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Know the West

Fateful harvest a scary read


Sometimes recycling is more pernicious than we've all been taught to believe. In 1997, Patty Martin, mayor of the small town of Quincy, Wash., discovered that the local agricultural chemicals provider had been mixing leftover pesticides with other chemicals and passing the "recycled" mixture off to farmers as a beneficial soil additive. The crusading mayor called Seattle-based reporter Duff Wilson, who soon discovered that the Quincy case was far from an isolated incident.

Wilson's thorough investigation, Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry, and a Toxic Secret, takes us into the guts of an industry few of us know much about.

Because of a loophole in the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of hazardous wastes, leftovers from cement factories, steel mills and pesticide factories can be sent to companies that transform them into fertilizers. It's perfectly legal, and the wastes are high in nutrients. There's only one problem, Wilson says: The fertilizers made from the waste are often fortified with a scary dose of heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. There's no proof that the toxins end up in food, but nobody has been doing the tests to find out. Worse, fertilizers don't have detailed labels, so consumers seldom know what they're getting.

Wilson is convinced that there's a fundamental problem with the way we regulate hazardous waste. When it comes to recycled fertilizers, Wilson says, "Nobody can argue that there is no harm; indeed, nobody has tried. Instead, the government has buried itself in toxic disregard ... The fields that grow the food my children eat are being transformed into toxic waste dumps, one season at a time."

Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry, and a Toxic Secret, by Duff Wilson, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., New York, 2001. Hardcover: $26. 321 pages.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Ali Macalady