A Growing Concern: Hazardous Waste in Fertilizer

This is a story about corruption, collusion and conflicts of interest. About tight-lipped regulators, paranoid lawyers, muzzled journalists and federal loopholes big enough to drive nuclear waste trucks through. About regular people who have been threatened, harassed and shunned because they dared to speak out. Oddly enough, this is a story about fertilizer.

By Diane Olson Rutter
First published in Catalyst Magazine, May 2003. Catalyst is a regional magazine based in Salt Lake City, Utah

Walk into any home and garden store and you’ll see row after row, bag after bag of fertilizer. Last year, 110 billion pounds of commercial fertilizer and 4.2 million pounds of sewage sludge were spread across American farmlands, public spaces and home gardens; products that, thanks to various governmental loopholes, do not have full labeling or ingredient disclosure requirements. That’s because the government and many fertilizer and waste management companies don’t want you to know that your food is being grown in “recycled” hazardous waste.

A sickening flow of heavy metals, nerve gas residue, dioxin, PCBs, pesticides, industrial solvents, petroleum oils, and radioactive plutonium, americium, radium and strontium-90 makes its way from the Lowry Landfill Superfund site southeast of Denver, down 17 miles of pipe, and into the Denver Metro sewage treatment plant. There it joins the city’s domestic and industrial waste, and comes out the other end as sludge, which is used to fertilize wheat.

Recycling is undoubtedly one of the great environmental success stories of the late 20th century. Thanks to curbside recycling and other community-oriented programs promoted by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], roughly 30% of the nation’s solid waste is diverted from landfills and incinerators, and reprocessed into new products. Unfortunately, however, the EPA has also embraced recycling as a method of disposing of billions of pounds of industry-produced hazardous waste and toxic-laden sewage sludge.

Creating loopholes to dodge hazardous
waste disposal laws

Since the late 1980s, when a majority of 116 nations at the Basel Convention voted to prevent the United States from exporting its hazardous waste to poorer countries under the guise of “fertilizer,” the agency has exploited, and even created, loopholes in Congressionally-mandated hazardous waste disposal regulations to allow pollution-producing industries, sewage treatment agencies, waste management companies, and the $60 billion-a-year fertilizer industry to dodge federal hazardous waste disposal laws, including the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

What this means is that any material containing elements beneficial to plant growth, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, chromium, manganese, copper, calcium, boron or sulfur, can be labeled and used as a fertilizer, regardless of its other contents. Industrial and mining wastes — including plutonium, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead, PCBs and dioxin — are taken from tailings, sumps, holding ponds, furnaces, and even captured from pollution control devices, and legally sold to fertilizer companies or spread directly on farmland. Sewage sludge, which may contain dangerous levels of pathogens, as well as PCBs, chlorinated pesticides, asbestos, industrial solvents, petroleum products, radioactive material and heavy metals, can also be sold to home gardeners and farmers as fertilizer, and spread on public lands such as golf courses, parks and playgrounds.

It also means that polluters get to avoid the steep cost of proper hazardous waste disposal (usually landfilling at a certified landfill, or incineration), and can even make money from their toxic effluence. “If you’re a business person, and are given the option of whether to spend money disposing of hazardous waste properly, or make money by selling it [legally], which are you going to choose?” asked one Utah state regulator pointedly.

The market in hazardous waste has also created a profitable niche for waste management companies, who act as brokers between polluting industries and those who “recycle” hazardous waste, or as recyclers themselves, hauling materials and recycling and reselling them.

Nobody knows just how much hazardous waste, under the guise of fertilizer, is being spread over the land, kicked into dust and inhaled, absorbed by plants, and eaten by people and animals. Or what kind of effects it might be having on food crops, human health, or the environment.

Superfund sludge fest in Denver

Adrienne Anderson and Patty Martin are members of a steadily growing network of activists who find the EPA’s laissez faire attitude about fertilizers unacceptable, and they are doing their best to change it, struggling through a web of regulatory laws and loopholes described, variously, as ‘surreal,’ and ‘like something out of Alice in Wonderland.’ “You start getting into it, and you can’t help but do the deer in the headlights reaction,” says Anderson. “You just stare blindly for awhile and then, hopefully you move on.”

