Duff Wilson, Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry, and a Toxic
Secret (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 322 pages, hardcover $26, paperback $13.95.
"The modus operandi is to lie and deny."--Tom Witte
Any food that we buy today may have been grown on land fertilized by hazardous waste, and may
have absorbed toxic heavy metals from the soil, including lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic.
There is simply no way one can know. But with hundreds of industries "recycling" their industrial
waste as fertilizer to save the high cost of storing it in a hazardous waste landfill, it is becoming
more and more likely. A legal loophole in the United States allows industrial manufacturing
companies to sell their waste to fertilizer companies and to dump millions of tons of hazardous
waste directly on the land as fertilizer and soil amendments. When hazardous waste with
"agronomic benefits" is used as a fertilizer on food crops, lawns, and gardens, it is no longer
considered hazardous waste, but simply a "product." In most states in the United States, there are
no legal limits to the amount of toxic heavy metals from industrial wastes that fertilizer may
contain and the farmers who use it are not even told what inert ingredients are in the fertilizer.
Inert hazardous materials are not listed on the label and for the most part, state and federal
environmental agencies do not check the contents of fertilizers. Indeed recycling of hazardous
waste into fertilizer is often recommended by state and federal authorities, including the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), passed into law in 1976, was meant to trace
hazardous waste produced in the United States from "cradle to grave," monitoring the treatment,
storage, transportation, and disposal of hazardous waste. But after the law was passed, the cost of
disposal at hazardous waste landfills across the United States increased by some twenty times in
the next few years and companies that stored their wastes in landfills faced future liabilities if the
waste dump became a Superfund site. Companies were required to help pay for the cost of the
cleanup. The slogan "reduce, reuse, recycle," became a mantra at the EPA. More and more
hazardous waste began going into other products, such as fuel, asphalt, cement, glass, and building
materials. Used in these ways, de facto hazardous waste would be considered just another product.
But there was another increasingly common use for waste, which was kept secret from the public.
Companies could save millions of dollars on landfill costs, and enhance their bottom line, simply
by recycling waste as fertilizer, dumping it on the fields where America's food is grown. While
some of the waste does contain small amounts of plant food, such as zinc, for the most part, this
practice is simply a way for manufacturing industries to legally dump their toxic waste on
America's farmland, where it continues to accumulate in the soil and in some cases in the food
itself. Multinational corporations are spreading this practice around the world, while very few
people have even heard about it.
Fateful Harvest is the story of a farming community in central Washington that is at the heart of
the nation's food basket, producing potatoes, beans, peas, corn, and wheat, for restaurants and
supermarkets all across America. A food processing firm in the town in the 1980s processed most
of the french fries used by McDonald's. Seattle Times investigative reporter, Duff Wilson, broke
the story on July 3-4, 1997, with "Fear in the Fields: How Hazardous Wastes Become Fertilizer."
At the center of the story is Cenex, a subsidiary of Cenex/Land O'Lakes Company of Minneapolis,
Minnesota, selling seed, fertilizer, fuel, animal feed, and pesticides in the small town of Quincy. It
was said to be "the farmer's best friend." Farmers using Cenex fertilizer began to wonder why
their crops were not doing well, and why their livestock were getting sick and dying. Patty Martin,
who was later elected mayor of the town, became suspicious that the fertilizer from Cenex was
contaminated with hazardous waste.
The company had a holding pond near its plant in the town, where equipment used to apply
fertilizer was washed down. Employees who worked in the area noticed that the level of the
material in the pond fluctuated, sometimes falling during the night. More material would be
dumped into the pond the next day. Their suspicions increased when it became clear that liquid
from the pond was being pumped into tankers and then spread onto local fields as liquid
fertilizer. With their crops failing, some farmers began to take the suspicions about the fertilizer
In the case of Dennis DeYoung, after a couple of bad crops, he could not make the mortgage
payments on his land and the finance company threatened to foreclose. Cenex needed a place to
dispose of the material in the holding pond. The company knew about DeYoung's problems and
rented a piece of his land where they could apply the material from the pond as fertilizer and save
the cost of processing and dumping it into a hazardous waste landfill. The waste would be spread
and ample amounts of water applied to the land until the waste had leached through the soil. The
land was rendered practically barren for a few years but eventually came back as it was able to
heal itself through the leaching. Sudan grass, which would barely grow on the toxic land, was
planted to help draw up the toxic metals from the soil.
