Aluminum, Fertilizer And
Sugar Waste 'Products'

From Jane Jones

These two shocking articles appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 7 May. There will be more in this series tomorrow. Thanks to Rex Warren of the Australian Chemical Trauma Alliance for sending them to us. - Jane
The Great Red Mud Experiment That Went Radioactive
By Gerard Ryle
Quentin Treasure was a member of a local land-care group when he was approached to take part in an unusual experiment by the West Australian Agricultural Department.
The department wanted to spread a reddish substance over his farmland to see if it would stop unwanted phosphorus from entering waterways.
The bonus, Mr Treasure was assured, was not just environmental. He could look forward to vastly increased crop yields using a soil-improving agent that would cost him just 50¢ a tonne.
But this was no ordinary product. It was industrial waste.
The trucks dumping tonne after tonne of the ochre-like material were coming straight from settling ponds at the nearby Alcoa aluminium refinery, which was co-funding the project.
"We never talked a lot about whether it was safe or not," Mr Treasure said. "We were just told it was dirt from the hills that came from Alcoa. And being a little bit naive at the time, that is all we assumed it was."
The experiment, now being used to justify an extraordinary proposal for large-scale use of industrial waste on West Australian farms, remains a bitter memory for a small group of farmers that originally took part.
What Mr Treasure did not fully understand when he agreed to the proposal was that, apart from having fertilising potential, the red mud was also laced with dangerous materials.
Sprinkled over each hectare were up to 30 kilograms of radioactive thorium, six kilograms of chromium, more than two kilograms of barium and up to one kilogram of uranium.
On top of that there were 24 kilograms of fluoride, more than half a kilogram each of the toxic heavy metals arsenic, copper, zinc, and cobalt, as well as smaller amounts of lead, cadmium and beryllium.
And this was at the lowest application rate of 20 tonnes a hectare.
In one instance - when the red mud was applied at 200 tonnes a hectare - the doses could be multiplied ten-fold, according to a West Australian Environmental Protection Authority document.
Between 1991 and 1994 more than 7,600 tonnes of Alcoa red mud was poured directly onto Mr Treasure's farmland at Yarloop, about an hour's drive south of Perth. About 23,000 more tonnes were poured onto the lands of 12 neighbouring farmers.
"The thing that started to alert us that something might be wrong was that we started to get sick animals," Mr Treasure said. "We started getting very unusual sicknesses in the cows and some of them began to die."
"But it seemed to us that all the department was worried about was reducing the phosphorous running off into the estuary.
"There was nothing in their protocol to go and check animals. And at the end of the day we are producing animals for people to eat. They had already decided the stuff was safe and that they didn't need to do that."
Concern turned to alarm when the farmers were given heavy metal measurements of water running off their lands. They showed elevated levels of toxic mercury, selenium, copper and lead.
"I rang the department up to question the figures and they sent me a fax saying that someone had probably thrown a [car] battery in the water and that is why there were excess levels in the water," Mr Treasure said. "So my hackles began to rise. I said, 'Don't take us for fools'."
Graeme Moore, who also took part in the experiment, said the department then tried to claim that the high readings were a result of run-off from a quiet country road,
"They said, 'Oh you are only dumb farmers, you don't know what that means'. "But we said, 'It is there in black and white that these levels exceed what is supposed to be going down there'. That is when we started to get angry about the whole thing."
Meanwhile, the department was hailing the experiment as a success. It is a view it still vehemently holds. Early indications showed that the primary purpose of the trial - to try to prevent algae blooms in the Peel-Harvey estuary by reducing phosphorous run-off - appeared to be working.
And Alcoa was happy.
Storing the material was costing a lot of money. It had been seeking uses for it since the early 1980s and was more than happy to see it being given away.
From the beginning both the department and Alcoa acknowledged the potential pollutants in the waste.
But each maintained - and still maintains - that the increased levels of heavy metals would remain tightly bound up in the soil and that the radioactive materials would barely be noticed.
Alcoa said there was "more zinc in oysters, more selenium in brazil nuts, more fluoride in toothpaste, more mercury in shark, more lead in typical soil and more cadmium in fertiliser" than in the red mud.
The department maintained that a number of the high heavy metal readings taken from the water run-off could be explained by other factors. "I mean bin Laden is not going to go stealing this stuff to make atomic bombs out of it," said an Agriculture Department research officer, Rob Summers.
