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By Shannon Kelleher 

When Jim Buckle and his wife, Hannah Hamilton, started their 18-acre organic vegetable farm in Unity, Maine, more than a decade ago, they wanted to grow the healthiest food possible.

But after a wholesale buyer asked them to test their operation for toxic chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in 2022, the couple was in for a shock.

The soil tests came back clean, as the couple expected. But Buckle’s heart sank when the results arrived for the well water they used to wash and irrigate their vegetables.

Through no fault of their own, the farm Buckle and Hamilton had carefully cultivated for nearly a decade was contaminated with PFAS-laced sewage sludge that had been used as fertilizer on land nearby years earlier.

Faced with evidence that their harvests were also likely contaminated with potentially hazardous PFAS toxins, he and Hamilton made the decision to close down their farming operations, at least temporarily, as they wrestled with how they might clean up their farm and protect it from future contamination.

“We said, ‘Wow, this is crazy. We actually have this problem,’” Buckle said.

About a year earlier, first-generation organic farmers Katia Holmes and her husband faced a similar crisis on their 700-acre Misty Brook Farm in Albion, Maine, where they raise livestock and grow grains.

In their case, the well water was fine, said Holmes. But testing of their cows’ milk — and the hay they bought from a neighbor to feed the cows — came back with elevated levels of PFAS.

Further testing revealed that a previous owner of the Holmes’ land had spread sewer sludge on certain fields 20 years ago, leaving behind PFAS in the soil.

“We called all the stores and pulled all our products,” said Holmes.

Buckle’s and Holmes’ stories are, sadly, becoming more common.

PFAS have been used for decades in a wide range of consumer and industrial products and processes, but several types of PFAS have been shown to be harmful to human and environmental health.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this year said it would designate nine types of PFAS as hazardous substances, meaning they have toxic, carcinogenic and other harmful impacts on people and animals.

As awareness of the dangers of PFAS has grown, farming operations are a particular concern for PFAS contamination. Positive PFAS tests have already proven to be catastrophic to farming and livestock operations in multiple states.

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture sees PFAS as a “major hazard” to U.S. farmers and ranchers and is calling on state and federal agencies to offer financial support and create assistance programs for “this emerging risk.”

Some cases of contaminated farms are blamed on the use of sewage waste as fertilizer.

During the wastewater treatment process, solids are separated from liquids, and the resulting “biosolids” are sold as fertilizer that contains nutrients to help crops and pastures grow. The fertilizer also — it has been discovered — can contain PFAS since the chemicals are not removed during wastewater treatment.

Two farm families in Texas last month filed a lawsuit against the biosolids company Synagro alleging their operations were “poisoned” after biosolids were deposited on a neighbor’s land, contaminating their water supplies with exceedingly high levels of PFAS.

PFAS can also contaminate farms from firefighting foam that seeps into groundwater from military bases. This was the case when a New Mexico dairy farmer was forced to euthanize his herd of more than 3,600 cows due to groundwater contamination from a nearby Air Force Base.

The U.S. Department of Defense said last year that it has so far notified 3,911 farms in dozens of states that they are at risk of PFAS contamination due to their proximity to military bases where PFAS is present.

The extent of PFAS contamination on farmland across most of the country remains unknown, though a 2022 estimate by the Environmental Working Group suggests almost 20 million acres of U.S. cropland are fertilized with sewage sludge.

Farmers are “completely unaware of PFAS levels on farms until it’s too late,” said Courtney Briggs, senior director of government affairs at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Maine as a model

Maine regulators have so far found PFAS chemicals on at least 73 farms and plan to investigate hundreds more sites.

But even as state officials work to get a handle on how many farms may be contaminated, the state is also working to funnel money and other support to farmers facing PFAS problems, creating a model that some experts say should be adopted nationally.

This spring, the state will begin making $65 million available through a PFAS fund that will greatly expand the support it already offers farmers. The fund plans to provide an additional 12 months of lost income (two years total) and contribute toward research to help farmers make informed decisions.

It will also give struggling farmers the option to sell PFAS-contaminated land to the state “at fair market value, as if there was no contamination,” Beth Valentine, director of the PFAS fund, said at a recent Maine legislature presentation.

Additionally, the fund aims to give struggling farmers the option to sell PFAS-contaminated land to the state at fair market value, according to Beth Valentine, director of the Maine PFAS fund.

It may also support medical monitoring for impacted farmers, though provisions for that plan are still evolving.

The fund, which includes $60 million from the state and $5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), currently has enough resources to last five years, said Valentine.

“It is important that farmers are not held responsible for the presence of PFAS chemicals, which they did not produce or intentionally use,” said the Farm Bureau’s Briggs.

A state PFAS response program has already provided over $2.5 million in support for impacted farmers, primarily through income replacement funds paid to farmers for up to 12 months. The state also is installing and paying for water filtration systems on some farms.

This support was vital for the Buckle farm. Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry installed and paid for a water filtration system on Buckle’s and Hamilton’s property, allowing the vegetable farm to ease back into operations a few months after its troubles began.

“The support from the state is tremendous,” said Buckle. “I wish the entire country would model it after what we’re doing.”

The Holmeses also benefited from outside support; they received a check every two weeks from the nonprofit Maine Farmland Trust and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which helped cover expenses during the 11 months that the farmers had to dump their cows’ milk while waiting for the PFAS to clear the cows’ systems.

Decades of use

Biosolids add nitrogen, phosphorus and organic carbon to the soil to help crops grow.

Maine, for example, encouraged farmers to spread sludge mixed with industrial waste from paper mills on their land in the 1980s and 1990s, not realizing that the waste was tainted with PFAS.

