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A call for sludge regulation

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A call for sludge regulation

May 28, 2024 | 4:22 pm ET
By Marina Schauffler
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A call for sludge regulation
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Cows with high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS at a farm in Maine. (Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg)

Eight years ago, Maine uncovered the edge of a vast agricultural problem when PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) surfaced on a third-generation dairy farm. The toxic fluorinated compounds in the farm’s water, soil, pasture grasses and milk traced back to wastewater sludge spread on fields more than a decade earlier.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and most state agricultural departments still promote land-spreading as a “beneficial use” of sludge, despite knowing that the “forever chemicals” it contains pose serious health risks, disrupting hormonal, immune and reproductive systems and increasing the risk of various cancers.

Among more than 700 chemical compounds the EPA has identified in the residual wastewater sludge that industry terms “biosolids,” PFAS are nearly universal. “What’s different about Maine is that we’re actually looking for it,” says Sarah Alexander, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). To date, state agencies in Maine have found more than 70 PFAS-contaminated farms, a handful of which have had to cease all food production.

In 2022, Maine became the first state to ban land application of sludge and the sale of compost containing sludge. No such protections exist for the larger U.S. food supply, Alexander notes. Each year, more than half of the nation’s sewage sludge is land-applied, the EPA reports, with 31 percent spread on agricultural lands and the balance going to settings like home gardens, landscaping, athletic fields, golf courses and parks.

To force faster adoption of federal regulations governing PFAS in sludge, MOFGA announced last week its intent to join a lawsuit against the EPA with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an environmental watchdog group that notified the EPA in February of its intent to sue. That action followed sludge contamination incidents affecting farmers in Texas, South Carolina, Michiganand other states.

“A patchwork approach across the states is not going to work,” Alexander says; what’s needed is a coordinated and timely response from the EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The EPA plans to complete a risk assessment this year of two PFAS compounds commonly found in sludge, but Alexander says that’s “too little and way too late.”

The Clean Water Act mandates that the EPA review sewage sludge regulations every two years and address pollutants that could be harmful. According to MOFGA, the EPA has promulgated only nine regulations governing land application of sewage sludge. At least 12 of the PFAS found to date in sludge have clear scientific evidence demonstrating public harm, MOFGA asserts.

Evidence of risks from sludge has been accumulating for decades. A 1997 report by the Cornell University Waste Management Institute urged the EPA to adopt stricter sludge regulations and “take a closer look at the contents of sewage sludges and the conditions under which they are applied.”

“Sewage sludge is widely suspected as a major sink” of PFAS, researchers wrote in 2005, since the compounds adsorb to solids during wastewater treatment. Christopher Higgins, an environmental engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines, coauthored that research and worked with colleagues on a 2011 published study that found PFAS levels in soil rose proportionate to the volume of municipal sludge applied. By then, the EPA had confronted record-high levels of PFAS on Alabama pastures treated with sludge that incorporated waste from a fluorochemical manufacturer.

Higgins recalls trying to convince the EPA and wastewater industry associations that a multi-million-dollar research program was needed to assess the risks that PFAS in sludge might pose for groundwater, soil health and the food supply, but he says “there was no real interest in doing the research and asking the hard questions.” When he presented study findings to waste industry officials, he recalls that “they wanted to stick their heads in the sand and say there is no problem.”

When EPA established drinking water standards this spring for some prevalent PFAS compounds, the agency acknowledged that “there is no level of exposure to these contaminants without risk of health impacts, including certain cancers.” The EPA describes PFAS as “an urgent public health and environmental issue,” but in MOFGA’s estimation, regulation does not yet match rhetoric. “We know the risks are there,” Alexander says. “We want them to take action.”

Widespread use and disposal of PFAS underlies the ongoing contamination of sludge, the EPA wrote in a statement last year. There are no viable means presently to remove PFAS from sludge at scale or to remediate the farm soils that sludge contaminates.

The plight of farmers whose lives were upended by toxic sludge convinced Maine to lead the nation in passing a phased-in ban on PFAS in most products. The only viable means to manage chemicals this persistent and pernicious, legislators realized, is to largely eliminate their use.

“No one can undo the historic contamination of our land,” testified one Maine farmer who lost his home and business due to sludge. “But we know enough now to turn off the tap.”

This piece first appeared in Marina Schauffler’s Substack newsletter ContamiNation.