Fields of poison
Patty Martin uncovered a horrible truth about fertilizer in her hometown of Quincy, Wash. Her discovery raises the question: What are Californians spreading on their crops, lawns and gardens?
Ten years ago Patty Martin was a stay-at-home wife and the mother of four young children active in her small farming community town in the state of Washington. Her husband Glenn worked at a local food processor that supplied frozen French fries to the nation’s fast-food restaurants.
Quincy, pop. 5,000, is the kind of town where everybody knows just about everybody else. Patty was content.
But when friends urged her to run for mayor, she reluctantly agreed and was elected in 1993. That election began a journey in which she would discover an appalling truth about the chemicals that are sold and spread as fertilizer on the farms in her state and, in fact, across the nation with little if any monitoring for safety and purity.
Today, Patty Martin, who brought her story to Chico last week, is ostracized by many in her town, and her moves are closely watched by the fertilizer industry. She is the subject—the hero, really, though she is uncomfortable with that mantle—of a controversial book by Seattle Times investigative reporter Duff Wilson called Fateful Harvest. The book chronicles how Martin and four local farmers discovered that the fertilizer being spread on farms in the Quincy area and across Washington and presumably the rest of the nation contain heavy metals and contaminates such as lead and cadmium, arsenic and mercury as well as such suspected carcinogens as dioxin.
The fertilizer, it turned out, had been made from industrial waste.
When Martin and the farmers first uncovered the practice—the selling of industrial waste as fertilizer rather than paying to ship it and bury it in hazardous-waste dumps—it was illegal. Since no one monitored the ingredients in fertilizer, however, industries involved in chrome plating, iron smelting, mining, steel works, electronic components, petroleum refining and even coal-fired power plants were attracted by the lure of improving the bottom line and opted for the cheaper manner of disposal.
As long as the hazardous waste included one of the three macronutrients used by plants, nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, or any of 13 micronutrients, including zinc, copper and iron, the waste qualified as fertilizer, no matter what other chemicals were in the mix.
According to Fateful Harvest, the practice was begun as early as 1954 by a man named Dick Camp Sr., who ran a galvanizing shop in Tacoma. The process produced a byproduct containing zinc that had no practical purpose for Camp. He stored the stuff in barrels behind his shop. But the day he learned that zinc sulfate was used as fertilizer for apple trees, a light bulb went on above his head, and a new industry was born.
Camp could not keep up with demand, so he found a new source of zinc: flue dust from the smokestacks of steel recycling companies. And the steel companies paid him to take it off their hands so he could sell it to the farmers. Apparently the process caught on, because other waste-producing industries followed Camp’s lead.
After Martin discovered the secret ingredients that were going into the soil where her state’s vegetables and fruit were grown, the fertilizer and ag industries of Washington moved quickly and positioned themselves to help write the laws governing the practice of putting industrial waste into a container and labeling it as fertilizer. In effect, they helped make the practice legal.
In the initial days of her campaign against the use and sale of contaminated fertilizer, Mayor Martin was told by many in Quincy, including her own town council, basically to “shut up.” As mayor, bringing forth such damaging information and making such serious accusations, she would surely lead her town to financial ruin, many argued. It had happened before in the state of Washington, when the Alar “scare” crippled the apple industry after the story of the food supplement appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes.
(In that case, Washington apple farmers lost millions of dollars after the show aired. But it was not just a scare. The EPA banned use of the suspected carcinogen in all food products.)
In April 1997, during a closed-session meeting with her council where threats of retaliation and dismissal were kicked about, Martin agreed to drop the subject.
“I panicked,” she says today. “I wasn’t thinking, because they couldn’t take action in a closed-session meeting.”
Still, by then she had turned her evidence over to reporter Wilson, who happened to be visiting Quincy for the first time on that very day. That visit opens the prologue of his book.
When Martin told Wilson that she had agreed to be quiet in exchange for the town’s not dismissing her as mayor, Wilson asked her a simple question: “Don’t you have a constitutional right to free speech?”
"'Well,’ I thought, ‘yes I do,” she recalled answering. “And I’ve been talking about it ever since.”
In fact, she has become the self-described “Ralph Nader of Quincy, Wash.”
But five years after her startling fertilizer discoveries, Martin’s reviews remained mixed in her hometown.
When I called the Quincy Chamber of Commerce to inquire about a photo of Martin, the woman who answered the phone fairly sneered at the sound of the name.
“Oh,” she said. “I’m surprised you’d want to do a story about her.”