Anderson, a professor in the Environmental Studies Program and Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has been following hazardous waste issues for 20 years, having started out in the 1980s with the National Toxics Campaign. For the past four years, she has also been following a sickening flow of heavy metals, nerve gas residue, dioxin, PCBs, pesticides, industrial solvents, petroleum oils, and radioactive plutonium, americium, radium and strontium-90 as it makes its way from the Lowry Landfill Superfund site southeast of Denver, down 17 miles of pipe, and into the Denver Metro sewage treatment plant. There it joins the city’s domestic and industrial waste, and comes out the other end as sludge or, as it is euphemistically known, “biosolids.”

This sludge is being used to grow wheat and other crops that have been sold to make, among other things, “specialty baked goods” for bakeries across the country. “They are indeed very special baked goods,” says Anderson. “They’re grown in sludge incorporating Superfund site wastes from a dump where nuclear wastes were unloaded for years. Here, plutonium and other wastes from our nation’s weapons of mass destruction program — with the issuance of this precedent-setting permit — have become acceptable additives for our nation’s food supply.”

Anderson has been fighting to stop the Denver Metro Wastewater Reclamation District and its partner Waste Management, Inc. from allowing the Superfund wastewater (which contains industrial, municipal and military waste from Rocky Flats and Rocky Mountain Arsenal) plant to go through the city sewage system since 1996, when she was appointed to the water district’s board of directors by Denver Mayor Wellington Web to represent the sewage plant’s workers, at the request of their union. A woman who always does her homework, Anderson stumbled across a secret settlement between Metro Wastewater and the City and County of Denver before her first board meeting. When she mentioned her findings, the sludge hit the fan. “The reaction was extremely hostile.” She says she was told to keep quiet.

An uphill battle to tell the Denver story

Anderson did not keep quiet. With the help of her students, she kept digging. She tried to make her findings public, but both of Denver’s dailies, The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, were named by the EPA as liable parties who dumped toxic waste at Lowry, and were among those responsible for footing the bill for clean-up costs. A conservative columnist for the Denver Post (which is owned by the same publisher as the Salt Lake Tribune) conducted a smear campaign against Anderson, adding still another layer to a story Anderson describes as “the Cadillac of corruption involving hazardous waste disposal.’’ This is a story about military-related coverup of waste disposal, of chemical weapons material the government doesn’t want the public to know exists, of the use of federal loopholes that are wide enough to drive a nuclear waste truck through, and about government corruption, collusion and conflicts of interest all the way up to the White House and back down again,” she says.

Anderson eventually filed a whistle-blower complaint under seven national environmental laws (with the assistance of Hugh Kaufman, an EPA investigator and well-known whistle-blower himself), which she won. (Based on subpoenaed documents between the Denver Post columnist and the PR agent for Metro Wastewater, the judge ruled that the columnist was a “puppet” for the sewage district’s illegal campaign of defamation against Anderson.)

50 more years of toxic sludge from Denver?

Still, Metro continues to use taxpayer money to fight her over the issue, and the toxic waste continues to flow from Lowry into Denver. Denver Metro continues to truck the contaminated sludge out to farms and public lands. (Anderson and her students recently discovered that the sludge was being spread on school district property in Colorado Springs; the school board forced Denver Metro to come and dig the sludge back up.) The water district is also bagging and selling their “beneficial biosolids” at nurseries and home and garden shows as “MetroGro,” which the local alternative press — which did cover the story — naturally dubbed ‘MetroGlo.’

“The sewage district has no treatment capability for hazardous, and certainly not nuclear, waste,” says Anderson. “They screen out the big pieces, add some chemicals to neutralize the biologic material and heat it — none of which has any effect whatsoever on the large volume of compounds coming from the Lowry site. This is just a means of dodging clean-up costs and skirting liability for Superfund waste.”

