Chittenden County’s mandated compost facility faces major challenge in wake of chemical-laced compost

The Green Mountain Compost facility. Photo by Kate Robinson
The Green Mountain Compost facility. Photo by Kate Robinson

Green Mountain Compost (GMC), the Chittenden Solid Waste District subsidiary that replaced Intervale Compost Products just last year, is not an entrepreneurial venture. It is the outgrowth of a “waste management” ordinance in Chittenden County that reflects the passage of Act 78 in the Vermont legislature in 1987, legislation intended to reduce pressure on landfills by diverting usable “waste” to other purposes.

The ordinance requires recycling of all yard waste — “leaves, grass clippings and similar compostable materials.” A complex infrastructure run by CSWD has grown up to make use of the yard waste by making it part of a state-of-the-art composting process. Households and institutions all over the county can now easily turn in the waste. There are, nominally at least, fines for “unlawful disposal” and for leaf burning.

So the unfolding story at GMC is one of enormous frustration for solid waste district officials as they deal with the discovery that almost all of the soil products — mainly compost in bags or by the yard, but also raised bed mix and other mixes using compost — test positive for the persistent herbicides picloram and clopyralid.

GMC cannot suspend operations indefinitely because it is required to continue collecting the county’s yard waste.

CSWD has poured $2.3 million dollars into a facility that manager Dan Goossen says is, compared with the Intervale operation, “technologically more advanced by a long shot than we were there. We’re making a better product.” To which he adds, ruefully, “setting aside the herbicide issue.” The GMC website, advertising “Local, Sustainable, Wicked Good” soil products (“premium compost, topsoil, mulches and mixes”), was launched officially just this spring.

GMC sells products not just in Vermont but in New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and it produces nearly 7,000 tons of compost from the 10,000 to 15,000 tons of leaves, yard waste and food scraps delivered from about two-thirds of the households in Chittenden County and the many institutions, from schools to Fletcher Allen Health Care and grocery stores, which provide the large quantities of food waste — about 30 percent of all waste in Chittenden County — that make composting on this scale possible. (Composting also requires bulk wood chips, which come from local sawmills.) The added-value soil products, also using compost in one form or another, give another boost to the business.

The Green Mountain Compost half-baked compost. Photo by Kate Robinson
The Green Mountain Compost half-baked compost. Photo by Kate Robinson

Thousands of cubic yards of the garden gold are sold each year. Demand for the product has been steady and growing. Last year the company ran out of compost, though that was partly due to the transition from the Intervale to Williston. Now Green Mountain Compost will not be able to resume selling to gardeners this year.

The only good news is the contamination does not threaten human health. And lab results, though they can’t identify the human sources of the contamination, have narrowed the chemical sources down to the two herbicides. Green Mountain Compost has also been able to provide information for gardeners on its website and an online form to report abnormal plant growth.

CSWD estimates that there are 15,064 tons of compostable material coming just from Chittenden County businesses to the landfill each year. Walking around the facility on Redmond Road in Williston is a lesson in how to streamline turning vast quantities of odiferous, slimy waste — wet and dry greenery and weeds, horse manure and bedding and food scraps — into odorless, chocolate-colored, rich-in-nutrients and, until now, organic and chemical-free compost.

To achieve this transformation, the site has a series of gigantic bays with a roof to keep off water; a lagoon and an underground tank to collect all water that falls on the property, both to provide water needed in the composting process and to prevent runoff onto neighboring land—IBM, the immediate neighbor, made it clear they would not tolerate runoff from the operation. There is also a system of pipes in channels under the bays to blow air through the marinating compost so that it can quickly decompose and a series of fans for the careful aeration required and the six- to eight-month process goes on.

Green Mountain Compost projected income in the first year of operation at nearly $1 million. Then came reports from around the county of plants that had begun well but whose leaves and sometimes stems began to contort.

Damage even from the trace amounts of the herbicides present began to appear around June 25 as broadleaf garden plants like tomatoes and beans (other plants that can be affected are lettuce, peas, eggplants, peppers, potatoes and sunflowers) reached the stage when they would normally start leafing out. Instead, leaves and sometimes stems curled in on themselves, resembling nothing so much as a fern before it unfurls, as Tom Moreau, CSWD’s general manager, observed. It was an observation made in his own garden, where he began to notice the phenomenon the third week in June, about the time reports — which now number in the hundreds — from county gardeners began rolling in.

The series of lab results from Anatek Labs in Moscow, Idaho, one of the few labs in the United States with the sophistication to test down to one part per billion of chemical contamination, have shown 1.7 to 15.3 parts per billion (ppb). These levels, though not a health threat for humans, are enough to nip the affected crops in the bud. Tomatoes can be affected at 3 ppb, clover at below 1 ppb.

