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Know the West

Look at that big plant!

  Some fertilizer sold in Washington state since 1996 contained uranium and other wastes from the production of nuclear reactor fuel; in fact, before the state's Department of Agriculture issued a stop-sale order on Feb. 17, over 390,000 gallons of the material had been distributed.

State health officials found out about the product after a Seattle Times reporter asked how much uranium was in the fertilizer. When the agency looked into it, officials discovered the waste material had never been registered. According to Siemens Power Corp. in Richland, Wash., a nuclear-fuel maker near Hanford, there's no need for concern: The fertilizer contains less radioactive material than is found in most ammonium fertilizers.

"I can't stress enough the minuscule quantity of uranium in this material," says Wayne Baker of Siemens, who adds that the company never knew it had to register the product with the state. "This is a common chemical - you have uranium in your body."

Critics say Siemens deliberately side-stepped the registration process in order to bypass testing for safety and effectiveness.

"This company is looking to get rid of their nuclear waste because they don't want to pay to store it," says Laurie Valeriano, a fertilizer specialist with the nonprofit Washington Toxics Coalition. "Their actions are outrageous - it's possible there could be a range of health effects from this waste product."

The fertilizer is now being analyzed by the Washington Department of Health. Anyone who has used the Siemens product can call the state's Agriculture Department for more information at 360/902-2025.