Though Anderson and a large group of local farmers, wastewater workers and anti-sludge activists would like to take the Denver Metro case to federal court, they can’t — at least not for 50 years. “Under federal law, you cannot challenge a Superfund site decision until the cleanup is over,” Anderson says, “and they say the waste is going to be flowing into the Metro system at least that long.”

Could toxic sludge from Salt Lake City be next?

Anderson knows that the Denver case is extreme, and that the majority of cities that sell biosolids to farmers and home gardeners do not have radioactive Superfund material going into their sewage system. But they could, she cautions, and other toxic materials often find their way surreptitiously into the waste stream, thanks to a regulatory loophole which gives absolution to formerly toxic substances, once they are given “regulatory cleansing.”

Just last month she uncovered another agreement that allows Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colorado to pipe toxic waste into the Littleton/Englewood wastewater plant, where the waste will be turned into, yes, “beneficial biosolids,” and used for agricultural purposes in eastern Colorado.

“Given that there’s a commingling of pathogen-filled domestic waste and toxic industrial waste, this is not a healthy scenario,” says Anderson, who points to the growing number of cases across the country of injury, harm and even death from exposure to sludge, primarily from the pathogen content. The Inspector General of EPA itself recently issued a report saying that the recycling of sewage sludge is not protective of human and environmental health, but the agency continues to promote the policy.

Anderson is also concerned that the Denver Superfund and Lockheed Martin scenarios will be repeated elsewhere in the country — namely Utah. Anderson is well acquainted with Utah environmental issues from her past work with the Toxics Coalition, and is currently researching the Goshute/Private Fuel Storage (PFS) situation for the “Environmental Ethics: Race, Class & Pollution Politics” class she teaches. The Salt Lake area, like Denver, she points out, is surrounded by military installations and Superfund sites. “This is a precedent that could be used at other facilities where Superfund sites have waste they don’t want to recognize or deal with, and Utah certainly has many such sites,” she says.

While Utah regulators say nothing like the Denver Metro/Lowry situation has happened here, they do admit that, theoretically, it could.

“Superfund is an interesting program,” says Scott Anderson, manager of the hazardous waste division at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). “Each site has a different manager, and they only have to follow RCRA if they feel it’s applicable in that situation.”

Adds Fred Pehrson, branch manager of Permits, Compliance and Monitoring for DEQ’s Division of Water Quality, “In theory, a situation like the Lowry one could happen here, but I can’t find it conceivable that any of our treatment entities would let something that hazardous into the waste stream. Utah has a very aggressive industrial pre-treatment program, and we do oversight to ensure they are not discharging anything that would negatively affect the biosolids.”

Fateful harvest in Washington state

Read the book ...

Duff Wilson tells Patty Martin's story in his book, Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry, and a Toxic Secret, published by HarperCollins. To order it from Amazon, click here.

Patty Martin, like Anderson, has witnessed firsthand just how low some companies will sink to avoid liability and disposal costs.

Martin is the former mayor of Quincy, Washington, a quiet agricultural town of just over 4,000 in the Columbia River basin. Nothing in her life prior to 1996 — her resumé includes stints as a professional basketball player in Sweden, a pharmacy manager/dentist in Alaska, a swimming coach, frozen-foods company manager, and full-time mom — hinted that she would become a whistle-blower, found an activist group, sue the EPA, and gain the national spotlight as the subject of a Pulitzer-nominated newspaper series and a book.

It was during her tenure as mayor that Martin began looking into possible explanations of why some of her constituents’ crops were failing. Her dogged inquiry led her to the local fertilizer company, Cenex/Land ‘O Lakes. Cenex, it seemed, had been dumping a toxic stew of heavy metals, pesticides and radioactive materials on local farmland; they were also, Martin found, selling similar versions of that same stew as fertilizer. And they weren’t the only ones doing it. Martin felt like she’d stumbled into a bad dream.

“It’s really unbelievable what’s happening, but it’s true,” she told Duff Wilson of the Seattle Times in 1997. “They just call a dangerous waste a ‘product,’ and it’s no longer a dangerous waste. It’s a fertilizer.”

