Moving 'Heirloom Chemicals' Out Of Farmers' Fields

Mar 26, 2013

Year after year many pesticides farmers use expire or are banned. Often these chemicals pile up in barns and storage sheds until farmers can find a safe way to dispose of them. EarthFix reporter Courtney Flatt visited a pesticide collection center in Wenatchee to find out what exactly happens to the chemicals.

A cleanup worker shows off a bag of DDT.
Credit Courtney Flatt / EarthFix


   Five men don yellow jumpsuits, with safety goggles and plastic gloves. Ventilators distort their voices. They walk around a plastic sheet dubbed the “hot zone.” This is where they help farmers unload their unneeded pesticides and herbicides.

Some of these chemicals can be extremely dangerous. That’s one reason the Washington State Department of Agriculture wants to get them out of farmers’ backyards. Joe Hoffman points to a small container sealed in a plastic bag.

Hoffman: “Five drops of that not washed off on your skin is enough to kill someone our size.”

Hoffman holds a clipboard with pesticide codes marked in yellow highlighter. He’s been organizing these pick-up events for more than 20 years. Hoffman jokes:

Hoffman: “It’s a life’s work.”

Hoffman says in the beginning farmers brought in lots of highly toxic, banned chemicals. Stuff they’d just been holding on to for years. And although that’s slowed down now, some of more toxic materials are still turning up.

John Griffith inherited a pear and apple orchard from his father. Workers pull a bag of DDT from his truck bed. DDT was banned 41 years ago.

Griffith: “We call them heirloom chemicals. (laughs) When my father was running the orchard, they didn’t have these kind of collections. So, they didn’t really know how to get rid of things that weren’t legal anymore, so they just stored them.”

And before that:

Griffith: “A long time ago they used to just dig it in a hole and bury it in the ground.”

But Griffith says farmers try to be more careful than that these days.

Workers sort the 19-thousand-pounds of pesticides and herbicides collected in central Washington. The chemicals will then be shipped to Arkansas or Utah to be incinerated – along with the containers that store them.

Kevin Lundberg is a project manager with Clean Harbors. That’s the company that will dispose of the chemicals.

Lundberg: “When it gets incinerated, it turns into ash, and it’s gone. It’s done.”

In the past 25 years, Washington has collected nearly 2.7 million pounds of pesticides. Idaho has collected 1.3 million pounds of pesticide in 20 years. Idaho collected a record amount of pesticides in 2012.

But Oregon is a different story. In Oregon most pesticide programs are left to cities and counties. The state offers sporadic pick-ups every few years. Over the last six years, the state has collected 200,000 pounds.

Kevin Masterson is the toxics coordinator at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. He says money is the barrier to a more effective program.

Masterson: “It’s certainly inadequate to address the need. In some cases we’ve gone to the same areas multiple times, and we see an increasing amount of waste, which tells us we really haven’t seen the end of this. I wouldn’t say we haven’t scratched the surface – we have – but we certainly have a lot more to collect.”

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has included a $1.5 million pesticide stewardship package in his recommended budget.

The Washington program is funded through a hazardous substance tax. The tax is up for renewal by the state legislature this year. Right now the program gets $1 million every two years.

Back in Wentachee, farmers roll into the collection center all morning. Several have converted to organic practices and no longer use chemical pesticides. Others have retired.

Michael Jurgens has used this service before. He hauls in the largest load of the day. Jurgens has just bought a new orchard. Along with it came nearly a ton of unusable chemicals. A forklift helps move the containers to the sorting area.

Jurgens: “Every time we buy a new orchard or lease a new orchard it seems like there's chemicals that can't be used anymore.”

This year’s biggest surprise: a 1950s-era canister of sodium arsenite. That chemical was replaced by DDT, the pesticide John Griffith brought in earlier. Griffith says he had to be careful with the older chemicals.

Griffith: “And a lot of these chemicals – in my particular case – haven’t been legal for 20 or 30 years. So I had to figure out what it was, and a lot of the bags were getting so old that they were starting to deteriorate, so it was actually getting to be kind of a dangerous contamination problem.”

Program director Joe Hoffman says that’s one reason it’s important to get these chemicals out of the fields and into the flames.

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio