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Report: record levels of ‘forever chemicals’ in NE Tennessee sewage sludge used as crop fertilizer

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Report: record levels of ‘forever chemicals’ in NE Tennessee sewage sludge used as crop fertilizer

Feb 26, 2024 | 6:01 am ET
By Anita Wadhwani
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Report: record levels of ‘forever chemicals’ in NE Tennessee sewage sludge used as crop fertilizer
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Bristol Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant (Photo: Bristoltn.org)

Processed sewage sludge from a Bristol, Tenn. wastewater plant contains among the highest levels of so-called forever chemical contamination detected in the U.S., according to a report released today by Sierra Club Tennessee.

The treated wastewater, discharged in local waterways, poses risks not only to drinking water, but to farmland across Sullivan County — and the resulting harvests that wind up on family dinner tables in Tennessee and beyond.

That’s because local farmers rely on the Bristol Wastewater Treatment Plant’s treated sewage sludge for fertilizer, spreading it on open lands throughout the largely rural county, where a $68 million agriculture industry fuels the local economy.

Environmentalists say the long term impacts of PFAS on farm fields and in lakes, streams and creeks is still an unknown.

“As we continue to add PFAS to the environment, we don’t know what their impact will be,” said Dan Firth, chair of the Sierra Club’s solid waste and mining committee and co-author of the report. “But if we wait before we start looking at them, it’s going to be too late.”

Report: ‘Forever chemicals’ in northeast TN pose longterm risk to region’s drinking water

In some instances, high levels of the chemicals in fertilizers have led to farm closures in other parts of the country. “That will happen in Tennessee if we’re not very careful,” Firth said.

PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as forever chemicals, include thousands of man-made chemicals that do not break down in the environment. Any level of exposure to the toxic chemical is considered unsafe, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

PFAs have been linked to disease, infertility and death. A report released last month by the Sierra Club found the chemicals have been detected in 60% of rivers and lakes tested in Northeast Tennessee, findings that raise questions about the long-term safety of drinking water supplies in the region.

The new report’s findings show even greater levels in sewage samples tested. The concentration of PFAS in the Bristol sewage sludge are exponentially higher —83,000 times more — than found in already-alarming quantities detected in local waterways highlighted in Sierra Club’s earlier report.

There are currently no federal or state requirements that wastewater treatment plants monitor PFAS.

While the source or sources of PFAS in the area’s sewage sludge haven’t been clearly identified, the report points to landfills as one potential contributor. Landfill runoff, or leachate, is typically sent to wastewater treatment plants to be treated and discharged. The Bristol plant accepts leachate from two nearby landfills.

Sierra Club is among the environmental groups backing a bill that would require wastewater treatment plants to conduct quarterly testing for PFAS.

The bill, by Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, and Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis would also require larger wastewater treatment facilities to identify potential industrial sources PFAs and to conduct monitoring upstream from its discharges.

“Tennessee must urgently investigate and control PFAS pollution or it will pay a steep price in future contamination of food and water, and harmful exposures for state residents,” the report warned.

The Sierra Club’s reports come as concerns about PFAS in the environment are rising. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation in 2021 launched a statewide study of PFAS that is still ongoing.

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti has filed suit against 20 manufactures using PFAS in their products, including DuPoint, 3M and Chemours. The suit alleges the companies knew their products contained harmful chemicals.

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently in the process of rolling out regulations to require water utilities to remove certain PFAS, a more complex and far costlier treatment process than utilities typically use.

Tennessee sludge report - 2024