Martin’s discovery of the hazardous waste/fertilizer connection was not greeted with warmth around Quincy — or anyplace else, for that matter. Around town, people feared that her cage rattling would destroy the town’s economy, which depends heavily upon agriculture. She was threatened and verbally attacked, both in private and in town meetings, voted out of office and, worst of all, shunned in her own town, she says. Friends, neighbors and fellow church members quit speaking to her and her husband, and her children were harassed to the point that she ended up home-schooling for a while. After Wilson’s three-part series, “Fear in the Fields,” was published in the Seattle Times, Martin couldn’t even go to the grocery store without being told to “just shut up and leave town.” She describes that time in her life as “incredibly painful.”

A year after the Seattle Times exposé, Washington became the first state to limit heavy metals in fertilizer, and to require full disclosure labeling (albeit on an Internet site, not on the labels themselves). Shortly after, California and Texas adopted regulations limiting some heavy metals. Unfortunately, however, the limits set by the states are far higher than Martin and other activists consider acceptable. And in creating those limits, the state also legalized the practice of disposing of hazardous waste via fertilizer, which, until that point, was illegal.

Though many people credit Martin for the state’s action, she says she had nothing to do with it, and rues that it happened. “Sometimes legislation means legalization,” she says. “That’s certainly not what I wanted to happen.”

Beware what you wish for when you sue the EPA

Also spurred by Martin’s crusade, the Washington Toxics Coalition and the Sierra Club filed suit against the EPA in 1998 for failing to regulate hazardous waste in fertilizer as aggressively as it does hazardous waste in landfills. That suit, says Martin, backfired even worse. As the result of their out-of-court settlement, the EPA announced new federal regulations for hazardous waste-derived fertilizer — regulations which legitimize and legalize the recycling of hazardous waste into fertilizer, and allow the disposal of hazardous waste on public lands and farmland in every state in the country. The ruling also minimized public concern over potential ill health effects from exposure to arsenic, cadmium, chromium, dioxin, lead and nickel. On the plus side, the EPA did create limits on heavy metals in zinc micronutrient fertilizers, which are the ones most often made from hazardous waste. (Farmers often blend zinc with other fertilizers to grow crops such as corn, potatoes, rice and fruit trees.)

“With all due respect to those who brought the law suit against the EPA, if you don’t know what you have, you don’t know what you’re gonna get,” says Martin. “You need to intimately know the statutes and laws before you get into the legislative arena.”

Martin has entered the arena herself, with a suit filed last October. The suit, explains Martin’s attorney, Melissa Powers of the Western Environmental Law Center, objects to the EPA’s policy of taking hazardous waste out of the regulatory scenario based on its ultimate destination, and also asks that the EPA adequately consider the environmental impacts of that policy.

“What the EPA is allowing to happen with fertilizer is very disturbing, partly because I don’t think a lot of farmers really know what’s going on with chemicals they buy; I know consumers don’t know. People in this country still have this idea that if it’s legal, it must be safe — we place so much faith in our systems; but sometimes they don’t work.” Powers is also concerned about the potential impact of loading the soil with large amounts of heavy metals. “We just don’t know what we’re doing to the environment,” she says.

The old system of controls is adequate,
says a state fertilzer control officer ...

Until the recent EPA ruling, fertilizer regulation was left entirely in the hands of the fertilizer control officer in each state, all of whom belong to AAPFCO, the Association of American Plant Food Control Officials. AAPFCO’s purpose is to “promote uniform and effective legislation…and cooperate with members of the [fertilizer] industry to promote the safe and effective use of fertilizers and protection of soil and water resources.”

Clair Allen is Utah’s representative on the AAPFCO board, and fertilizer program manager for the Utah Department of Agriculture. Every fertilizer on the shelf in Utah has to have Allen’s stamp of approval. But for now, his stamp tells consumers only two things: that the product weighs as much as it says it does, and that the levels of beneficial nutrients claimed on the package are accurate.

However, he says, that may change this summer, if the AAPFCO board decides to adopt guidelines for the rest of the country similar to those created in Washington State.

