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Challenging the EPA Fertilizer Rule

Safe Food and Fertilizer

Earth Island News

Most consumers would never even stop to wonder what’s in their fertilizer. Why should they? Fertilizer is benign, right?

Wrong. Industrial waste from steel mills, mines, foundries, aluminum manufacturers, tire incinerators, coal-fired power plants, and film processing plants often makes it way into commercial fertilizers under the auspices of recycling. Many fertilizers for sale for use on lawns, flowerbeds, golf courses, school playgrounds, and parks may in fact be derived from hazardous and other toxic industrial wastes that may include lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and dioxins. Even the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is uncertain how much fertilizer is from waste-derived sources. Safe Food and Fertilizer is dedicated to informing communities of these practices and organizing efforts to ban this practice.

While guarantees for the active ingredients in a bag of fertilizer are readily available on a label, the source of the ingredients and level of contaminants is not. Home gardeners, landscapers, groundskeepers, and other users may unknowingly be putting themselves and others at risk.

As if allowing this method of disposal to occur were not bad enough, the EPA is expanding such fertilizer’s use to farms. Under a final rule issued on July 24, 2002, zinc-containing hazardous wastes will be excluded from the definition of solid waste when used as fertilizer – including on farms – provided they meet certain metal concentration standards.

Many of the heavy metals that will be recycled into fertilizers are highly toxic substances. Lead exposure may cause behavioral problems, learning disabilities, seizures, and even death. Mercury may also cause neurological abnormalities in children, including cerebral palsy, and severe deformations in animals. Arsenic and cadmium may damage internal organs, skin, and nerve functions. The rule would allow these heavy metals to be applied to farms and gardens in concentrations that exceed the limits set for disposal of the hazardous wastes in lined and monitored landfills.

Safe Food and Fertilizer, with the assistance of the Western Environmental Law Center, challenged EPA’s rule on October 22, 2002. The petition for review, filed in the DC Court of Appeals, challenges both the rule and the EPA’s statutory authority to promulgate such a rule under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The RCRA, which was intended to end reliance on land disposal, requires that hazardous wastes be disposed in a manner protective of human health and the environment, and be accounted for from “cradle to grave.”

Patty Martin, former mayor of Quincy, Washington and the founder of Safe Food and Fertilizer, is very concerned. “Over the past few years, the government’s own studies show that heavy metal levels in children’s diets have risen,” says Martin. “Rather than taking steps to reduce the toxic burden on children, however, the EPA is illegally authorizing a practice that will put our children at even greater risk from exposure to lead, arsenic, and other toxic heavy metals.”

With over 110 billion pounds of fertilizer used annually in the United States, even trace amounts of these heavy metals add up quickly when released into the environment year after year. For example, if every fertilizer contained 10 parts per million of lead, over 1.1 million pounds of that substance would be dumped into the environment each year. The volumes are staggering when you consider multiple toxins, repeated applications, and decades of use.

Safe Food and Fertilizer is a grassroots organization advocating a ban on the use of industrial wastes in fertilizer and animal feeds, and for establishment of national standards on fertilizers regardless of origin. “National standards,” Martin insists, “must be protective of our most vulnerable populations (developing fetuses) in order to be protective of us all.”

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