Fateful Harvest

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Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry, and a Toxic Secret
Fateful Harvest.jpg
AuthorDuff Wilson
Publication date

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".[1]

The small town in question was Quincy, Washington. Fateful Harvest won book of the year honors from the press group Investigative Reports and Editors[2] 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[edit]

The story begins with farmer Dennis DeYoung outside of Quincy, who in 1985 buys fertilizer from the local Cenex/Land O'Lakes corporation, and subsequently experiences 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.[3]) In 1986 Washington begins to pass stricter laws against dumping toxic waste. Cenex, the local agricultural company, begins to dump its excess chemicals into a concrete rinsate pond rather than on vacant land. The pond fills up quickly. Len Smith, who worked there for a summer dumping cans into the pool, recounts seeing its levels drop mysteriously overnight (23). By 1990, however, Cenex develops spreading technology which allowed it to use all its chemicals on farms and the corporation wanted to get rid of the rinse pond. 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 the latter. Later company officials claim under oath that state officials (whose names could not be remembered) had told them it was OK to dump the waste as fertilizer. The company avoids testing the pond for anything but fertilizers and pesticides.

Cenex pays DeYoung to apply the "fertilizer" to his land, and then attempts 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, together (28). Later that year, Cenex salesman Nerpel, a friend of DeYoung, tells DeYoung that he should check into the fertilizer. The corn planted hardly grew, and what was grown was sold as animal feed. DeYoung, worried about the liability of the toxic waste, tries to get Cenex to take over the land, which they reluctantly do. Cenex plants Sudan grass, known for soaking up heavy metals, but the "extremely rank stand" of Sudan grass only covers 22 percent of the land (41). Although Cenex claims it will not sell the grass, its Quincy manager John Williams sells it to a neighbor for her horses. Several of the horses die. Meanwhile, DeYoung hires lawyers, but does not make much headway against Cenex, which has the state government on its side (53). Another farmer purchasing from Cenex, Tom Witte, finds that his fields yielded substantially less, and his cows begin getting cancer. His field man gets muscular dystrophy, and in 1991 he files for bankruptcy.

This draws the attention of several community members, led by Patty Martin. When Patty Martin calls the EPA, she is confused with Senator Patty Murray and the EPA descends upon the city for a thorough investigation. It finds that the rinsate pond used to dump excess fertilizer and pesticides, and then later sold as fertilizer, has 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) are also found in several fertilizer tanks used by the affected farmers. The farmers have their fertilizers and crops tested independently and find that they are full of lead and arsenic (94). Martin and other farmers' families have their children's hair tested, and find high levels of all the metals previously mentioned. The homeopath testing them claims that the families' have the highest levels he's ever seen (121). The affected farmers are largely bankrupted, and lose their court cases. One case loses because a memo to the regional manager saying that Cenex could save $170,000 in hazardous waste costs by selling the waste as fertilizer is discovered too late (82). Instead, in 1995 Cenex receives a $10,000 fine for using a pesticide for an unapproved purpose, which has a maximum penalty of $200,000 (91). It appears to the farmers that having toxic metals in fertilizer is not against the law, although Tom Witte later cites a $1,000 fine for adulterating fertilizers.


Alarmed by this issue, Patty Martin runs for mayor. She and her bankrupt farmer friends begin to research the mysterious origin of metals in fertilizer. They eventually discover that the ubiquitous practice of mixing tailings and other industrial waste with fertilizer is an accepted and even encouraged way to recycle waste with some zinc or iron (97). Exploding landfill costs had exacerbated this trend. Patty Martin discovers, for example, a proposed state rule for disposing of cement kiln dust by using it as agricultural lime. They also discover that Alcoa sold waste product as a fertilizer or road deicer through L-Bar, a smaller company. The product received at least two lawsuits in Oregon, where farmers settled out-of-court (105). She also believes that cancer rates are higher in Quincy, but the state toxicologist dismisses her claims, although Martin believes that is because the state tracks deaths, not illnesses, and tracks it by place of death when many of the victims' travel out of county to die in advanced hospitals. Later, five people in Quincy come down with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and Dr. Ganesh Raghu tells Wilson that this phenomenon strongly suggests environmental factors, as the disease is extremely rare (167).

Heavy Metal Task Force[edit]

The group contacts Duff Wilson in 1996, and he begins investigating. He finds that most government agencies don't know much about fertilizer, but he's eventually referred to EPA scientist Alan Rubin, "the king of biosolids". Rubin comments in 1997 that while the purely organic, heavily studied and regulated biosolids are vilified, there is "almost no federal regulation on fertilizer" and that "I have never seen a state or federal limit on heavy metals in fertilizer" (105). Wilson discovers that the only group researching these 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. Products were not waste: thus the limits of heavy metals in wastes did not apply to fertilizers, which were products rather than waste (133). One of the particular loopholes is electric arc furnace dust K061 (its hazardous waste ID), which is "simply not considered hazardous waste if it was [is] used to make fertilizer" (154).[4][5][6][7] Wilson and a couple others travel to a meeting held in February 1997. They count 15 industry officials and 5 state officials. The meeting begins with fly ash; one of the men claims 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 which found that cadmium did not build up in soils because it was absorbed by growing plants (173). At the meeting, one of the members suggests 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 looks online and finds Cozinco, whose founder Kipp Smallwood is concerned about the metals in zinc fertilizers. The company has a comparison table and offers a free test, while claiming that most zinc fertilizers are 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[edit]

When it goes into our silo, its 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 reports that the Bay Zinc Company, founded by Dick Camp Sr., is a pioneer in the recycling of industrial byproducts into fertilizer. Dick Camp Jr. recounts that his dad may have been the first to use flue dust from steel smokestacks, which is higher in heavy metals than the previously used zinc skimmings. Wilson finds that in 1988 Camp had been instrumental in creating the loopholes in the which allowed heavy metals in fertilizers to go unregulated. Wilson discovers that 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. However, Wilson notes that Bay Zinc is relatively small in comparison to Alabama-based Frit Industries, the leader, which connected one its major factories to Nucor Steel. Together eight companies process 120 million pounds of industrial byproducts into fertilizer, roughly half of the total zinc fertilizer sold in the country (157). Wilson says this trade is facilitated by state industrial material exchanges (IMEX) and that twenty-six states have them. Later Wilson goes to see what he calls Monsanto Mountain -- Monsanto had decided in 1994 that it no longer wanted the liability of using its industrial byproducts as fertilizer.

Soil science[edit]

Wilson finds that there are two major scientists: 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 believes that the cadmium amount in the foods was small enough to be safe, and cautions that the soil should be kept alkaline. Chaney disagrees with Mortvedt. Wilson writes that Chaney, an expert in phytoremediation, believes that a high zinc-to-cadmium ratio (at least 100 to 1) is important for avoiding the toxic effect of cadmium. Chaney also notes that "heavy metals persist in surface soils for centuries to millennia in absence of erosive loss" (176). Chasey also brings 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[edit]

Wilson is forced to publish the story when he heard that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is working on it. He says 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, who discuss the ugly details of labeling. Some fertilizer companies, such as IMC Global, become aware of the problem with using these wastes and stop the practice. Governor Locke of Washington initially seems willing to tackle the problem, but Washington state ends up with an industry-written bill with no labeling requirements (toxicity information would be put on websites) and looser standards than Canada (253). Washington state's new regulations lead to 56 stop-sale orders, 45 denied license applications, and 10 companies with cleaned up materials. One of these stop-sales goes against Siemens AG, which previously sold nuclear fuel processing waste as fertilizer (253). No other state passes a law as strong as Washington. Chaney remarks that keeping the regulations at the state level is the most effective way to block effective regulation. Dennis DeYoung, whose court judgment was overruled gets a retrial in which the jury gets to decide only damages, but a local jurors are sympathetic to Cenex and think DeYoung was just an incompetent farmer, so they award him nothing. Other farmers face similar defeats, and they are denied the right to a class-action lawsuit.

Current status[edit]

Patty Martin cofounded the Safe Food and Fertilizer.

As of 2004, there was a "trend toward regulation of non nutritive trace elements in fertilizers".[8]

Publication data[edit]

  • Wilson, Duff. (2001). Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry, and a Toxic Secret. HarperCollins.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Davenport et al. (2005). Environmental impacts of potato nutrient management. American Journal of Potato Research.
  2. ^ Reporter.org. Duff Wilson bio
  3. ^ http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/FertilizerUse/Tables/Table7.xls
  4. ^ 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.).
  5. ^ 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).
  6. ^ California Department of Toxic Substances Control (CDTSC). Enforcement Case, Chemical & Pigment Co., Pittsburg, CA. EPA ID #CAD009149476. (1994) CDTSC, Sacramento, CA 95812.
  7. ^ California Department of Toxic Substances Control (CDTSC), Riley, Norman, memo to Rick Robison. Comments on Draft. CDTSC, Sacramento, CA 95812. (June 21, 1996).
  8. ^ Kane et al. (2004). Regulation of Heavy Metals in Fertilizer: The Current State of Analytical Methodology. Environmental Impact of Fertilizer on Soil and Water.

External links[edit]