"That is what soils are made of - things like fluoride, aluminium, iron and manganese. All those materials are of course extremely toxic but when they are built into the matrix of a soil they are very very hard to get out."
The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) also went along with the experiment even though it had acknowledged as early as November 1993 that small amounts of highly poisonous arsenic, fluoride and aluminium were leaching from the soil.
"Bauxite residue [red mud] ... contains traces of some elements which if mobilised could pose environmental risks," one EPA report said. "There are a number of issues associated with this proposal which need to be addressed or considered by other agencies. These issues include health issues such as the accumulation of heavy metals/radioactivity in vegetables."
By 1995 the Agriculture Department was struggling to explain how samples of drain water showed concentrations of aluminium, copper, lead, mercury and selenium above the levels recommended for marine and fresh water. In August 1995 and in September 1996 it acknowledged that arsenic levels in waterways were being exceeded.
Although five years had passed since the material was first applied, large plumes of red dust were still hanging over the farmers' fields. This was not supposed to happen.
Pressed by the farmers, the department finally agreed in late 1996 to undertake a limited test on the health of some of the animals.
"You should have seen the land with 20 tonnes to the hectare," Mr Treasure said. "The poor old animals - if they wanted to eat grass they had to physically eat red mud. They had no choice. Because we knew there was heavy metals in it we wanted to know if it was going into their system. Being farmers, we didn't want to contaminate our overseas markets."
Although the department's investigation found "no obvious health problems", it did find high chromium, fluoride and cadmium levels in some cattle. The high chromium levels were linked to the dust and this prompted fears for the farmers' health.
"Our animals were walking through it and they were covered in the stuff," Mr Treasure said. "And we were doing the same. One day they asked me to drive my cattle up through the paddocks wearing a dust monitor. The monitor clogged up."
It took the department another year to repeat the dust tests, using independent experts. Again they concluded there was no threat, but the farmers were unconvinced.
"At the end of the day we are not qualified to say whether the red mud is injurious to our health or benign ... but we don't believe they do either," said Mr Moore. "I hope it is safe as hell and I hope it does the job they say it does. But I am still sitting on the fence because I am not happy."
Despite the fact that many of the original farmers raised concerns - including that they were not getting the promised higher crop yields - the department pressed ahead with the project.
Red mud was spread over 22 more properties and a fertiliser company was enlisted to help mix the mud with a commercial fertiliser to try to produce a slow-release phosphorus product.
In 1999 the department applied to the EPA to spread 360,000 tonnes of red mud on farmlands across the entire Swan coastal plain.
Then came an unexpected twist.
Alcoa refused to release any more mud unless it got indemnity from any environmental damage. It said this was simply to avoid the risk of any "irresponsible or inappropriate" use of the product. The department backed the request on the ground that it was not a commercial project.
"It costs us money to make the material available but we do that because we have been convinced by the science," said an Alcoa spokesman, Brian Doy. "We think that due diligence has been done to make sure this is a safe product to use."
Certainly when the then state Liberal government granted Alcoa the indemnity in September 1999 the move was unprecedented.
It cleared the way for hundreds of thousands of tonnes of red mud to be made available to farmers, this time at $14 a tonne.
But Mr Treasure and his neighbours have their own theories about why Alcoa sought an indemnity. He points out, with some justification, that many of the independent studies used to rationalise the experiment were paid for by Alcoa.
Mr Summers dismisses the implications. "You might actually find that the people who work for Alcoa in Western Australia do consider that there are some environmental problems that they would actually love to help with."
Loophole in the law that allows toxins on the farm By Gerard Ryle May 7 2002
When the Queensland Government introduced new rules to track industrial waste there was one notable loophole.
If waste was being transported "to a farm for use as a soil conditioner or fertiliser" it was exempted from state regulations.
The Queensland laws, which mainly benefit the $1.3 billion sugar industry, best illustrate the strange contradictions that apply to waste when it suddenly becomes an agricultural product.
Pollution expert Professor Ian Rae, from Melbourne University, says firms who dispose of their waste in agriculture can also avoid reporting it to the national pollution database.
The database, the National Pollutant Inventory, was set up three years ago by state and federal governments and is supposed to be a comprehensive picture of 92 separate toxins emitted by industry.
But, it seems that if a waste suddenly becomes a product, there is no need to report it.
Professor Rae, who conducted a recent review of the database, says: "If waste was being diverted into agriculture it probably wouldn't be considered a waste, that's right.