The picture is now grimmer because two main “feedstocks”– the ingredients that go into the compost “recipe” — showed some contamination, reflected in the GMC products. (Some topsoil, which GMC also sells, was the only one of their products that was clean.) More samples went out on July 5 and Moreau says that there will be ongoing tests, possibly with other labs, to try to learn more. Anatek cannot get a reading in manure or grass under 5 ppb, he says.

GMC products and deformed tomato. Photo by Kate Robinson
GMC products and deformed tomato. Photo by Kate Robinson

It is one of the mysteries bedeviling the investigation that both yard waste and horse manure/bedding, though not all samples of each, are showing up contaminated. Clare Innes, marketing coordinator for CSWD, says these herbicides are so tightly controlled for use on residential lawns that they must have been used improperly and, in the case of picloram, illegally.

Goossen adds that there is an apparent loophole in state controls: “Nobody, including the state pesticide regulators, had any idea of how much there could be in the state. The registry said ‘zero, zero, zero’ for the last three years. It’s quite obvious that that’s not the case.”

State pesticide regulators were surprised when he pointed out that you could buy these on eBay. “So have all the regulations you want, but if you can go on eBay, pay $20 and have a gallon of it shipped to your home, no questions asked, what good’s the regulation?”

A further complication is that different formulations of herbicides with almost identical names may or may not contain persistent herbicides. An example of the tortuous process of tracking down the sources of contamination cropped up July 9, when Milton seed and fertilizer company Oliver Seed reported that the weedkiller Confront, which contains clopyralid, was sold to Essex High School for use on athletic fields. As it turned out, this was a “dead end” since it was apparently a different product, called “Confront 3 with Dimension,” which does not contain clopyralid.

The tracking process established by the state of Vermont Department of Agriculture made one part of the search for the source easy. That’s because herbicides labeled “Do not send grass clippings to a compost facility” are among those whose sales must be registered with the state and should be applied by a professional.

Moreau has hopes that through the Washington State agriculture staff he and his staff will find more answers, since 12 years ago the state of Washington had a disaster that led to the banning of both persistent herbicides. Florida, Pennsylvania, and even New Zealand reported problems in 2000-2001 with clopyralid-containing herbicides.

Moreau says Dow re-registered picloram in 2008 and the EPA now makes anyone who uses it go through a lot more training. The problem, as he and others see it, is that the manufacturer’s responsibility still ends with putting a label on the herbicide container that warns against using the product on anything that might go into compostable materials. In fact, these federal regulations warn only about not using treated crops for mulch or compost in the year of application and in the case of both of the persistent herbicides in question, the Vermont Agriculture department warned as long ago as 2002 that studies “indicate the toxin can remain active after two or more years of aggressive composting.”

The other impracticable aspect is that with multiple parties involved between the application of the herbicide and the drop off of yard waste at CSWD’s plant, “the label business just isn’t working,” as he puts it. In 2002, Washington state agriculture experts warned “be careful if you make compost using grass clippings, grass hay or straw from unknown sources. Contamination can also occur from livestock bedding that includes treated material or from manure if treated crops have been fed to livestock.”

Moreau’s answer to the quandary, at least at this point? He wants Dow to have to make available to CSWD and others a Dow-sponsored testing lab which will analyze samples of, say, horse manure down to the level at which an herbicide can be toxic—in some cases under 1 ppb.

Connecting the dots

The Vermont state pesticide regulations were supposed to prevent just this kind of poisoning of compost feedstocks, in part because the herbicides become more concentrated as the composting process progresses.

Picloram is already a Restricted Use (RU) herbicide in Vermont, meaning that it cannot be applied by anyone but a licensed professional. Depending on the manner of application, Dow Agrosciences, which makes picloram (and sells it in many versions, some with Clopyralid, like Galera, some with 2,4-D, like Grazon P+D, and some with hexachlorobenzene, like Tordon K) advises wearing “personal protective equipment” when applying it. Any use is supposed to be reported to the state. One of the mysteries in this case is that the state has no records of picloram application in Vermont from 2009 through last year.

Green Mountain Compost inputs. Photo by Kate Robinson
Green Mountain Compost inputs. Photo by Kate Robinson

Clopyralid has not been registered as a Restricted Use product, but Dan Goossen expects it now will be. In an article in Agriview in 2002, the Vermont Department of Agriculture, based on the state of Washington’s experience, described it as “extremely toxic to legume crops such as peas and beans, tomatoes, potatoes and sunflowers at levels of about 10 parts per billion (ppb) or less. This level is 100 times lower than the tolerance allowed on asparagus, 50,000 times lower than the tolerance allowed on grasses, and 300 times lower than allowed on barley grain.”

