Laissez-faire national policy has long allowed sludge from sewage and industrial wastewater to be used as fertilizer on food and feed crops, even though it contains toxic Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and hundreds of other toxic chemicals. These policies have come home to roost as farmers in Maine and Michigan have discovered milk, beef and vegetables so heavily contaminated by PFAS that these farm products cannot be sold. Other farms in Colorado and New Mexico have been shut down due to contamination from PFAS-laden firefighting foam used on military bases.
Over the past several years, IATP has worked with a coalition of farmers, farm groups including the Maine Farmland Trust and Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and public health advocates including Defend Our Health, to address the consequences of this contamination in Maine.
PFAS-contaminated milk was first discovered at one Maine farm in 2016, linked to sludge-spreading. When contaminated milk was traced to a second farm in 2020, a flurry of legislative bills were introduced. Last year, Maine enacted a first-in-nation law phasing out PFAS in consumer products by 2030; established strict drinking water standards; required a statewide investigation of all known sludge and septage spreading sites (thought to be about 700 locations); and clarified public and private rights to sue for damages and remediation.
A focus squarely on agriculture
Early results from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s statewide investigation of likely sludge-spreading locations initiated in 2021 has identified several hundred residential wells and a dozen produce and dairy farms contaminated with PFAS. Farmers have had to destroy livestock and dump milk and produce. Their livelihoods upended, farm families and their neighbors also face years of uncertainty and health risks after sky-high levels of PFAS — linked to infertility, cancer and immune system suppression — were found in their blood.
Once again, Maine responded with a comprehensive package of laws and regulations. A major accomplishment was the successful campaign to ban future land application of “biosolids” — sewage and wastewater sludge residuals, septic waste and compost derived from sludge — including fertilizer products sold nationally to landscapers and home gardeners. In Maine, as in the rest of the country, these wastes are heavily laden with PFAS. Despite strong push back from a coalition headed up by Casella Waste Systems, which has a profitable operation processing sludge and selling it as compost, the state enacted the first law in the country banning future land application of sludge and sludge-based compost.
Tackling PFAS in pesticides
In January, IATP submitted comments on a proposed rulemaking by the Maine Board of Pesticides Control to require certificates from pesticide registrants as to whether PFAS was in the pesticide being registered and also banning fluorinated HDPE containers, which have been found to leach PFAS into pesticides. Our comments sought to expand the definition of PFAS to be consistent with Maine law and the latest science on PFAS, expand the ban on containers to encompass any fluorinated container that may leach PFAS and ensure that the certificate information was a public document under the Maine access to information law. The final regulations tracked our recommendations.
Maine’s Legislature also enacted a law this year to require Board of Pesticides Control oversight and regulation of adjuvants, substances that are added to a pesticide product or pesticide spray mixture to enhance the performance of the pesticide or physical properties of the spray mixture. Fewer than half the states in the U.S. currently regulate adjuvants, some of which contain PFAS. The new law bans by 2030 any intentionally added PFAS to pesticides and adjuvants registered in the state. Maine’s PFAS-related pesticides regulation and laws are first-in-nation policies and were enacted with strong majorities in the Legislature despite fierce opposition from pesticide industry lobbyists and agricultural promotion boards for the potato and blueberry industries.
A safety net for impacted farmers
Maine also enacted and funded a sweeping measure to provide a safety net for farmers impacted by PFAS. Legislation established an ongoing fund to pay for for health monitoring for farmers and others with contaminated drinking water and soils; provide income replacement for unsaleable farm products; and in worst case scenarios, pay for buyouts and relocation where soils are too contaminated to be agriculturally productive. The legislation also prioritized research to assist farmers to shift to alternative crops or otherwise adapt to disruption caused by contamination. Ultimately, the fund was included in the supplemental budget with a $60 million appropriation in addition to other PFAS-related funding for water testing and site investigation.
All 50 states have sludge-spreading programs. Based on Maine’s experience, it is highly likely that PFAS contamination will be found on farms in every state where wastewater sludge has been spread; most states simply haven’t been looking for it. In the absence of federal action, Maine farmers and their allies are showing the way forward.