MOXEE, Wash. (AP) — Fifteen years after its process of turning industrial waste into fertilizer helped spawn a statewide controversy, a Moxee plant is still one of the nation’s top producers of zinc fertilizer — and it’s expanding.
But in the aftermath of negative press and new state regulations, the company overhauled its process and built a new plant that no longer repurposes zinc-rich waste material from smelter flue dust and the remains of burned tires, which once raised concerns about lead and cadmium contamination.
A 1997 Seattle Times investigation found that a few companies were ducking expensive hazardous waste disposal requirements by selling material cheaply to fertilizer manufacturers, including the Moxee company, then known as Bay Zinc. At the time, there was no regulation in the U.S. for heavy metal levels in fertilizer.
“Once those articles came out, more and more people said, ‘I don’t want to buy that product,”’ said Rick Camp, general manager of the Moxee plant now known as Kronos Micronutrients. As for “the process and products that got written about in the late 1990s? Nobody does that anymore.”
Now, the fertilizer manufacturer buys a byproduct from steel galvanizing that is about 70 percent zinc, Camp said. It’s mixed with water and sulfuric acid to create zinc sulfide, which is then filtered to remove the toxic lead and cadmium before being dried into the granules for the final product.
“Wherever you get zinc from nature, there’s going to be lead and cadmium associated with it,” Camp said. “Our process generates waste, there’s no way around that.”
The filtering process, however, gets those dangerous metals out of the fertilizer so that it meets state standards and turns them into hazardous waste, which is shipped to a chemical waste landfill in northern Oregon.
The feed material that the company now buys is not considered hazardous, said Brian Dixon, who manages the regional hazardous waste program for the state Department of Ecology.
Making that hazardous waste means the fertilizer is safer and the toxic metals are properly disposed of, Dixon said. But in the past, he added, the plant has had some problems managing its waste.
In 2002, a regular inspection found that a load of the hazardous waste that should have gone to the landfill was dumped on the ground, and contaminated groundwater was discovered. That, along with the lingering effect of flue dust and tire ash that had blown off of conveyor belts in the past, required a four-year cleanup process that cost the company $1.5 million, Dixon said.
Since 2006, when the cleanup finished removing 13 tons of contaminated soil, Ecology has found only minor infractions at the plant, such as unlabeled or open containers, Dixon said. Ten monitoring wells remain on the 11-acre site to ensure that no contaminated groundwater moves toward neighbors’ wells.
“Whenever we’ve asked them to change or fix something, they’ve done it,” Dixon said. “That’s not to say there haven’t been problems over the years, but they have put a considerable amount of time and money into cleaning up and making sure they don’t contaminate things anymore.”
In 2012, the site was inspected by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, but results of that inspection have not been finalized.
In 2007, Rick Camp formed Kronos Micronutrients as a new company to buy Bay Zinc from his father, Dick Camp. The company’s 35 employees stayed put.
Camp said the new name was not a move to duck bad publicity. Buying out the business, he said, was a better way for him to take over so his father could retire, although he has stayed on as a consultant. Kronos Micronutrients also bought Bay Zinc’s trademark fertilizer name, BLU-MIN.
Zinc is necessary for crop health, but plants only need a small amount, hence the name micronutrient. Apples and other tree fruit are particularly sensitive to zinc deficiencies, Camp said, which is why his grandfather started the business in Washington decades ago.
Like all fertilizers sold in Washington, Kronos regularly submits lab analysis of its product to the state. The acceptable levels of toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury are based on how much of the fertilizer is applied to fields, said Ted Maxwell with the state Department of Agriculture.
When the regulations took effect in 1998, Maxwell said, almost all the fertilizers passed, but a few micronutrient companies, including Bay Zinc, had to change their processes to pass. Now, he said, all U.S. manufacturers meet the standards.
Washington was the first state to enact standards, after concerns arose about the lack of oversight to prevent potentially toxic elements from ending up in fertilizers made from industrial wastes.
Camp maintains that there was never solid evidence that the old product contained enough heavy metals to be dangerous when used as directed, because such a small amount is applied to fields. He still believes in recycling zinc-rich byproducts from other industries, if it meets safety standards.
In fact, the reason Kronos is building new storage capacity now is to take advantage of a new feed material, Camp said. The new tanks will store liquid zinc sulfate bought from a smelter.
“It’s great because they have these processes in place to take out the impurities from the zinc ore. They can take out lead, cadmium and other heavy metals without any problem, but they can’t take out magnesium and calcium,” Camp said. “But, having magnesium and calcium in agricultural product is not a problem.”
Bryon Adams, the Moxee city manager who handled the permits for the tank expansion, said using this feed will mean less hazardous waste for Kronos to manage. The new storage plans didn’t raise any concerns of environmental risks for state and federal regulatory agencies, Adams said.
Camp calls it a “win-win,” another way to keep his business competitive, although it will only increase production slightly.
Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakimaherald.com