Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Have some lead with your french fries? Seattle Times reporter Wilson delivers a crackerjack investigative report on the toxic wastes in the fertilizer that helps grow the food on your table. This story centers around the small town of Quincy, Washington, where fertilizer heavily laced with toxic sludge was thought to be destroying cropland and sickening animals. A little research, spearheaded by the town's (soon to be ex-) mayor discovered absurd quantities of such heavy metals as cadmium, beryllium, arsenic, and chromium, for starters, in the soil where the fertilizer had been applied. Attempting to protest, they soon learned a bitter truth: It's legal to dump toxic waste in such fashion, just as it is to add it to road de-icers. They also earned the ire of the local recyclers of hazardous waste, the fertilizer industry, and the chemical industry. The mayor got in touch with Wilson. "It would not be inaccurate to call me a muckraker," he admits, and he's a damn good one, too. Wilson shows how loopholes in the law, a blind eye from such regulatory bodies as the EPA, and a fierce desire by those with toxic waste on their hands to save a buck has resulted in heavy metals entering the food chain all across the country. Call it a soil amendment, and you can recycle arsenic, waste oils, acid, flue dust, pesticides, solvents, and zinc dross with a touch of nitrogen and call it fertilizer. They have even mixed radioactive wastes into fertilizer. Industry and government will not take action until there has been a proven link between the fertilizer and disease; readers can only hope that this investigation will help spur that research and make the connection impossible to ignore. An appalling story of industry abuse and regulatory stupidity (and that's the generous reading).
Arsenic, cadmium, lead, beryllium: industrial byproducts so toxic it is illegal to dump them into the air or water. Yet, through a loophole in "the crazy semantics of waste disposal," these same hazardous wastes are being applied to the food we eat. And until a small-town mayor from a farming community in Washington State became suspicious, nobody knew. Mayor Patty Martin is a whistleblower as extraordinary as Karen Silkwood and Erin Brockovich--smart, persistent, courageous, and overwhelmingly dedicated to her cause even when the town that elected her turned against her. Martin's obsession with hazardous waste in fertilizer began when she met Dennis DeYoung, a local farmer whose land was rendered infertile after the Cenex/Land O'Lakes company paid him to spread the residue from their fertilizer rinse pond on his land. But there was more than fertilizer residue there--it was a witches' brew of hazardous metals, cancer-causing chemicals, and even radioactive materials that hadn't been produced by the company itself. DeYoung and Martin wanted to know how they got there and why. Duff Wilson, an investigative journalist for the Seattle Times, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his series "Fear in the Fields--How Hazardous Wastes Become Fertilizer," which formed the basis of this book. While the articles prompted a modicum of action in Washington State and elsewhere, complacency allows the practice to continue even now. Expanded into book form, this impassioned exposť about an alarming trend takes on even more power as Wilson and Martin ask questions the EPA has been unwilling to answer: Why should there be a limit on the amount of lead in paint and dioxin in cement but not in the fertilizer spread over farmlands and gardens? And is there a correlation between the widespread use of toxins in fertilizers and the phenomenal rise in childhood illnesses and cancers since the early 1980s? --Lesley Reed
In this alarming, real-life version of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, Patty Martin, a housewife, mother of four and mayor of the small farming town of Quincy, Wash., began to notice a pattern of failing crops, infertile topsoil and rare diseases in her community in the early 1990s. When she asked tough questions about the pattern, she received evasions and resistance from some local businesses and farmers, which only made her dig deeper. Martin found that a product manufactured with sludge from a waste pond in town, sold as fertilizer and spread on local farms, stunted crops, destroyed quality topsoil and left high concentrations of such heavy metals as cadmium, chromium and beryllium not usually present in fertilizers. As Martin pursued links between fertilizers, hazardous waste and public health risks, she, like Ibsen's protagonist, became increasingly unpopular in the town she was trying to protect. Growing beyond the conflict in Quincy, Wilson's investigation (which led to a 1997 series of articles that were nominated for Pulitzer Prize consideration) revealed that under prevailing state and federal laws, polluting industries throughout the U.S. saved millions of dollars by sending hazardous waste to fertilizer makers who in turn recycled the toxic chemicals into a product sold to farmers and consumers without disclosing what was in it. In the resulting outcry, Washington State became the first to insist that fertilizer companies provide detailed chemical analyses of their products. Wilson's copious reporting and Patty Wilson's example make a convincing case for a national policy on hazardous materials recycling. Agent, Elizabeth Wales. (Sept. 13) Forecast: This lucid presentation of the facts will stir the passions of readers already concerned about environmental issues, but those accustomed to more gut-wrenching accounts of similar transgressions, like A Civil Action and the film Erin Brockovich, won't be drawn in as easily.
A disturbing expose by the Seattle Times reporter reveals the shocking conspiracy by leading American manufacturers to dump dangerous toxic chemicals by disguising them as fertilizers.
