy Metal Task Force
The group contacted Duff Wilson in 1996, and he began investigating. He found that most government agencies know little about fertilizer, but eventually he was referred to EPA scientist Alan Rubin, "the king of biosolids". Rubin commented in 1997 that while the purely organic, heavily studied and regulated biosolids were hazardous, there was "almost no federal regulation on fertilizer" and that "I have never seen a state or federal limit on heavy metals in fertilizer" (105). The only group researching those health risks, the Heavy Metal Task Force, was industry-funded despite being established by the state of California. The group was concerned about California's Proposition 65, which required that people be informed if they were being subjected to toxins. However, the group crafted a loophole to get around laws on hazardous wastes. Such products were not classified as waste; thus the limits of heavy metals in wastes did not apply to fertilizers (133). One of the particular loopholes was electric arc furnace dust K061 (its hazardous waste ID), which was "simply not considered hazardous waste if it was used to make fertilizer" (154). Wilson and a couple others met in February 1997. They counted 15 industry officials and 5 state officials. The meeting began with fly ash; one of the men claimed that 4 million tons of coal ash and 2.1 million tons of flue dust was recycled into agricultural fertilizer and sold under names such as Lime Plus. Also in attendance is Dr. John Mortvedt, a researcher whose study found that cadmium did not build up in soils because it was absorbed by growing plants (173). At the meeting, one of the members suggested that Wilson examine Bay Zinc Company in Washington state, a leading manufacturer of the recycled "fertilizer". Before meeting with Dick Camp Jr. of Bay Zinc, Wilson discovered Cozinco, whose founder Kipp Smallwood was concerned about the metals in zinc fertilizers. The company had a comparison table and offered a free test, while claiming that most zinc fertilizers were 3 percent lead (148). Wilson later cites Zinc Nacionale, a Mexican recycling company, as another source of good zinc through high-temperature purification.
Bay Zinc Company
When it goes into our silo, it's a hazardous waste. When it comes out of the silo, it's no longer regulated. The exact same material. Don't ask me why. That's the wisdom of the EPA.
— Dick Camp Jr., CEO of Bay Zinc Company (149)
Wilson reported that the Bay Zinc Company, founded by Dick Camp Sr., was a pioneer in the recycling of industrial byproducts into fertilizer. Dick Camp Jr. recounted that his dad might have been the first to use flue dust from steel smokestacks, which is higher in heavy metals than the previously used zinc skimmings. Camp had been instrumental in creating the loopholes that allowed heavy metals in fertilizers to go unregulated. Between 1990 and 1996, Bay Zinc took in roughly one and a half million pounds of lead, eighty-six thousand pounds of chromium, and nineteen thousand pounds of nickel. Bay Zinc was relatively small in comparison to Alabama-based Frit Industries, the leader, which connected one its major factories to Nucor Steel. Together eight companies processed 120 million pounds of industrial byproducts into fertilizer, roughly half of the total zinc fertilizer sold in the country (157). This trade was facilitated by state industrial material exchanges (IMEX) used by twenty-six states. Mountain—Monsanto decided in 1994 that it no longer wanted the liability of using its industrial byproducts as fertilizer.
Wilson found two major scientists studying these problems: Dr. John Mortvedt, and USDA scientist Dr. Rufus Chaney. Mortvedt studied the uptake of cadmium by plants and found that in acidic soil, plants absorbed cadmium quickly. He believed the cadmium in foods was small enough to be safe and cautioned that the soil should be kept alkaline. Chaney disagreed with Mortvedt. Book author Wilson wrote that Chaney, an expert in phytoremediation, believed that a high zinc-to-cadmium ratio (at least 100 to 1) was important for avoiding the toxic effect of cadmium. Chaney also noted that "heavy metals persist in surface soils for centuries to millennia in absence of erosive loss" (176). Chaney also brought up a case in Georgia, where over 1,000 acres (4 km2) of peanuts were decimated when the pH dropped. The fertilizers had been bought from SoGreen.
Breaking the story
Wilson was forced to publish the story when he heard that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was working on it. He said that the New York Times ignored it, and most of the other newspapers relegated it to the last pages, but the story resonated with many people, including experts such as an immunologist, several EPA officials, Congress members, and assorted other people. It also drew the attention of industry, largely opposed to labeling. Some fertilizer companies, such as IMC Global, become aware of the problem of using the wastes and stopped the practice. Governor Gary Locke of Washington initially seemed willing to tackle the problem, but Washington state ended up with an industry-written bill that required no labeling requirements (toxicity information would be put on websites) and looser standards than Canada (253). Washington state's new regulations led to 56 stop-sale orders, 45 denied license applications, and 10 companies with cleaned up materials. One of these stop-sale orders went against Siemens AG, which previously sold nuclear fuel processing waste as fertilizer (253). No other state had passed a law as strong as Washington. Chaney remarked that keeping the regulations at the state level was the most effective way to block effective regulation. Dennis DeYoung, whose court judgment was overruled, got a retrial; the jury got to decide only damages, but local jurors were sympathetic to Cenex and considered DeYoung an incompetent farmer, so they awarded him nothing. Other farmers faced similar defeats, and they were denied the right to a class-action lawsuit.
Patty Martin co-founded Safe Food and Fertilizer to raise awareness of these unsafe practices. As of 2004, there was a "trend toward regulation of non-nutritive trace elements in fertilizers". As of 2019, Monsanto product glyphosate had been banned in many nations and the company was facing massive financial and legal repercussions.
- Wilson, Duff. (2001). Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry, and a Toxic Secret. HarperCollins.
- ^ Davenport et al. (2005). Environmental impacts of potato nutrient management. American Journal of Potato Research.
- ^ Reporter.org. Duff Wilson bio
- ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-09-24. Retrieved 2008-05-19.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- ^ California Department of Food and Agriculture (CFDA). Minutes and Agenda Materials, Heavy Metal Task Force. Fertilizer Inspection Advisory Board, CDFA, Sacramento, CA 95814. (1993 et seq.).
- ^ California Department of Food and Agriculture (CFDA). Development of Risk-Based Concentrations for Arsenic, Cadmium, and Lead in Inorganic Commercial Fertilizers. Foster Wheeler Environmental Corp., Sacramento, CA 95814. (1998).
- ^ California Department of Toxic Substances Control (CDTSC). Enforcement Case, Chemical & Pigment Co., Pittsburg, CA. EPA ID #CAD009149476. (1994) CDTSC, Sacramento, CA 95812.
- ^ California Department of Toxic Substances Control (CDTSC), Riley, Norman, memo to Rick Robison. Comments on Draft. CDTSC, Sacramento, CA 95812. (June 21, 1996).
- ^ Kane et al. (2004). Regulation of Heavy Metals in Fertilizer: The Current State of Analytical Methodology. Environmental Impact of Fertilizer on Soil and Water.