Biosolids are still regularly spread on farmland, with about 60% of sewage sludge produced by U.S. wastewater treatment plants each year applied to agricultural lands, according to the EPA.

So far, however, Maine is the only state to systematically test farmland for PFAS. And out of 34 states that responded to a 2023 survey by the Environmental Council of the States, 27 had no existing or proposed legislation on PFAS in biosolids.

But just because other states aren’t looking doesn’t mean the contamination isn’t there, said Adam Nordell, a campaign manager at Defend Our Health and a former organic vegetable farmer who had to close his farm after his water and crops — and his family’s blood — were found to have dangerously high PFAS levels traced back to sludge spread in the early 1990s.

“This is coming,” said Nordell. “There’s no reason to think that the contamination is unique to Maine.”

Though there are no federal regulations on PFAS in biosolids, that could soon change. A bill introduced last year, titled Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act, would direct the USDA to start a federal grant program to provide financial assistance to farmers across the U.S., test for PFAS on farmland, and monitor affected farmers’ health.

Environmental health advocates are calling for the legislation to be included in the upcoming Farm Bill.

The watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the two Texas families suing Synagro recently filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA for failing to regulate PFAS in biosolids applied to farmland.

The EPA is currently conducting a risk assessment to evaluate two PFAS compounds in biosolids, which the agency plans to complete by the end of 2024.

The federal government has taken recent measures to address other sources of PFAS exposure in the food system. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on Feb. 28 that the agency is eliminating the sale of food packaging that contains PFAS in the U.S., including in fast-food wrappers and take-out containers.

The FDA has been monitoring the national food supply for PFAS in recent years. While it has found elevated levels of PFAS in seafood, 97% of the 718 fresh and processed foods sampled by the agency for its Total Diet Study since 2019 have been PFAS-free, according to the agency.

PFAS has rarely been detected in beef, pork, chicken and farm-raised catfish, said the USDA.

Maine is the only state so far to ban land applications of sewage sludge, while other states are attempting to tackle the problem by limiting how much PFAS enters wastewater treatment plants in the first place.

In 2018, Michigan began asking wastewater treatment plants to identify industrial users in their system that discharge high concentrations of two PFAS chemicals, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

Treatment facilities could then require these users to pretreat for the chemicals before their waste enters the treatment plant.

After pretreatment was installed, concentrations of PFOS in both liquid waste and biosolids dropped at many treatment plants that had been receiving high concentrations of the chemicals from industrial sources, said Stephanie Kammer, the emerging pollutants section manager for Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

The department is aware of 68 industrial users in the state installing pretreatment specifically for PFAS, she said.

“Four or five of the facilities that were initially prohibited from land-applying their biosolids due to high concentrations of PFOS are now permitted to land-apply again,” said Kammer.

In a December 2022 EPA memorandum, the agency recommended that other states similarly leverage their existing permitting authorities to take action to limit PFAS at its source before it enters wastewater.

“With even ‘low-level’ contaminated sludge, you still have the problem of compounding yearly sludge applications contributing to unacceptable levels in soil and groundwater. Industrial pretreatment is a great way to get industry to take ownership for the problem,” said Nordell, though he said he doesn’t think pretreatment goes far enough to be truly protective.

A PFAS puzzle

In another effort aimed at aiding farmers, scientists are working to determine how PFAS interacts with crops and livestock.

“We don’t actually know how much PFAS in a plant is a problem,” said Linda Lee, a professor of agronomy at Purdue University who studies PFAS contamination in the environment.

Lee continued:

“We don’t actually know what the guidelines are. Depending on where you live, your climate, your depth to groundwater, the dynamics of what’s happening in your state, it can vary. I just don’t think people realize how complex it is.”

But scientists have learned enough to offer farmers some guidance. PFAS levels in dairy cows, for example, can usually be lowered over a period of about six months if the cows can be given PFAS-free water and feed, according to Lee. Because the chemicals build up in the leaves and stalks of corn, feeding that to livestock would still pose a problem.

Lee is currently collaborating on a USDA-funded project to investigate what to do with the bodies of contaminated dead livestock and other animals, which can leach PFAS into the soil as they break down.

They might be able to irreversibly trap the PFAS while composting the bodies, preventing them from leaching into landfills, she said.

Meanwhile, Cheryl Murphy, director of the Center for PFAS Research at Michigan State University, is working with colleagues to study PFAS-contaminated cattle from a Michigan farm recently forced to close.

The researchers hope to develop tools for monitoring PFAS levels in cows and for clearing the chemicals from their systems more quickly.

Buckle is grateful for the state help that has allowed his farm to get back on its feet, but notes the operation is still in recovery mode after customers turned elsewhere for onions and potatoes when his farm’s vegetables were unavailable due to the contamination.

“By Maine acting first in the country, I feel like other states are waiting for us to see the extent that the PFAS fund is needed and how the whole situation will shake out in a few years,” he said. “The longer they wait, the worse it gets.”

Lawyer Rob Bilott, who has been leading efforts to hold PFAS manufacturers accountable for widespread contamination, said PFAS manufacturers, not taxpayers, should pay the price for the harm caused by the chemicals.

“When we find PFAS chemicals in the soil, in the water, or in animals or plants, we know which companies created these. We ought to be making sure that the companies that created the problem are the ones being held responsible, not the victims.”

“This is an issue that’s going on worldwide right now, and it has been going on for a long, long time,” Bilott said.

Originally published by The New Lede

Shannon Kelleher is a reporter for The New Lede.