A Flue Gas Wasteland © by Leo Willner

In a humorous cartoon, the infamous Pink Panther is trying to clean out a messy empty pink paint bucket, as all hell breaks loose. Pretty soon, to his considerable dismay, he manages to spread pink paint all over the sink. And on and on it goes when in his attempt to clean the sink he now manages to get pink paint spread all over the house, much to his greater and greater dismay. If that sounds a bit like the comedy team of the EPA and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) managing coal-burning electric power plant created synthetic gypsum, it is indeed their well-meaning act. 

Such a tale unfolds day by day with the burning of coal in our electric power plants whose flue gas emission toxins are then well cleaned and converted chemically into synthetic gypsum and clean air.  Followed these days by selling this solid waste to farmers as a soil enhancer! But is it indeed safe? Yes, some or even much, but not all of the time, while due to its chemistry and a lack of active regulation and testing it remains an active safety concern.  Where, at times, with a bit of mercury here and a bit of arsenic there, plus other heavy metals, harmful toxins can by misdirection seep into the ground and in time into the food supply of our children. Thus, possible safety issues remain. Especially, as these heavy metals will tend in this way to accumulate from season to season under the ground, contaminating the soil where they lie. 

Do its producers mean to do harm, lay waste to pristine soil, or endanger our people? Of course not. Indeed, they are for the most part good corporate citizens. Yet, meaning to, or not, they have managed as a comedy duo to convert a coal burning air pollution threat into a potential farm soil quality and contamination risk. How very ironic is that? 

The Chinese in particular, are grand masters of this very act, once causing a housing scandal of great magnitude in Florida and Texas as hundreds of new homes were devasted with the foul odor of their synthetic gypsum, sold off as a safe drywall material. As for US farming, millions of tons of this costly to dispose waste, are innocently placed into farm soil day by day out of US power plants, as a minerals source and soil enhancer. Where the term ‘soil enhancer’ could in the long run become a punch line in a not too funny poor chemistry misstep.  The farmers of the Midwest are not stupid, not at all, but they are under increasing pressure to hold down their costs. 

Thus, we have a possibly misguided economic benefit to farmers offered by the EPA, EPRI and, of all people, the good folks at Ohio State agriculture research. Saying, in unison to farmers and US homemakers, ‘it’s okay, not to worry’! Which to many millions of folks is quite satisfactory. Yet, truth be told, the facts on the use of synthetic gypsum as a soil enhancement remain, for many, unsettled and unclear, with its safety and utility still questioned.

In a country where natural, as well as technology-based, troubles have flourished for years and years, as with lead in paints, pharma sponsored deadly drugs, talcum powder, sodium nitrate, high fructose corn syrup, ineffective DUI enforcement, barbecuing with charcoal, and other mild poisons, foolishness, and carcinogens, what is the problem? Say with a bit of mercury here, bismuth there, arsenic, lead etc. in our food chain processes? 

Noteworthy, at an exclusive private dinner for the head of the FDA hosted years ago by the CEOs of the leading food companies of America, we were reminded by the commissioner that his job did not involve worrying about food safety as much as obeying and carefully adhering to congressional mandates and orders. On the same occasion my fellow CEOs shared a similar viewpoint, stating that their duty was simply to adhere to FDA rules and procedures, and not involve themselves nearly as much with questions of food safety. Thus, neither the FDA nor the heads of the food industry  that they had to concern themselves directly with food safety, as that issue went up the line to the US Congress and its politicians. Who, in turn, are more often than not too busy, as with getting reelected, tax cuts and such, to pay this topic too much attention. Taken together, food safety in America at its highest level reminds one of a pink panther paint cleanup comedy, which is well-meaning but not necessarily all that smart. All the while, year-after-year, the rising rate of new cancers and cancer deaths marches on – like a song without an end. 

When we are told that a food source is quite safe, yet comes out of an unsavory polluted environment, are we still good with eating it.  Say, with oysters and shrimp out of the polluted Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam harbor? Are we okay with that? On the International Space Station, our astronauts have on occasion little choice but to drink each other’s highly reprocessed urine, as clean water. And, I would suggest, so would we. But, given a choice and full transparency, would we not hesitate? Indeed, given a choice, would we not prefer a bit higher cost in our fertilizers and soil enhancers, rather than feeding our children with food out of soil that has been treated with a synthetic gypsum (or by analogy with some highly reprocessed urine)? In this case, with material derived out of burning a highly contaminated carcinogenic fuel, such as coal. Namely the synthetic coal-based gypsum known as FGDG or Flue Gas Desulfurization Gypsum.

In the popular press, this issue focuses, if at all, mainly on whether on the surface this synthetic seems pure and safe enough for use as a soil enhancer. Yet, while most important, this is not the sole or even the basic issue with its use with many cautious people. Instead, the issue often comes down to how much of a premium they are willing to pay for pure food, grown on truly safe ground, wherein only carefully monitored natural materials are allowed into the soil. 

While FGDG may at times be as untainted as natural high-purity gypsum, known as CSD, out of a mine, it often remains a somewhat unknown quantity, as it is not commonly tested for heavy metals, while the natural mined mineral is monitored at each step of the process and fully tested prior to its sale and use.  On top of that, based on long experience, many Americans have learned to be skeptical and to avoid synthetic compounds in their foodstuff and medicine cabinets.  Indeed, it seems as if most families have been touched by cancer and its great sorrows. To them, each ounce of prevention is worth many times a pound of cure.

Contrary to politics, regulations on their own are neither necessarily good nor bad. Meaning, necessary regulations for food safety are seen as a public good, while any overregulation is a burden to business and a pain in the neck to consumers, thus not a public good. As for the flue gas generated synthetic gypsum from coal burning power plants, the issues around its usage in agriculture have kept the jury out and concerned. As for the public, without full transparency in farming practices, the matter remains mostly out of view. Ours is indeed a free country, wherein the use of synthetic gypsum is allowed for all but organic farming. As for me, as a former president of a major food company, I for one do not want to feed my family with any of it – as we are not on a space station and do have untainted mined CSD with which to mineralize and enhance our soil. Meanwhile, all who wish are welcome to join the millions of others who coexist with synthetic gypsum enhanced agriculture.

Leopold B. Willner, PhD