And over at the Quincy Valley Post-Register, the town’s weekly newspaper, Sunshine, the woman who answered the phone, told me the town was just about split on the subject of Patty Martin.
“Oh, about half the people think she is all right,” Sunshine said. “The other half can’t stand her.”
Patty Martin, 45, is not your stereotypical environmental activist. A former star college and later professional basketball player, she is well over 6 feet tall. She is lean and graceful and speaks with her hands. Her dark-brown hair, mixed with a few strands of silver, grows to her waist.
Two days before she came to Chico to speak at the university, she injured her back.
“I almost didn’t come,” she said by phone the day before she left Quincy. “I can’t believe it. Apparently I hurt my back from sitting for two hours and watching my daughter’s softball game.”
She can’t understand how she tweaked her back, this former Gonzaga University basketball star and later professional player in Sweden. She was once rated the 14th-best female basketball player in the nation.
“You have to remember, though,” she offered modestly, “there were only about 15 of us then, so being rated 14th is not all that great.”
Two days later, she was gingerly walking across the Chico State campus and talking to classes, apologizing for her dry mouth, a side effect of taking pain medication.
Martin comes across as smart, pleasant and reasonable. She’s not the type of activist who would chain herself to a bulldozer or live in the top of a redwood tree, hauling up her supplies and lowering her wastes by rope and bucket. Hers is a mission of information, a cautionary tale she brings to Californians warning them that, while dumping waste on farms in this state is illegal, it was also once illegal in her state as well.
“In 1998 the state of Washington passed a law to legalize this practice because we had caught them with their pants down,” Martin said.
For the last 20 years, since 1976, when Congress passed the so-called RCRA—Resource Conservation and Recovery Act—there has been a drive to recycle waste, even that considered hazardous, as long as it is properly cleaned.
An EPA Web site for kids says, “RCRA’s goals are to: protect us from the hazards of waste disposal; conserve energy and natural resources by recycling and recovery; reduce or eliminate waste; and clean up waste which may have spilled, leaked, or been improperly disposed of. Hazardous waste comes in many shapes and forms. Chemical, metal, and furniture manufacturing are some examples of processes that create hazardous waste. RCRA tightly regulates all hazardous waste from cradle to grave.”
Martin says that promise of “cradle to the grave” has been broken by hiding hazardous wastes in or converting them into fertilizer.
And in 1985, she says, the EPA made a rule that specifically said recycling waste materials and using them as fertilizer constitute proper waste product disposal.
Ironically, the testimony given to Congress while considering that act included this statement from officials on behalf of the U.S. Mayors Association: “Approximately 30 to 35 million tons of hazardous waste are literally dumped on the ground each year. Many of the substances can blind, cripple or kill. They can defoliate the environment, contaminate drinking water supplies and the food chain under present largely unregulated disposal practices. It is generated, transported and buried without notice until the evidence of its presence is seen in persons or the environment.”
Martin notes a parallel in that, during the past 20 years, cancer cases in children have risen nationally at a rate of 1 percent per year, there has been a 142 percent increase in asthma in children, and 17 percent of people under 18 have some sort of disability ranging from autism to attention deficit disorder.
At her April 23 visit to Chico State—the day after Earth Day—Martin was introduced by Chico State environmental studies Professor Mark Stemen, who called her a “hero.”
Martin quickly brushed that compliment off and said the real hero in this story is Dennis DeYoung, a Quincy farmer whose land was so contaminated by hazardous-waste-laced “fertilizer” it could no longer grow crops.
DeYoung tried to sue the Cenex Corporation, a fertilizer company that dumped the wash and residue from its rinse pond onto DeYoung’s land while he was leasing it to another farmer. Within a year crops on the land began to fail. No one, not even Cenex employees, knew what was in the soupy material from the pond, which sat directly across the street from Quincy Junior High School.
The company regularly sprayed the chemical mix into the air, hoping the chemicals would evaporate. According to Martin, the first line of trees and shrubs close to the pond soon withered and died.
DeYoung refused to settle out of court with Cenex, Martin said. He sued for $1.5 million. But in the end—eight years after his land was rendered useless—the jury, made up of people from a town where the fertilizer company casts a large shadow, voted in favor of Cenex. DeYoung lost his property to the company, and the jury said he still owed $200,000 for money Cenex had lent him for fertilizer and supplies. Plus, he had to pay $25,000 for Cenex’s lawyer.
