Richard Mushaben feared for months that the city of Largo was selling fertilizer tainted with a toxic element that can cause cancer at high concentrations.
Mushaben is a biosolids operator at the city’s wastewater reclamation facility, where he helps treat human sewage and convert it into fertilizer products. Those products are sold to private companies, who spread the fertilizer pellets onto lawns, parks and golf courses.
The city was selling fertilizer contaminated with cadmium, he alleged in a January 2022 whistleblower letter to state and federal environmental regulators. When he tried to stop the sales, his supervisors told him to “stop monitoring cadmium levels,” he claimed.
More than a year after Mushaben raised red flags, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Florida environment regulators are lobbing penalties at the city after an investigation proved the city illegally sold more than 1,000 tons of contaminated fertilizer.
The city now faces more than $100,000 in fines, records show.
“We all have a responsibility for public safety and health,” Mushaben said in a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “This went on for months and months. The cadmium was high and they should have been getting rid of it.”
High exposures to cadmium can cause cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute, and studies have tied cadmium exposure to reproductive issues. Low exposures over time can cause cadmium to accumulate in kidneys, causing kidney disease and fragile bones.
The feds determined that between March 2020 and December 2021, the city sold cadmium-contaminated fertilizer that violated acceptable federal levels, according to a final order signed in late February.
The federal government says the ceiling for allowed cadmium concentration is 85 parts per million. At one point, in November 2020, the city exceeded that ceiling by 229%, according to federal records.
During the nine months where the cadmium concentrations were unacceptably high, the city sold a combined 1,169 tons of fertilizer, records show.
Records also show the city rarely landfilled the contaminated product, which is typical protocol when it has high levels of cadmium, Mushaben said.
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For instance, the city sold 245 tons of product in June 2021 alone, but landfilled only 500 pounds that month.
There were three months when the city sent nothing to the landfill, but continued selling the fertilizer.
The feds are proposing a $106,000 fine against the city for illegally selling the contaminated product, records show. After a public comment period on the penalties closes, payment will be due no sooner than May 17.
While federal regulators oversee the sale and distribution of contaminated fertilizer, the state regulates contamination in the fertilizer itself.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection found the city exceeded the average cadmium limit 21 times over a two-year period beginning in March 2020, state records show. The state levied a $42,000 fine against the city on Feb. 24, according to spokesperson Alexandra Kuchta.
The city had the option to either pay it or implement a restoration project valued at least 1½ times more than the fine. City officials have opted for the latter option, and will spend $84,000 on a digital camera system used to inspect sewer lines, according to Largo spokesperson Kate Oyer.
In a statement to the Times, Oyer said “as soon as the City became aware of the higher cadmium levels, it quickly began its successful investigation to identify and eliminate the source.”
That source, according to the state, was likely the city’s industrial customers not pre-treating their wastewater — which can include cadmium — before sending that dirtied water to the treatment plant, according to state spokesperson Brian Humphreys.
The city reached out to those industrial customers and reminded them they have a responsibility to pre-treat their water beforehand, Humphreys said. Largo also cleaned the sewer lines to remove cadmium that accumulated.
More than 80 letters were sent within Largo’s heavy industrial and commercial areas asking for information on illegal wastewater dumping, Oyer said. No one responded to the letter.
Beyond possible human health risks, wildlife could be harmed by exposure to cadmium, according to Ragan Whitlock, attorney for the Florida-based Center for Biological Diversity.
Cadmium “is toxic even at low concentrations to plants, fish, birds, mammals (including humans) and microorganisms,” Whitlock said. “Exposure to even low levels of cadmium pollution can lead to severe effects including death in threatened and endangered species.”
“They needed the help from insiders”
In his January 2022 letter, Mushaben alleged the city was selling its contaminated products to ProPlus Products, Inc., a Bowling Green-based private fertilizer distributor.
The state designates the fertilizer created by Largo’s facility as “Class AA” biosolid — the “highest quality” of biosolid that can be distributed and marketed like other commercial fertilizers, according to the environmental protection department.
ProPlus used to have a small commercial organic fertilizer product it bought solely from the city until the company was contacted by the feds about the contaminated product, according to the company’s owner, Christina Lyle.
“As a result of our discussions with the (federal government) about the City of Largo’s biosolids, ProPlus and the City mutually agreed to terminate the contract,” Lyle wrote to the Times in an emailed statement. “ProPlus no longer utilizes or sells any biosolid products.”
Because the fertilizer is classified as AA grade, it’s approved to be used in any fertilizer application including commercial, residential or agricultural, Lyle said.
“Not all cities manage their sewage as a biosolid fertilizer, but the ones that do are required to follow applicable ... guidelines,” Lyle wrote. “The City of Largo is no different.”
Because of the violations, the city is now testing more frequently for cadmium as water enters its treatment facility. Treated biosolid test results have remained below the cadmium concentration limit since March 2022, according to Humphreys.
Mushaben, 60, has been on worker’s compensation leave with the city since January 2022 for an unrelated injury, he said, but the city confirmed to the Times he is still an employee. Nobody at the city lost their job or was suspended over the violations, Oyer said.
Out of fear the city might retaliate, Mushaben had sought the help of an attorney, Gary Printy Jr. of Tampa, to help put his worries into words early last year, he said.
Together, the pair compiled the whistleblower letter that would ultimately launch the federal intervention.
“It’s good to know the EPA takes this thing seriously and they were able to police it from afar,” Printy Jr. said in an interview. “But they needed the help from insiders, otherwise there’s no way they would’ve known this was happening.”