Agriculture: Nutrient Management and Fertilizer

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Most fertilizers that are commonly used in agriculture contain the three basic plant nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Some fertilizers also contain certain "micronutrients," such as zinc and other metals, that are necessary for plant growth. Materials that are applied to the land primarily to enhance soil characteristics (rather than as plant food) are commonly referred to as soil amendments.

Fertilizers and soil amendments can be derived from virgin raw material, composts and other organic matter, and wastes, such as sewage sludge and certain industrial wastes. Overuse of fertilizers has resulted in contamination of surface water and groundwater.

Fertilizers made from domestic septage and sewage sludge (biosolids) 

Biosolids are nutrient-rich organic materials resulting from the treatment of domestic sewage in a treatment facility. When treated and processed, these residuals can be recycled and applied as fertilizer to improve and maintain productive soils and stimulate plant growth.  Biosolids are treated sewage sludge. Biosolids are carefully treated and monitored and must be used in accordance with regulatory requirements.

EPA offers guidance and technical assistance for the beneficial recycling of biosolids as soil amendments and fertilizer. The use of these valuable materials can enhance water quality, pollution prevention, and sustainable agriculture.

Sewage sludge that is used in agriculture is regulated under the Clean Water Act, and is currently subject to concentration limits for the metals arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, and zinc.

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Manure as fertilizer

Agricultural producers can return manure and crop residues to the soil as fertilizers or soil conditions on their own property unless prohibited by other State or local laws.

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Nutrient pollution

Agriculture - Animal manure, excess fertilizer applied to crops and fields, and soil erosion make agriculture one of the largest sources of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the country.

Estimated Animal Agriculture Nitrogen and Phosphorus from Manure - Animal agriculture manure is a primary source of nitrogen and phosphorus to surface and groundwater. Manure runoff from cropland and pastures or discharging animal feeding operations and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) often reaches surface and groundwater systems through surface runoff or infiltration.

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Commercial fertilizer

Commercial Fertilizer Purchased - Fertilizer is a primary source of nitrogen and phosphorus and often reaches surface and groundwater systems through farm or urban/suburban runoff or infiltration. Implementing best management practices and employing precision agriculture methods to ensure appropriate fertilizer application can significantly reduce fertilizer nitrogen and phosphorus use and runoff.

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Recycling ammonia emissions as fertilizer

The USDA Agricultural Research Service has patented a new technology that can remove ammonia from livestock wastewater and recycle it as a fertilizer.

USDA Agricultural Research Service

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Fertilizers made From wastes

Industrial waste materials are often used in fertilizers as a source of zinc and other micronutrient metals. Current information indicates that only a relatively small percentage of fertilizers is manufactured using industrial wastes as ingredients, and that hazardous wastes are used as ingredients in only a small portion of waste-derived fertilizers. Some fertilizers and soil amendments that are not derived from waste materials can nevertheless contain measurable levels of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and cadmium.

EPA's longstanding policy encourages the beneficial reuse and recycling of industrial wastes, including hazardous wastes, when such wastes can be used as safe and effective substitutes for virgin raw materials. Although EPA is examining whether some fertilizers or soil conditioners may contain potentially harmful levels of contaminants, the Agency believes that some wastes can be used beneficially in fertilizers when properly manufactured and applied.

Concerns have been raised regarding the use of certain wastes in the manufacture of agricultural fertilizers and soil amendments, and the potential for ecological or human health risks, as well as crop damage, when such fertilizers are applied to farmlands.

For fertilizers that contain hazardous waste, EPA standards specify limits on the levels of heavy metals and other toxic compounds that may be contained in the fertilizer products. These concentration limits were based on the "best demonstrated available technology" for reducing the toxicity and mobility of the hazardous constituents. However, fertilizer made from one specific type of hazardous waste air pollution control dust generated during steel manufacturing is not subject to those concentration limits. This exemption was based on a 1988 finding by EPA that the composition of this particular waste is comparable to the materials that would otherwise be used to make this type of fertilizer, and that its typical use was not harmful. All other fertilizers that contain hazardous wastes are, however, subject to the contaminant concentration limits established by EPA.

In some States, the regulations on hazardous waste use in fertilizers may be more stringent than the Federal standards, since States can adopt regulations that are more stringent and/or broader in scope than the Federal regulations.

For food chain crops, farming can occur on land where hazardous constituents are applied as long as the agricultural producer receives a permit from the EPA Regional Administrator. Agricultural producers must demonstrate that there is no substantial risk to human health caused by the growth of such crops.

Unless prohibited by other State or local laws, agricultural producers can dispose of solid, non-hazardous agricultural wastes on their own property.  This includes manure and crop residues returned to the soil as fertilizers or soil conditioners, and solid or dissolved materials in irrigation return flows.

Telephone assistance from EPA

RCRA Hotline 800-424-9346 or TDD 800-553-7672.

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