When you're mayor of a town the size of Quincy, Wash., you hear just about everything.
So it was only natural that Patty Martin would catch some farmers in her Central Washington hamlet wondering aloud why their wheat yields were lousy, their corn crops thin, their cows sickly.
Some blamed the weather. Some blamed themselves. But only after Mayor Martin led them in weeks of investigation did they identify a possible new culprit: fertilizer.
They don't have proof that the stuff they put on their land to feed it actually was killing it. But they discovered something they found shocking and that they think other American farmers and consumers ought to know:
Manufacturing industries are disposing of hazardous wastes by turning them into fertilizer to spread around farms. And they're doing it legally.
"It's really unbelievable what's happening, but it's true," Mayor Martin said. "They just call dangerous waste a product, and it's no longer a dangerous waste. It's a fertilizer."
Across the Columbia River basin in Moxee City is visual testimony to Martin's assertion. A dark powder from two Oregon steel mills is poured from rail cars into the top of silos attached to Bay Zinc Co. under a federal permit to store hazardous waste.
The powder, a toxic byproduct of the steel-making process, is taken out of the bottom of the silos as a raw material for fertilizer.
"When it goes into our silo, it's a hazardous waste," said Bay Zinc President Dick Camp. "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."
What's happening in Washington is happening around the United States. The use of industrial toxic waste as a fertilizer ingredient is a growing national phenomenon, an investigation has found.
Some states -- most of them in the Northeast -- are cutting back on testing and regulation of fertilizers. For a long time, New York State wasn't testing for nutrients because of a lack of funding, according to State Agriculture Commissioner Donald Davidsen. But several months ago testing was resumed, "because it is the right thing to do," he said. "It is protection for both the industry and the farmers, as well as for the consumers."
Davidsen said there has been no evidence of hazardous waste in New York fertilizers, and no evidence that any of the companies suspected of producing toxic fertilizer are doing business in the East.
"We believe we could detect it," Davidsen said. "We believe that we would catch anything in that fertilizer that shouldn't be in there. . . . And there have been no instances of it here."
But investigations in other places around the nation turned up examples of wastes laden with heavy metals being recycled into fertilizer to be spread across crop fields.
In Tift County, Ga., more than 1,000 acres of peanut crops were wiped out by a brew of hazardous waste and limestone sold to unsuspecting farmers.
In Gore, Okla., a uranium-processing plant is getting rid of low-level radioactive waste by licensing it as a liquid fertilizer and spraying it over 9,000 acres of grazing land.
In Charleston, S.C., a chemical company exported 3,000 tons of especially toxic material to Bangladesh and Australia in 1992. Some of the fertilizer was spread on rice fields before it was recalled.
In Norfolk, Neb., a steel mill built a fertilizer factory to recycle the mill's hazardous waste for agriculture.
In Camas, Wash., highly corrosive, lead-laced waste from a pulp mill is hauled to Southwest Washington farms and spread over crops grown for livestock consumption.
Any material that has fertilizing qualities can be labeled and used as a fertilizer, even if it contains dangerous chemicals and heavy metals.
The wastes come from iron, zinc and aluminum smelting, mining, cement kilns, the burning of medical and municipal wastes, wood-product slurries and a variety of other heavy industries.
Federal and state governments encourage the practice in the name of recycling and, in fact, it has some benefits: Recycling waste as fertilizer saves companies money and conserves precious space in hazardous-waste landfills. And, mixed and handled correctly, the material can help crops grow.
"It's a situation where we are facing an overabundance of these materials in landfills and, of course, landfills are getting full," said Ali Kashani, who directs fertilizer regulation in Washington state. "So they (waste producers) are constantly looking for ways to recycle when they have beneficial materials."
The problem is that the "beneficial materials" in industrial waste, such as nitrogen and magnesium to help crops grow, often are accompanied by dangerous heavy metals such as cadmium and lead.
An investigation also found that:
Some industries dispose of tons of toxic waste by giving it free to fertilizer manufacturers, or even paying them to take it.
One major producer, Monsanto, has stopped recycling waste into fertilizer on its own because of concerns about health and liability. For years, it sold 6,000 tons a year of ashy, black waste from its Soda Springs, Idaho, phosphorus plant to nearby fertilizer companies.
The waste contained cadmium, a heavy metal that studies show can cause cancer, kidney disease, neurological dysfunction, diminished fertility, immune-system changes and birth defects at certain levels of consumption. Company scientists are trying to determine whether the material is safe to be used as fertilizer, even though the federal government allows it.
Among the substances found in some recycled fertilizers are cadmium, lead, arsenic, radionuclides and dioxins, at levels some scientists say may pose a threat to human health. Although the health effects are widely disputed, there is undisputed evidence the substances enter plant roots.
Just as there are no conclusive data to prove a danger, there are none to prove the safety of the practice.
In other nations, including Canada, that lack of certainty has led to strict regulation. There, the approach is to limit toxic wastes in fertilizer until the practice is proven safe. Here, the approach is to allow it until it's proven unsafe.
Although experts disagree as to whether these fertilizers are a health threat, most say further study is needed. Yet, little is under way.
Few farmers, and probably even fewer consumers, know about the practice.
Since Mayor Martin began raising the alarm about the use of toxic waste as fertilizer, she has been threatened with a lawsuit by a local farmer, been verbally attacked in town meetings and seen the City Council -- led by a son-in-law of the local manager of the Cenex fertilizer company -- pressure her to shut up or quit.
Many farmers in and around Quincy, a town of 4,030, say they're doing very well, thank you, with the fertilizer and the help and advice they've received from Cenex Supply and Marketing, which sells expertise, financing and farm supplies in the West and Midwest.
"We don't see a problem," said Greg Richardson, Quincy-based president of the Potato Growers of Washington and a staunch defender of recycling wastes into fertilizer.
State environmental, agriculture and health officials have looked at the situation in Quincy. The environmental and agriculture officials, who encourage recycling waste into fertilizer, say that as far as they can tell, there's no danger to crops or people.
But some admit they wish they knew more. Kashani wants standards for heavy metals in fertilizer. Absent that, he said, he has to apply a general standard that recycled products cannot "pose a threat to public health or the environment."
Regulators in California have been studying the issue for years and still cannot say what constitutes a safe level for lead, cadmium and arsenic in fertilizer.
How Quincy Mayor Patty Martin and her supporters stumbled upon the discovery of the recycling of toxic waste into fertilizer begins at a concrete pond across the street from Quincy High School. The pond, 36 feet wide, 54 feet long and 5 feet deep, was built in 1986 and used by Cenex to rinse fertilizer from farm equipment.
State investigators later found that the company also illegally used the pond to dump pesticides.
Cenex closed the pond in 1990. By then, it contained about 38,000 gallons of toxic goo, with heavy metals, suspected carcinogens, even some radioactive materials. State investigators couldn't determine how all this toxic material ended up there.
Cenex memos show how the company got rid of the sludge. John Williams, the Quincy branch manager, wrote his boss to say the "product," as he called it, would cost $170,000 to ship and store at the Arlington, Ore., hazardous-waste site, as required by federal law.
So Cenex decided to save money by spreading it on a rented plot of cornfield and let nature take its course. The land would act as a natural filter for the hazardous wastes.
Cenex struck a deal with lessee farmer Larry Schaapman. He was paid more than $10,000 to let Cenex put the material, which the company claimed had fertilizer value, on his 100 acres.
It killed the land.
The corn crop failed there in 1990, even though Schaapman and Cenex applied extra water to try to wash the toxics through the soil. Hardly anything grew there the next year, either.
The land belonged to Dennis DeYoung, whose family had farmed it since the early 1950s before he leased it to Schaapman. Since the land was poisoned, DeYoung couldn't make his payments, and the company that financed him foreclosed on a $100,000 debt. DeYoung also owed Cenex money for fertilizer and seed.
Soon after, Cenex bought the land from the financing company.
The company never had to explain how the heavy metals -- enough cadmium, beryllium and chromium to qualify as a Superfund site -- got into the rinse pond in town.
That's where Mayor Martin and her supporters come in.
Tom Witte is a 53-year-old farmer with 200 acres and about 100 cows a few miles east of Quincy.
Witte had a disastrous year in 1991. His red spring wheat, silage corn and grain corn all yielded about one-third the normal levels.
"You always blame yourself, you know," Witte said. "You always think you screwed up. But then it wasn't just the crops. Then I started having all these weird problems with the cows."
Six of his cows got sick and died. The veterinarian found cancer in the three that were tested.
When Dennis DeYoung told Witte about his problems, Witte got to wondering about the effects of fertilizer on his fields. Although he hadn't used material from the rinse pond, he had used products from Cenex.
Witte still had the rusty, steel fertilizer tank Cenex had delivered and set up on his property in 1991.
Witte reached in the tank and scooped about two pounds of dust, rust and residue from the bottom. He sent the material to Brookside Farms Laboratory in Ohio, which found levels of arsenic, beryllium, lead, titanium, chromium, copper and mercury.
A reporter showed Max Hammond, the top Cenex scientist in the area, the test results last fall. Hammond, since deceased, said some of the metals might have come from dust or rust in Witte's tank, but he could not explain the beryllium or arsenic.
Arsenic, a known carcinogen, is a highly toxic residue from mining and smelting processes.
Mayor Martin, who had been closely tracking the rinse-pond controversy, caught wind of Witte's and DeYoung's problems.
Mayor Martin, Witte, DeYoung and others began researching fertilizer manufacturing. They discovered that, as a result of landfill costs and the stringent environmental laws of the 1970s, a lot of heavy industries were recycling and marketing their hazardous waste as fertilizer.
Dennis DeYoung began to wonder if fertilizer was to blame not only for his recent problems, but also for his land turning unproductive in the late 1980s, the reason he decided to lease it to Schaapman in the first place. At the time, his corn, beans and hay were going bad and he didn't know why.
And the more he and others read about what went into recycled fertilizers, the more they began to worry about possible health effects. Martin encouraged Witte and DeYoung to submit hair samples to a Chicago laboratory that tests for heavy metals in human tissues.
The lab, Doctor's Data Inc., found high levels of aluminum, antimony, lead, arsenic and cadmium in hair samples from DeYoung, Witte and Witte's children.
So what to make of Mayor Martin and her crusaders? Are they, as Richardson of the Potato Growers of Washington insists, unnecessarily "opening up an ugly can of worms"?
All that's clear is that the potential for danger is unclear. Some scientists and public officials say the benefits of recycling waste outweigh the possible risks.
"The farmer is coming out a little ahead," said soils specialist Charlie Mitchell of Alabama's Auburn University. "The person spreading it is getting his profit. The company is using its waste instead of dumping it. So we're helping the environment. We're creating jobs. If it's done right, it can really be a win-win situation."
Ken Cook, a soils scientist who heads the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, said no one yet knows what constitutes "doing it right."
Mayor Martin and friends are raising good questions, Cook says.
"Let's put it this way: We're well into the use of these materials before these questions are even asked, and that doesn't seem to me to be a good sign that we've been very rigorous in our science on this."
Most importantly, the mayor and farmers knew that while they might never sort out exactly what had happened in their town, they had discovered something other farmers and consumers deserved to know about.