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What the Cenex pond actually contained was thirty-eight thousand gallons of a brew of fertilizer,
pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals. Proper disposal in a hazardous waste landfill would
have cost $170,000. Pumping it on a farmer's land, however, would bring a profit of $10,000,
resulting in a saving to the company of some $180,000. This information was later discovered in the
company's records. What the local townspeople and suspicious farmers, who were losing their
land, did not realize at the time, was that they were looking at just the tip of the iceberg. They did
not know that what they were starting to discover was not something unusual but part of the
system. It was going on all over the country--and around the world.
me a Millionaire
Duff Wilson at the Seattle Times was contacted and began to work on the story. At first he was
cautious about whether to take the suspicions of the local citizens seriously. Could it really be true
that manufacturing industries in the United States were simply mixing their hazardous wastes
into fertilizer that would be applied to land where the nation's vegetables and other crops were
grown? Waste containing heavy metals and cancer-causing dioxins should be put into hazardous
waste landfills. This was a practice which seemed like it should be a criminal act, but was perfectly
legal. The fact that it seemed so unbelievable was helping the companies get by with the practice.
Who would believe that it was actually happening?
When the mayor brought up the topic at town meetings, the local townspeople, especially the
business community, were worried that any publicity would cause a food scare, similar to the one
surrounding Alar, once widely sprayed on apples to prevent their falling from trees. Local apple
growers lost millions of dollars when 60 Minutes reported, in 1989, that the chemical was a
As Wilson delved into the subject, he discovered that the suspicions of the local citizens were not
unfounded. Further research revealed that the practice of recycling hazardous waste into fertilizer
began in the 1950s, when there were many toxic materials left over from the war. It began with
shipyard waste, containing zinc, being used as fertilizer on apples. Of course, the waste also
contained many toxic heavy metals. In succeeding years, recycling all kinds of waste into fertilizer
would become standard operating procedure. After the passage of the RCRA act in the 1970s,
which sent the cost of disposing hazardous waste soaring, the floodgates were opened for
dumping hazardous waste disguised as fertilizer. The loophole in the law was a hidden goldmine
for manufacturing industries and fertilizer companies throughout the United States and the
world. As long as there was anything in the waste that could be counted as plant food everything
else went along for the ride because there were no limits on what could be dumped in this way.
In Oklahoma, a uranium processing plant disposed of low-level radioactive waste by spraying ten
million gallons a year of the liquid toxic material on Bermuda grass which was used as grazing
land. Near the site a frog with nine legs was found and a two-nosed calf was born. There were 124
reported cases of cancer and birth defects near the toxic fields.
In another case, wallboard from housing demolition was being recycled as fertilizer. As it
contained asbestos, it was defined as hazardous waste, but the company saved forty-five dollars a
ton by spreading it as a soil amendment. Sold as "natural gypsum," it contained calcium sulfate,
asbestos, fiberglass, and heavy metals, including high levels of arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and
A seemingly ordinary product called "Nulife All Purpose Trace Elements," purchased in a local
hardware store was, in fact, highly toxic hazardous waste from the pollution control device of a
steel smelter, simply mixed with an acid and rolled into brown granules. It was magically
transformed into fertilizer. Steel smelters paid $100 to $200 a ton to get rid of the toxic waste and
then it was sold over the counter in garden supply stores. The plant foods listed included boron,
copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc. But not listed on the label was the fact that it
contained 2490 parts per million (ppm) of lead, 515 ppm nickel, and 86 ppm cadmium. It would
have had to be sent to a hazardous waste landfill if not sold as a fertilizer. But in the United States,
one could simply buy it off the shelf where lawn and garden supplies were sold.