Allen doesn’t object to the EPA’s new regulations, or the ones AAPFCO is currently hammering out, but he says he feels, as do many of his friends, that the hullabaloo over Martin’s exposé was just that: pointless, noisy excitement.

Every fertilizer manufacturer is already required to present him with a full list of ingredients, he says, and those that are hazardous waste-derived are supposed to be flagged as such. “If I feel like it’s harmful,” he says, “I don’t permit it.” He acknowledges, however, that some companies might not be completely honest in their reporting, so he’s going to start spot-checking 15-20 products a year for heavy metals. “And if they don’t pass, then they won’t be sold here — unless they change their recommended application rates.”

Allen feels that what happened in Washington was a freak occurrence, and that the percentage of fertilizers that contain heavy metals is negligible. “All fertilizers don’t come from products that contain heavy metals; probably less than 10%,” he says, “and the percentage of those that are made from hazardous waste is tiny; it’s mostly just the zinc micronutrient products. My bottom line is, there’s minimal risk in using fertilizers in Utah. If it’s on the shelf, it’s reputable.”

... bullhonky, says Patty Martin

“Bullhonky,” says Martin, who uses one particular product — Ironite — as an indicator of just how seriously state fertilizer regulators take their role of consumer protection advocates.

Ironite, one of the most popular home garden and golf course products sold in Utah, is made from silver mine tailings dug from a proposed Superfund site near Humboldt, Arizona. It contains 0.25% lead and nearly 0.5% arsenic — heavy metals known to cause cancer, seizures, mental retardation and behavioral disorders.

Ironite company officials say the lead and arsenic in its product are bound with other chemicals that prevent them from being biologically available to plants. They are so adamant about the product’s safety that the owner of the company flew to Seattle with his lawyer and ate a spoonful in front of investigative reporter Duff Wilson after he wrote about Ironite in the Times series.
Ironite, however, has been pulled from the shelves in Maine and all across Canada. It failed Washington’s new standards until the company changed its recommended application rate. Last July, the San Francisco-based Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) filed suit against Ironite for false advertising, since the company promotes its products as safe for the environment and human health. ELF plans to ask the court to order Ironite to halt distribution in California until they reduce the amount of lead and arsenic in the product, and until it begins labeling it in compliance with California law.

What is Sludge, AKA biosolids?

There’s nothing new about the practice of recycling human waste into fertilizer; It’s been done for thousands of years, particularly in areas where animal manure is hard to come by. It does, after all, contain many essential plant nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, zinc and copper. What is new is the staggering levels of germs, viruses, drugs, synthetic hormones, heavy metals, radioactive material, dioxin, PCBs and other toxins that enter the typical modern sewage system.

Sewage is a mixture of everything flushed down the toilet and poured down the drain in all the homes and commercial and industrial buildings — including hospitals, labs, restaurants, dairies, meat packaging plants, funeral homes, auto shops, chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers — connected to a municipal waste system. (Some industries are required to pre-treat their waste before sending it down the drain.)

Once sewage reaches a waste water treatment works (WWTW), it goes through a series of processes to separate the solid waste from the water, which is filtered, cleaned and discharged into a nearby body of water (in the Salt Lake Valley, either the Jordan River or Great Salt Lake). Since the goal of wastewater treatment is to clean the water, not the solids, most of the pathogens and contaminants end up in the semi-solid, half-organic “biosolid” residue, which is then processed to limit concentrations of some chemicals and heavy metals, and to reduce disease-causing pathogens.

Most WWTWs produce two classes of biosolids: Class B, which have been treated, but still contain potentially high levels of pathogens, toxins and heavy metals, and Class A, which contain lower levels of pollutants. The EPA deems Class B biosolids acceptable for use as fertilizer on farms (as long as certain buffer requirements and crop harvesting restrictions are followed) and for land reclamation (Kennecott uses them to remediate mine tailings). According to the Centers for Disease Control, Class B biosolids can contain the pathogens that cause typhoid fever, dysentery, gastroenteritis, diarrhea, cholera, hepatitis, meningitis, pneumonia, paralysis, encephalitis and severe respiratory problems.

