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Proposed Law Would Aid Farms Polluted by PFAS-tainted Sludge Fertilizers

Sen. Comerford and others hope to avoid significant disruption to local agriculture and municipal wastewater management.

"Biosolids" fertilizer made from sewage sludge is spread in a field. Image: EPA.

By Sarah Robertson

BOSTON – Soil products derived from sewage sludge have been applied to land for decades – on golf courses, to remediate disturbed land, and even to fertilize crops. Options to dispose of wastewater sludge are limited, and much of it ends up at commercial composting facilities. In the United States, approximately 47% of all “biosolids,” an industry term for sewage sludge, end up applied to land.

While a patchwork of regulations have been aimed at ensuring pathogens and heavy metals do not end up in our food supply through land application of sludge, in recent years it has become clear that a class of harmful manmade chemicals has been spread undetected. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in our soil, food, and water have been linked to the practice, and it is likely that many farms have been contaminated unknowingly.

For some farmers, biosolids have offered an affordable alternative to traditional fertilizers

“I don’t think we know the extent of the problem,” state senator Jo Comerford’s office said in a statement. “This is a complex issue that deserves a lot of careful scrutiny and input from stakeholders and policy experts.”

This session, Comerford filed a bill that would protect Massachusetts farmers whose lands are discovered to be contaminated with PFAS from legal and financial repercussions. S.39, An Act protecting our soil and farms from PFAS contamination, would set up a special relief fund to test soil, water, and agricultural products for PFAS, remediate contamination, and pay costs incurred by affected businesses and individuals, including farmworkers’ medical bills. 

Additionally, the bill would require all soil products manufactured with “biosolids” to be labeled as such.  

“Enacting legislation like this would be the first step in a longer process of deciding who might receive funds and how much would be available,” Comerford’s office wrote. “We hope the bill will open up a discussion on the best policy choices…. [The] first step is to test biosolids being used on agricultural land to understand the scope of the problem, and to let farmers know about any products used in their soil so they can make decisions about their land.” 

On May 15, a hearing for S.39 and its sister bill in the House, H.101, was held on Beacon Hill by the Joint Committee on Agriculture. 

“We want to ensure that farmers are not at risk of losing their farms, losing their livelihoods, due to practices employed on their land in the past that have generally been accepted management practices – until this point,” said Winton Pitcoff, director of the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative. “We need more research, we need more education, and we need to be prepared to support farmers in understanding the risks and addressing them where that’s needed.”

Pitcoff’s organization, an association of food and farm policy organizations, helped bring the issue of PFAs contamination of farmland to the legislature’s attention. PFAS, he argued, puts the stability of the state’s food systems at risk. 

Removing contaminated farmland from agricultural use permanently, an approach taken recently in Maine, is “pretty extreme,” Pitcoff said. After several farms had to close due to high levels of PFAS found in milk, soil, water and vegetables, the state banned the land application of biosolids entirely. 

“What this bill does is make sure we’re talking about the protection for farmers,” Pitcoff said. “I think Maine talked about that way too late in their process.”

Laura Spark, a policy advocate with Clean Water Action, called Maine’s approach the “most protective.”

“The problem with PFAS contamination on farms is that PFAS are persistent – they last, essentially, forever,” Spark told legislators. “They are bioaccumulative: the more we consume, the more they accrue in our bodies. And they are toxic at very, very low levels.”

Assessing the Impact

The state Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) currently regulates and permits the land application of biosolids, and determines whether products are fit for agricultural use, or for other uses such as capping landfills. No state or federal limits have yet been set on PFAS levels in land-applied biosolids, but this is expected to change. In Massachusetts, wastewater treatment facilities have been required since 2019 to test for the presence of the chemicals in their sludge.

In 2018, after a review of the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Office of the Inspector General released a report titled EPA Unable to Assess the Impact of Hundreds of Unregulated Pollutants in Land-Applied Biosolids on Human Health and the Environment. This report detailed, among other things, that the agency does not have the data or resources necessary to assess the safety of 352 pollutants found in biosolids – 61 of which are designated as “hazardous” or “priority” pollutants by other EPA programs. 

