Who Wants Farm-to-Table Forever Chemicals?


Our recent work tackling toxic PFAS chemicals (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances) has taken us from farm fields in rural Maine to the nation’s capital. Here’s a peek into our efforts on the state and national fronts to tackle the growing crisis of PFAS contamination in our food, water, and soil. (Read the first installment of our “Tackling Toxic PFAS” series here, and the second installment here.)

Most of us here in Maine assumed when we read back in March that the “State says sludge must be tested for ‘forever chemicals’ before it’s used as fertilizer,” it meant PFAS-contaminated sludge wouldn’t be used on farm fields anymore in Maine. Sadly, this is not what the state meant.

To date, the testing ordered by the state has found that 31 out of 32 sludge producers and 14 out of 15 compost producers exceed the state’s screening level for one or more PFAS tested. In other words, we now know that nearly all sludge is contaminated with unsafe levels of toxic “forever” chemicals that never breakdown in the environment.

However, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has determined that this contaminated sludge can still be applied to clean agricultural land. In fact, this contaminated waste can only be applied to our most pristine land. Yes, you read that right—let me explain.

“The Solution to Pollution is Dilution”

This old adage reflects how we dealt with pollution and waste before modern environmental protection laws. The idea was that raw sewage dumped into a river or the ocean would be mixed with enough clean water that it would not have an impact, for example.  Of course, as we began to have more pollution and as we studied its impact, we soon realized this wasn’t always true.

Yet, it’s exactly this logic that DEP is using to allow sludge contaminated with PFAS to be spread on clean farm fields.

If a sludge producer wants to spread its PFAS-contaminated waste, it has to test the soil of the farm fields where it’s going to be spread. If the levels of PFAS in the field is already too high, then the sludge cannot be applied.  However, if the field is “clean”—that is, has undetected or low levels of PFAS—DEP will calculate how much the contaminated waste will be diluted by the clean soil on the field. If the resulting mix of contaminated sludge and clean soil is below the State’s standard for PFAS, DEP will give a green light to spread the waste.

In other words, DEP has created a policy to encourage clean fields to be contaminated with PFAS.

Standards Based on Outdated Science

While most of us are rightly aghast at the idea of allowing the spreading of sludge known to be contaminated with PFAS on farm land, it’s even more disturbing once you understand the details of the state’s levels and approach.

Along with our colleagues at the Conservation Law Foundation, I wrote a letter to DEP Commissioner Reid outlining a number of concerns with the state’s approach.

Perhaps the most pressing concern we outlined in our letter is that the state’s safety limits for PFAS are based on outdated assessments of the health hazards posed by these chemicals. The state has not updated its safety assessment to reflect the now year-old safety value suggested by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Nor has it utilized the more protective values arrived at by other states, including nearby Vermont. Indeed, the head of the federal National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, sometimes referred to as nation’s top toxicologist, recently suggested that the risk value used by Maine is at least 700 times too high to protect health.

Stop the Spreading

While the state wisely has halted spreading on the fields that are already contaminated, it needs to go further. Maine DEP will almost certainly regret its decision to allow the spreading on clean fields in only a few short years. As regulatory standards catch up to the science coming out on PFAS, it seems all but certain that the level of these chemicals considered “safe” is going to dramatically drop. The “diluted” PFAS on our once clean farms may well be considered hazardous. As “forever chemicals” that essentially never break down in the environment, there is no cost-effective way to remove them once they are in the soil—which means they may remain there for generations. The only practical solution is to prevent PFAS from getting into soil in the first place.

Maine DEP is under substantial pressure from both commercial interests as well as the state’s municipal sewer districts to allow the sludge spreading and compost operations to continue. Ultimately, what we flush down the drain has to end up somewhere. However, until we can cut off the sources of PFAS by phasing out these toxic chemicals in all consumer products, sewage sludge is going to be contaminated. For the time being, the best of bad options is to send it to landfills where we can at least monitor it.

What should be clear to us all, though, is that the place for that contaminated sludge is NOT Maine’s farms fields.