Not only did Cenex get the property, which it sold for a $75,000 profit, it saved itself $170,000 by dumping the waste from its rinse pond on DeYoung’s property rather than having to dispose of it in a certified hazardous-waste facility.
“It’s like somebody repossessing your car and leaving you with the bill,” DeYoung told the writer Wilson.
DeYoung’s dogged refusal to settle, even though he lost in the end, is what makes him the hero of Wilson’s book, Martin said.
But Martin is probably the one most associated with the cause, because she continues to fight and try to spread the word.
In fact, a fertilizer industry representative in Sacramento—Steve Beckley, president of the California Plant Health Association—was well aware of Martin’s visit to Chico State. Initially, Stemen thought Beckley was aware of the visit—he’d sent an e-mail message to the Enterprise-Record offering to tell the industry side of the story—because the industry was tracking Martin’s movements.
But in fact Beckley sits on an advisory committee in the Ag Department at Chico State and had learned from someone at the university that Martin was coming to speak.
When we called the association, we were told Beckley was out of the office, but Jennifer Lombardi, director of communications, was willing to give us the industry’s side of the story.
“First and foremost,” she began, “California does have a regulation on fertilizer that went into effect Jan. 1 of this year.”
She said the regulation looks for the maximum allowable levels for contaminates. And if the home gardener consumer wants to know what else is in the bag, a toll-free number is provided, as well as a Web site. The state Department of Food and Agriculture oversees the Web sites, she said.
Typically, the three macronutrients—N (nitrogen), P (phosphorus) and K (potassium)—are given as a ratio such as 10-10-10. That means 10 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus and 10 percent potassium. Other micronutrients, such as iron or copper, may be listed on the bag, but the other 70 percent of material, is not. The industry argues that there is not enough room on the bag to list all the chemicals and elements contained within, and listing hazardous waste may unduly alarm the consumer.
As for Wilson’s book, Lombardi said she “looked at it with a fairly skeptical eye,” claiming that “less that one-tenth of 1 percent” of all the materials in fertilizer are recycled waste products.”
I pointed out that, according to Martin, this country uses 110 billion pounds of fertilizer each year, and that even one-tenth of 1 percent of that is 100 million pounds.
“I can’t tell you if you’re right or wrong,” she said. “I can’t give you specifics, but if it does show beneficial results to growers, why not use it?”
She sent a document called “Facts, Not Fear: Heavy Metals in Fertilizer,” that says the state Department of Food and Agriculture regulates fertilizer products in California:
“With regard to recycled materials, CDFA recently issued a letter on April 10, 1997, stating that the department would only regulate materials that were ‘beneficial’ to agriculture. Beneficial is defined by the willingness of a grower to pay for the material—if a grower is paid to accept the material for application to his/her farm, it is a waste operation, not beneficial use, and therefore not under the regulation of the department.”
Included in the document is a statement by Dr. Allen Felsot, described as an “environmental toxicologist” at Washington State University, who says, “Soil amendments [fertilizers] have not significantly influenced dietary trends.”
In other words, the crops are not necessarily absorbing the heavy metals and toxins.
But in Fateful Harvest Wilson says Felsot was paid $5,000 by the Northwest Food Processors Association, is an entomologist (bug expert) and “has a history of being paid large amounts of money to produce reports for his benefactors in the chemical industry.”
Felsot had been asked to help debunk a group of former potato growers in the Quincy area who, inspired by Martin’s efforts, published a document entitled: “Lead in Your French Fries?”
At the end of our phone conversation, Lombardi, who was courteous, well informed and well rehearsed, referred me to Steve Mauch, director of inspector services at the state Department of Food and Agriculture.
I expected to hear an echo of Lombardi’s defense of the industry. But I got something quite different.
Mauch is a pleasant, patient and helpful state agent who told me that the idea of monitoring the state’s fertilizer was first broached 10 years ago. Unfortunately, monitoring the fertilizer—both for commercial use (88 percent) and home gardens (12 percent)—coming into the state did not start until this year.
Initially, he said, fertilizers were monitored to make sure they contained the nutrients claimed on the label—more of a check for truth in advertising. Analysis for heavy metals or other wastes was simply not done.
“We started monitoring fertilizer 10 years ago to determine what problems there might be,” he said. “And based on that monitoring we determined that something did need to be done.”
Of particular concern, he said, are levels of arsenic, cadmium and lead. But there were no scientific standards available to determine at what levels these elements became a concern. So the CDFA hired a private firm called Foster, Wheeler Enterprises to conduct a risk analysis for these elements. The analysis was completed in 1997. From that information a rule-making process was set in motion.