"We flirted with the idea initially of putting agricultural chemicals on the list - things used in pesticide and fertilisers - and in the end we were more or less directed not to include it because another approach was going to be taken."
Many of the substances recorded by the NPI include compounds found in some industrial wastes being recycled into agriculture. They include arsenic, mercury, manganese, chromium, nickel, sulfuric acid and flouride.
In Queensland, sugar mills emit a variety of wastes in their production processes, such as boiler ash from the combustion process, and dunder, the waste residue from the distillation process.
Both are classed as regulated waste under the Queensland EPA's stated objective of following the path of potential environmental hazards from "cradle to grave".
But if a company decides to recycle them back into the cane fields, they are no longer considered regulated waste. The loophole saves companies the higher disposal costs and farmers are happy because they are getting a cheap fertiliser.
The rules allow a variety of industrial wastes to be used in the Queensland sugar industry.
Suzanne Berthelsen from the CSIRO, which has been testing a variety of products for the Cane Growers Association, says: "The mill ash has shown very good results, but it has to be used close to the mill because you have to put it on at a great tonnage."
Other products being tested include waste plasterboard and a calcium-silicate industrial slag imported from the United States.
"We wouldn't use any of the product commercially or on a larger scale without first checking them thoroughly in the laboratory for possible negatives," Ms Berthelsen says. "And that has been a reason why we have rejected some wastes without ever trying them.
"Some of your fly ash from your coal mines [by-products from coal burning power stations] would have high levels of elements that you wouldn't want added."
The principal scientist at the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations, Dr Graham Kingston, says the bureau was also experimenting with wastes from the steel industry and cement making.
He said some of the waste show "minor evidence" of potentially dangerous heavy metals, but none had been declared hazardous by the Queensland EPA.
Fertiliser Companies Now Police Themselves
By Gerard Ryle
Australian consumers have no way of knowing what is in the fertiliser they are spreading over their farms and gardens.
In late 1998 NSW followed Victoria, becoming one of the last states to abolish the registration of products.
Under laws that had applied since the 1930s companies wanting to sell a product used to have to pay a fee to have it registered. They also had to provide detailed information about its content.
But after the big fertiliser companies complained about the cost, the industry became almost completely self-regulated.
Companies selling fertilisers are meant to abide by state labelling codes. However, a loophole allows manufacturers to produce a fertiliser in one state, under one set of laws, and then to sell it in another.
Angela Thomas, the technical manager for Yates, said not all companies put heavy-metal warnings on their packs even if, technically, they should.
She said there was little testing of products by state agricultural departments and no recent prosecutions for incorrect labelling.
"There was actually quite a strict way of registering fertilisers in each individual state but now a lot of the requirements for registrations have been rolled back," she said. "You just need to basically conform to the regulations. You don't have to submit an application to actually register a fertiliser."
Denis Butler, from the Chemical Residue Laboratory of NSW Agriculture, confirmed there was no testing regime in NSW.
He said that when the Fertiliser Act was revised in 1998 - it became law the following year - it was determined that "industry regulation would take over from government regulation in respect to fertiliser content and marketing".
In other words the companies would police themselves.
The Herald found a similar story when it contacted the chemical residue branches of other states. Only Victoria undertakes some form of testing, and then only once every two years.
"We all kind of looked over each other's shoulders and saw the way the wind was drifting," said Peter Rutherford, chemical co-ordinator for the West Australian Department of Agriculture.
"We saw ... our registration system was nothing more than a duplication of consumer protection provided by the Fair Trading Ministry, so we just said, 'Why impose that?' So we took it off."
Geoff Cowles, a senior registration officer with the department of primary industries in Queensland, said the rules were now similar to the Commonwealth tax system.
"The onus rests with the seller to get it right, so any product that is on the market in Queensland is assumed by this department to be complying with all respects of the legislation," he said.
"Our view is that provided the product hasn't exceeded the maximum permitted concentration [of heavy metals], the product should be reasonably safe to be on the market."
Asked how the department knew the levels were not exceeded, he said: "Well you don't because ... a product that is on the market is assumed by our department to be complying in every respect with the legislation.
"The only way you could find out would be if you were to investigate every batch of fertiliser that is on the market. We don't have the resources to do that.
"... One of the difficulties we have in the no-registration process is that we are really not in a good position to know ... what is on the market."
Forwarded by Jane Jones, National Pure Water Association, UK.


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