These chemicals include PFAS, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and other chemicals. The federal agency only sets limits for nine heavy metals in sludge.

Janine Burke-Wells, executive director of the Northeast Biosolids and Residuals Association, said that the farms in Maine with the most potent contamination had applied biosolids originating from a facility that processed high levels of industrial waste, including waste from paper products manufacturers.

“We need to just take a step back and have some more conversations about the risks of various sources,” Burke-Wells said, adding that she would support legislation relieving public water treatment facilities from liability for PFAS contamination, and exempting them from federal Superfund laws in such cases.

Burke-Wells praised Montague Clean Water Facility superintendent Chelsey Little for piloting a town-owned biosolids composting program. “There are others out there that will push this down the pipeline,” she said of other wastewater treatment plant operators. “They’re all deers in the headlights… They don’t want to move until this all shakes out.” 

Movers and Shakers

Casella Waste Systems, one of the largest waste management companies in New England, recycles or disposes of most of the municipal sludge produced in Franklin County. A number of towns coordinate with the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District to ship their sludge to a facility in Lowell, where it is treated further and then trucked away by Casella for either disposal or recycling. 

In the past, Casella contracted directly to dispose of sludge from both the Montague Clean Water Facility and POTW#2 plant in Erving, where residential and paper mill wastewater are treated by ERSECO Inc., a subsidiary of Erving Industries. Casella ended its contract with ERSECO in 2021, citing concerns over “emerging contaminants” such as PFAS, forcing the paper company to procure a more expensive contract sending its sludge to Canada.

“In the absence of federal regulations concerning biosolids management,” said Casella director of communications Jeff Weld, “ states will be introducing unique approaches based on the volume of biosolids production vs. available landfill space, incineration capacity, and suitable land for treated biosolids application purposes…. Our charge is to work within the regulatory framework of each state in which we operate while providing solutions that are economically and environmentally sustainable for our customers and the communities we serve.” 

In recent years Casella has been responsible for most of the biosolids application on farmland in Hampshire and Franklin counties. A public records request filed by this reporter found that between 2010 and 2021, five farms in Greenfield, Hatfield, Sunderland, and Northfield and a parcel of land in Orange were spread with biosolids-based soil products. 

In five instances, the product in question was Casella’s Biomix, produced using sludge from the Erving plant; the Northfield farm contracted with a different company that composed sludge from Nashua, New Hampshire. None of the landowners responded to requests for comment.

“We will continue to engage with all stakeholders concerning the emerging science around PFAS, and will be proactively providing comment and feedback on H.101/S.39,” Weld said.

How Much Farther?

Mickey Nowak, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Environment Association, which represents wastewater operators, said that in his opinion a complete ban on the land application of biosolids would have serious repercussions on an already precarious and expensive waste stream. The state, he said, needs a master plan for biosolids. 

“Anything else will result in chaos,” Nowak said. “If land application is greatly reduced or banned, where will these biosolids go? Incineration and landfill capacity is full. How much farther to distant locations can we ship our biosolids?”

Asked for comment on S.39, Nowak said that “the key to a long-term solution” is the reduction of PFAS at its source. “The bill addresses the concerns of farmers,” he argued, “but says nothing about the concerns of the 120 publicly owned wastewater treatment works in the Commonwealth.”

Last year, Senator Comerford introduced another bill, An Act restricting toxic PFAS chemicals in consumer products to protect our health, which would have banned PFAS in child car seats, cookware, fabric treatments, cosmetics, and furniture. It did not pass. Comerford sat on the legislature’s PFAS Interagency Task Force, which helped to draft both pieces of legislation.

Senator Comerford’s office said groups such as the American Farmland Trust, Northeast Organic Farming Association and Sierra Club brought the issue of farmland application of biosolids to her attention, and that she has yet to engage in conversations with Casella over the issue. “We have not talked with them yet, but would welcome discussions with them,” the office said.

A version of this article was published in the Montague Reporter. Mike Jackson contributed additional reporting.

Sarah Robertson is an independent journalist living in western Mass.

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