The board making up the rules included representatives from the Legislature, the fertilizer industry, the Department of Health and a number of other agencies, including CalPIRG and the EPA. A consensus was developed, and in 1999 a proposal was made.
“They received a lot of comments and then let the thing lapse to see if we could develop a more effective tool for regulation,” Mauch said.
The result of that effort is the regulation that went into effect at the beginning of this year that has established maximum levels of metals and other elements contained within inorganic fertilizers.
However, what this means is that, for perhaps the past 20 years, unregulated fertilizers—as much as 200 billion pounds of them—have been dumped on the ag lands of California, some containing heavy metals that will not dissipate for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years.
Tom Wilson, an official at the EPA, wrote Duff Wilson after the initial newspaper story on toxics in fertilizers was published.
“One critical aspect that did not get much attention but that does concern me [is] the ever-growing accumulation of heavy metals in the soil with each fertilizer application,” he wrote. “Heavy metals don’t biodegrade or move quickly through the soils. So even ‘a little bit’ applied each year will inevitably accumulate to disastrous levels. Where will we farm then?”
Mauch said that concern about accumulation sparked a statewide soils research project, which began a year and one-half ago under the direction of UC Riverside. Scientists are testing and measuring soils from the Sacramento Valley, the San Joaquin Valley, Salinas and Oxnard and Southern California to determine their levels of heavy metals.
The results, which should be available by the end of this summer, will be compared to another study done 30 years ago to see what changes have taken place because of intensive use of fertilizer in the last few decades.
“We are reviewing what we’ve done and what we need to do,” Mauch said. “There hasn’t been a lot of research in this area. In 1991 or so our department started to question and wonder what was going into the soil. At that point, we didn’t know what was going on.”
They still don’t.
Patty Martin thinks much more needs to be done and will not rest until it is. But she says the campaign must be carried out carefully. She does not think the environmental movement is the way to go. She casts a wary eye toward environmental groups, who she thinks often work against each other, claiming turf and fighting for the same funding.
This issue, she says, cuts across political boundaries. It is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It does not belong to the Green Party.
She has a formed a small group called Safe Food and Fertilizer. It has a Web site—www.safefoodandfertilizer.com—and Martin’s card reads, “He who is silent consents.”
“Before you go in and start attacking this from a legislative angle,” she says, “you need to be armed with information. And you need consumer awareness on your side.”
Although California does currently regulate what goes onto farmlands, she says, as the largest agricultural state in the nation it has a market the fertilizer companies keep a close eye on. And though there are new regulations in place, state legislatures are more easily lobbied by industry than is the federal government.
And as far as the federal government is concerned, Martin says, there are only two rules governing what goes into fertilizer.
First, the material must meet the land-treatment standards for disposal in a double-lined landfill. “If it’s clean enough for that, it’s clean enough for food,” Martin notes.
Second, there must be a market for the product. “If consumers decide they don’t want to buy it,” Martin argues, “it loses its market.”
The fact remains, she says, that “no one knows how much of the 110 million pounds of fertilizer dumped on farms in this country comes from waste products. And when you consider this country has a hazardous-waste disposal problem …
“The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t have the answers,” Martin says.
In August 1999, the EPA released a statement saying that industrial waste used as fertilizer posed “little or no risk,” even though the agency also said soil-to-plant uptake of the waste is unknown, as is the impact it will have on children.
Martin said it’s not just the absorption of the material into crops the creates a health threat, but also the fact that the contaminated soil can be blown by the wind, leach down into underground aquifers or run off into rivers and steams.
“Living in a farming community,” she said, “is like living in the middle of a hazardous-waste dump.”
Her message to Californians: “You know about the issue, and that leaves you personally responsible to see that the practice of dumping waste into fertilizer ends.”
The day after Martin’s visit to Chico, I got this e-mail from Professor Stemen:
“I referred to Patty last night as a hero and an inspiration. She was clearly uncomfortable with the label. She said she was just a regular person. I couldn’t agree more, and that is exactly why I find her so inspirational.
“I am not inspired by Michael Jordan to play better basketball. Clearly, I will never ‘be like Mike’ on the court, no matter what shoes I buy. But I can ‘be like Patty’ in my community. I can stand up for what I believe, no matter what others may say, because I saw Patty, a regular person like me, do it in her community. To that end, she is my hero."