From the Publisher
Fateful Harvest is a riveting exposť developed from the series of articles for the Seattle Times that made Duff Wilson a Pulitzer Prize finalist. This narrative reveals the shocking details of American manufacturing industries that dump toxic waste into our soil by passing it off as fertilizer. As the corporations are denying their activities, horses and cows are dying, children are falling ill, and there is a disproportionate incidence of cancer. It is the story of a small town mayor and a handful of farmers pitted against a powerful and secretive industry, and the struggle of a lone reporter to unravel the truth in the face of intimidation, lies, and lawyers.
In the tradition of A Civil Action and The Coming Plague, Duff Wilson's Fateful Harvest exposes horrific details of corporations poisoning America to save themselves a few bucks, victims too easily bought by their enemy, and small-town, larger-than-life heroes-all filtered through the impassioned voice of an award-winning investigative journalist.
From Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature:
This is Erin Brockovich squared. An industry behaves with supreme irresponsibility, and a local resident sets out to do something about it. She's aided by a reporter, who tells the inside story of what investigative journalism really entails. Read it now so you'll be ready for the movie.
From Sherry Sontag, co-author of Blind Man's Bluff
As I read Fateful Harvest, I was torn. I didn't know if I was more enthralled by the story or horrified by what Duff Wilson has uncovered. Whether you grab this book for the gripping tale or for the toxic truth about what is ruining our nation's farmlands, you won't be able to put it down.
From Nicols Fox, author of Spoiled: Why Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It
Duff Wilson has documented a horrifying tale of toxic waste turned into fertilizer that is contaminating the food supply. This is efficiency gone mad. Coupled with a corrupt system willing to turn poisons into profit, it makes unwitting victims of us all. What I always wonder is what the bosses of these companies eat. Perhaps they are more highly evolved and simply live on their own press releases. Woe to the rest of us who need clean food.
Book jacket copy
Quincy, Washington, had been a sleepy northwestern farming town until its rest is disturbed by a shocking secret beneath its once-fertile fields: chemical manufacturers are disposing of leftover toxic waste by selling it to unsuspecting farmers as fertilizer. The tainted fertilizer -- containing arsenic and cadmium, lead and dioxins-is believed to be destroying crops, sickening animals, and endangering the nation's food supply. And owing to a gaping regulatory loophole, it is completely legal.
Up against the secrecy and greed of powerful corporations, a local lifelong tomboy and mother of four will make an impassioned stand. Patty Martin begins a fateful journey that will lead to her election as mayor, but also invite the resentment of most of her neighbors for daring to confront the industry that has been Quincy's lifeblood. Martin is joined by a small number of brave farmers who bring ingenuity, outrage, and an investigative reporter to the fight against seemingly insurmountable odds to expose the truth. They learn that toxic waste is turned into fertilizer around the world, spread on food-growing land, absorbed by plants, and, ultimately, consumed by all of us.
Duff Wilson, whose Seattle Times series on this story was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, here provides the definitive account of a new and alarming environmental scandal. Fateful Harvest is a gripping study of corruption and courage, of recklessness and reckoning. It is a story that speaks to the greatest fears -- and ultimate hope -- in us all.
Duff Wilson is a reporter at the Seattle Times. His work has been awarded a Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting from Harvard University and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. He lives near Seattle with his wife and two children.
Email the author: [email protected]
Fateful Harvest -- Excerpts: (source: fatefulharvest.com/
THE ROAD TO QUINCY crosses the Columbia River and rises to the greening fields where fortunes are won and lost on the whims of markets and the weather. Farms line the highway. Farm dogs lie on driveways soaking up the sun. The fields are marked with roadside signs: BEANS . . . CORN . . . POTATOES . . . WHEAT. The people here like to say they feed the world.
My car speeds toward the small town in the distance. State Route 281 goes straight as a survey line. I drive in the quiet, windows open, sun high. The air smells fresh with life soon to bloom. Only an occasional truck shares the road with me, the newspaper reporter slipping into town to watch the mayor of Quincy in action in enemy territory: the town that elected her.
I'm going to see them try to shut her up.
I remember my surprise at first meeting the small-town mayor. I imagined someone like my wizened great-aunt. I hadn't expected Patty Martin to be young, tall, and an attractive mother of four. And I hadn't expected her to make so many accusations against somany pillars of her community.
She claims toxic chemicals are being turned into fertilizers and slowly poisoning some of our food. In her telling, many of the worst chemicals known to twentieth-century industrial pollution -- arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, dioxins, and so on through the alphabet of deadly waste -- are being sneaked into common farm and garden fertilizers. Hazardous waste is mixed with plant food, she says, to save industry money instead of being buried, burned, or purified safely.
And nobody knows about it. That's the kicker. Nobody knows.
From Chapter 1: Small Town Stories . . .