Moreau and Goossen must also find ways to go on with the business of composting, mitigate their losses — they have insurance for loss and for “suspension of services” which they hope will come into play—and make whole the gardeners whose crops have been affected. And, not incidentally, find a way over the long term to start producing compost again.

What next?

Although CSWD is continuing to send samples to Anatek for testing, which costs $270 per sample plus shipping, that process cannot by itself solve the problem. CSWD will continue to reach out to other experts.

In addition, Goossen says an immediate project will be to do bioassays—studying the effects of their compost on plants. But planting peas in samples of compost to see if the damage from the herbicides continues will take up to eight weeks. He’s learned that the quick method—planting cucumber seeds and looking at results after two weeks—is inadequate when working with these kinds of persistent herbicides.

Goossen says he doesn’t think Vermonters are deliberately sending in materials with persistent herbicides in them. “More than likely, they are receiving materials that have them in it and the fact that that can happen is the problem,” Goossen adds.

Even samples of Intervale products that have been tested have turned out to have the herbicides. Clare Innes sums up the frustration: “The mystery is why it is showing up all of a sudden now? The way we’re finding it, where it’s showing up in our compost and when it showed up in people’s gardens. We just can’t connect those dots.” She says finding the right options is the goal but so far “when you crack into the implementations, they don’t pan out.” It’s a bit like “standing by and watching a fire and not being able to do anything.”

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Kate Robinson

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  • David Usher

    Kate Robinson’s excellent story about the confounding problem of commercial composting by the CSWD argues for home composting operations, where practical, to prevent this sort of trouble.

    Will CSWD and other Vermont commercial composting operations be forced to stop processing organic wastes in this manner? It seems the present controls are inadequate and the raw material for composting may be impossible to control.

  • mark floegel

    If it will, as it seems, cost significant amounts of money to make gardeners whole and if, as it seems, at least one of these herbicides was applied illegally, then perhaps either the Chittenden County state’s attorney or the VT attorney general should open an investigation.

  • David Booth

    If I had this problem, rather than remove all of the affected soil, I’d buy a bag of natural charcoal. “Cowboy” charcoal is a common brand. Soak a ten pound bag in water and some form of nitrogen (organic or synthetic; urine is widely available!). Crush the saturated charcoal with a makeshift pestle such as a 3-4″ tree branch, as finely as possible. Incorporate the crushed charcoal with a tiller or a spade. Water your garden fairly heavily as these herbicides are quite mobile, especially in light soils. The charcoal will bind with (adsorb) the herbicide, making it unavailable to the plant and keep it out of the groundwater. Over time bacteria will colonize the charcoal and break down the herbicide. You can also purchase activated charcoal online and perhaps locally. It is likely that CSWD will offer charcoal to some affected customers, but why wait?

  • Kai Forlie

    I find the shock surrounding this story interesting, particularly considering the fact that CSWD annually spreads millions of pounds of Class B human sludge contaminated with high levels of equally, if not far worse, substances on open- and farm-land in and around Chittenden County.

    Also curious is the fact that more recently companies like Casella (via their “New England Organics” subsidiary) – in consort with CSWD – are selling to the public and/or giving away contaminated Class A human sludge (which also contains many of the same toxic substances being itself but a slightly more processed form of Class B sludge) in the form of bulk and bagged soil amendment (check out their “Earthlife” product). Yet where is the outrage about this?

    GMC’s compost has been shown to contain two persistent herbicides, yet according to the EPA, Class A and B sludge (and the retail products containing them) is contaminated with anything that can be put down a drain. This regularly includes high levels of radioactive materials from hospitals and labs, heavy metals, petrochemicals (including pesticides, herbicides & fungicides), endocrine disputers, dioxins and other known carcinogens, flame retardants, pharmaceuticals, paint – you name it, it’s in there. Plus, sludge handlers are only required to test for but a tiny few of the known contaminates lurking in sludge.

    So just because applying contaminated sludge to gardens and farm-land may not result in immediate and/or obvious damage to flora, we are justified in ignoring the underlying threat the practice poses to all of us?

    I see something very wrong with our analysis of these problems and their consequences. There’s far more to this story than tainted compost!

  • Katharine Hikel,

    Bought a bag; nearly killed my tomatoes; am putting it on the cow parsnip creeping up the driveway.