Class A biosolids, on the other hand, are supposed to contain no detectable levels of pathogens, and they are monitored for nine heavy metals. EPA scientist and outspoken sludge critic David Lewis, Ph.D. says, “Whether these sludges pose little or no risk to public health and the environment depends on what is in the sludge and how it is processed.” He found some batches of Class A to possess “material that was highly irritating to mucus membranes and the respiratory tract.” Class A biosolids are promoted as being safe for unrestricted use in both public spaces and home gardens.

South Valley and Central Valley water reclamation districts sell (through E.T. Technologies) Class A biosolids which have been composted with green waste. You can buy it in bulk at the Salt Lake and Trans-Jordan landfills.

As Richard Koenig from the Utah State Extension Service says, “It’s all in what you’re comfortable with.” — DOR

The EPA is supposed to release a report on Ironite this year. In its 2002 ruling, the agency acknowledged that “concerns regarding exposure to arsenic in Ironite products are worthy of serious consideration, particularly since it is a widely marketed consumer product intended for use by home gardeners and others. As such, the potential for misuse and/or accidental exposure (especially to children) cannot be discounted.” However, the report continued, “…there are technical issues associated with estimating risks from exposure to contaminants in Ironite that merit further study before the Agency can reach any definitive conclusions as to the potential risks of the product.”

... or maybe the truth is somewhere in between

Richard Koenig is an associate professor and an expert on soil fertility with Utah State University Extension Services. He is the ultimate middleman in the fertilizer/biosolids debate, working as he does with farmers, state regulators, the fertilizer industry and consumers.

Koenig spent five years studying the effects of Class B biosolids (see sidebar, “What is Sludge?) on feed crops, and feels that while there are legitimate safety concerns regarding their use, state and federal regulations, in most cases, are adequate to protect consumer health. “There have been isolated cases in other states where treatment plants have had high levels of heavy metals or pathogens, but the regulatory agencies are usually able to track them down quickly,” he says. “In Utah, we don’t have a lot of industry loading the waste stream with heavy metals, and our pre-treatment standards are very high.”

Biosolids (mainly Class B, which are not sold to consumers) can carry a heavy load of pathogens, he acknowledges, but says that they are monitored much more closely than farm waste. “You hear a lot of people say ‘oh I would never use biosolids on my garden,” he says, “Yet at the same time they’ll run out and get a pickup load of raw manure. Just because it comes from a cow or a chicken, doesn’t mean it’s safe; there are pathogens in livestock manure as well.”

Koenig believes commercial fertilizers are also mostly safe, though concedes there have been some bad apples. He figures that 5-10% of fertilizers are hazardous waste-derived — a higher percentage than others have claimed — but agrees it’s mostly the micronutrients that are contaminated. And while he feels that regulations on heavy metals are a good idea, he also places much of the responsibility for finding safe products in the hands of consumers.

“It’s essential for anyone looking at any kind of fertilizer material to ask a lot of questions,” he says. “You should ask the provider ‘what is it?’ ‘where is it from?’ “what is it derived from?’ ‘Has it been tested?’ ‘Can I see copy of the analysis?’ The more questions you ask, the more the companies will step up and provide safe products.”

A surprising number of people — federal regulators, farmers, attorneys, scientists, wastewater treatment plant employees and people involved in agricultural research at Utah State University — refused to be interviewed for this story.

Among them were the lawyers at ELF, who decided not to discuss their case against Ironite because, as one attorney put it, “the company is very powerful, and we have to be careful what we say.” Local agricultural scientists and regulators also refused to comment on Ironite. The most interesting refusal came from a professor at Utah State, who sent this polite — and telling — response: After reviewing your questions in detail, I have found that this is one of those sensitive issues that may not lead to common understandings between interested parties.

Diane Olson Rutter is a Catalyst staff writer and a gardener who deeply regrets that she dumped 3,000 pounds of biosolids on her organic flower and vegetable beds two years ago. You can reach her at