The day before Sunshine's death, Ma had started showing signs of distress. Ruthann checked her again as soon as she got back home from the veterinarian, empty trailer in tow. Ma was worse. The old horse worried and fretted and started straining like Sunshine had. The next morning, after one of the worst nights of her life, Ruthann knew she couldn't let Ma suffer like Sunshine had.
She led the mare to the place out back where horses were buried on the farm, crying all the way. She could hardly see to open the gate on the fence and to put a bullet in the gun.
"I had to take her out there and I stood her up and she kind of looked at me and I petted her and she looked at me in the eye and then she kind of dropped her head and closed her eyes like this, and it was just the perfect shot. It was like, 'Okay, I know you gotta do this,' and she just made it easier for me."
From Chapter 6: The Magic Silo . . .
"When it goes into our silo, it's a hazardous waste. 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."
Richard Camp Jr. talking. One of the top hazardous-waste-to-fertilizer dealers in the nation, Camp knew why. He knew it better than anyone: Why EPA stopped regulating that waste partway down the silo. Why there was so much money to make.
Camp exuded schmooze. As he had sold steel mills on the idea of paying him to take their worst waste, and sold farmers on paying him for the privilege of putting it on their land, Camp, personally, had also sold the EPA on the wisdom of the idea. No one found out till later. Dick Camp was that good a salesman.
It was a spring day in 1997 when Camp visited me at the Seattle Times. I'd called him after hearing about him in California. He wanted to sell me on the idea there was no story here. Camp strolled into the newsroom talking enthusiastically, greeting the managing editor, Alex MacLeod, who'd been a fraternity brother of his. Later Alex told me he wouldn't be surprised at anything Camp was up to, and rolled his eyes.
My desk was piled with files on the investigation that threatened Camp's operation. He kept glancing at the files as he talked with me. I didn't mind the free look. I've always wanted to be as open as I can with investigative targets because I want them to be open with me. We sat down in an editor's glass cage near Alex's. I opened my notebook, asked one question -- basically, "What's going on?" -- and Camp talked for the next hour.
Dick Camp was big -- six foot three, 250 pounds -- and voluble. His father was even bigger and friendlier. His father's story was the start of the hazardous waste-to-fertilizer business in America.
From Chapter 7: Power and Proof . . .
By now I could name names across the nation. I knew the simple facts. Polluting industries saved millions of dollars sending hazardous waste to fertilizer makers. The toxics in the waste were neither limited by law nor tested by government nor disclosed to users.
Farmers and gardeners were buying products containing unknown, hidden levels of unsafe toxic chemicals. If they did not know about the risks, then they could not take precautions. Those chemicals persisted in topsoil for years. They flew in the dust, were breathed by children, were absorbed by plants, and entered our food, according to careful studies by leading scientists.
From Chapter 9: Lawyers and Losses . . .
So then Tom worked for his sister. He worked a hundred hours a week, and he was diagnosed with diabetes.
"It's really hard, but we've been through worse," he said. "We used to have to delay getting the water on the hay because we didn't have the money. We used to have to delay hay cutting because we didn't have enough money to buy gas or diesel or bailer's twine. We used to have to buy gas by the five-gallon can.
"Then you buy it by the fifty-gallon barrel. Then you put a couple hundred in. That's how you climb out of it. Right now we're buying gas by the five hundred gallons."
He paused. "There's not many people as good at surviving as us."
Eventually Cenex made a settlement offer to dismiss the suit over the toxic chemicals in the fertilizer tank. Witte accepted. Cenex gave Tom $2,500 and paid his lawyer fees and wiped clean his $156,000 debt. "We settled to get it over with," Tom said.
The Internal Revenue Service bill, inflated from five thousand to sixty thousand dollars because of interest and penalties, was negotiated down to twenty-nine thousand dollars. Nancy paid half, then the IRS seized the Wittes' check from Darigold to pay the rest. "They stole the milk check," Witte said.
That made it harder for a while. Tom couldn't pay for straw for the cows. Nancy scraped up the money.
The Martin family stored some salmon in the Wittes' big freezer. One day Tom told Patty that his freezer had come unplugged and the salmon had been spoiled. He laughed nervously, as was his habit; he was sorry. When Patty told Glenn, he was angry.
He hated the Wittes. They'd attacked Lamb Weston's french fries with the title of their reckless paper, and now they ruined the fish Glenn and one of his sons had brought back from Alaska.
Glenn didn't want Patty to have anything to do with them any more.
Fateful Harvest Press Release.
Washington Toxics Coalition website.
Toxic Sludge Is Good for You!: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry.
Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future.
Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law, and Endangers Your Health.
"Toxic Wastes 'Recycled' as Fertilizer Threaten U.S. Farms and Food Supply: Dioxin, Lead, Mercury Spread on Crops As States Scramble to Protect Public Health" (EWG).
First and only EPA Public Hearing on toxics in fertilizer, Seattle, September 20, 2001.
EPA Waste-Derived Fertilizers website
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