Hundreds of industries were found to be getting rid of their waste in this way. Not only did they
save millions in disposal costs, the practice held down the cost of disposing of other hazardous
wastes as it preserved space in hazardous waste landfills. Industries involved included steel
smelters, battery recycling plants, parts manufacturers for aircraft, cement kilns, pulp mills,
mining companies, the medical industry, aluminum industries, auto makers, and many others.
Cadmium, to take just one toxic metal, is absorbed through the roots of corn, lettuce, peas, and
radishes. The amounts absorbed are not known and vary greatly, but it is especially dangerous on
sandy and acidic soils. Some researchers say there is not a great danger as long as the alkalinity of
the soil is kept up. Once the pH falls, however, the metal begins to enter the roots of plants.
Sometimes this even kills the crop. Exposure to cadmium can cause kidney and liver damage, bone
disease, emphysema, anemia, renal dysfunction, hypertension, cancer, and reproductive damage.
In Quincy a common disease was idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease, possibly caused by
beryllium in the waste from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Citizens suspected the waste was
being dumped into fertilizer as the facility was just down the road from the town. There has been
a significant rise in childhood illness and cancers in the United States since the 1980s.
Wilson found that some of the major establishment environmental organizations in the United
States had made a deal with manufacturing industries over recycling. The tradeoff was that
environmental organizations would go along with using hazardous waste as fertilizer if the
industries would agree to support the recycling of aluminum, paper, plastic, and other materials
from household solid waste. Even if materials recycling was not initially profitable, the industries
would save millions of dollars in landfill disposal costs of their hazardous wastes, escape
Superfund liability, and eventually even make profits on materials recycling as markets
developed. So the environmental organizations, for the most part, did not lobby for controls on
fertilizer. True, the government was not doing its job. But neither were the environmental
organizations, some of whom were in bed with the dirty industries.
In spite of efforts by Greenpeace, and many other non-governmental organizations, to control the
international trade in hazardous wastes, a number of countries, namely, Australia, Canada,
Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States, staunchly defend
the practice. This is highly relevant when it is realized that hazardous waste is being redefined as
fertilizer and shipped around the world. Globally, the fertilizer industry has sales of some $60
billion annually. How much of this is de facto hazardous waste is not known. Nor is it known how
much of the toxics actually end up in our food, regardless of what country we live in.
A few companies, like Monsanto, say they have quit the practice of dumping their hazardous
waste into fertilizer, but it seems to be more out of the fear of liability in lawsuits than a genuine
concern about people's health. This is a very serious issue and very little is known about the actual
implications of this practice in terms of people's health around the globe. Fateful Harvest is a
gripping story. We are indebted to the author and the people of Quincy for bringing this immoral
and scandalous practice to light. Federal and state regulatory agencies are generally captives of
powerful industries in the United States and do not have the power to protect people's health,
even when scientists on their staff feel strongly that there should be greater regulation. As this
story clearly shows, it is up to the people to find out what is going on and demand that their food
be free of toxics that are killing them and their children.
Out in the west, words such as enviro-wackos are popularized by rightwing radio hosts such as
ex-Watergate conspirator Gordon Liddy, who passes on to his millions of listeners the message
that global warming is a lie. "I commute in a three-quarter-ton capacity Chevrolet Silverado HD,"
he swanked in his latest book. "Four-wheel drive, off-road equipped, extended curb pickup truck,
powered by a 300hp, overhead valve, turbo supercharged diesel engine with 520 lb-feet of torque ...
It has lights all over it so everyone can see me coming and get out of the way. If someone in a little
government-mandated car hits me, it is all over--for him." Fuel economy in American vehicles hit a
22-year low in