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Daily News Blog

19
Apr

Maine Moves to Ban Pesticides and Fertilizers Contaminated with PFAS

(Beyond Pesticides, April 19, 2022) Both houses of Maine’s legislature have just approved a bill that would, by 2030, ban pesticides that contain PFAS chemicals — the so-called “forever chemicals.” The bill’s next stop is the Appropriations Committee, for approval of $200,000 in annual funding to enact the bill; if successful there, it will move to the desk of Maine Governor Janet Mills for her signature. The legislation is one of a suite of lawmaker efforts in the state to address the growing PFAS problem with which localities across the U.S. are struggling. In this Daily News Blog article, Beyond Pesticides continues its coverage of the scourge of PFAS chemicals, particularly as it relates to pesticide use and the use of fertilizers made from PFAS-contaminated “biosludge” from municipal treatment facilities.

PFAS — “per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances” — are any of a family of more than 9,000 synthetic chemicals, invented in, and widely deployed since, the 1950s in a multitude of industrial and consumer products. PFAS molecules are made up of a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms; the carbon–fluorine bond is one of the strongest chemical bonds that exists, which means that these compounds do not break down in the environment. Scientists cannot even estimate the environmental half-life of PFAS (half-life being the amount of time required for 50% of the compound to degrade and “disappear”). Hence, the “forever chemicals” moniker.

NIEHS (the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) notes: “Research on two kinds of PFAS forms the basis of our scientific understanding about this group of chemicals. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) were manufactured for the longest time, are the most widespread in the environment, and are the most well-studied. Although these two compounds are no longer made in the United States, chemical manufacturers have replaced them with alternative PFAS.”

PFAS have emerged during the past decade or so as a serious environmental contaminant and health concern. They represent yet another “chickens come home to roost” scenario characteristic of the poorly regulated use of chemicals in the industrial, military, and commercial materials streams that, ultimately, end up in the environment and human (and other) bodies.

In February 2022, Beyond Pesticides wrote, “There has been precious little activity at the federal level to deal with PFAS. . . . The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in 2019 that a ‘Comprehensive Nationwide PFAS Action Plan’ would be forthcoming. (It has not yet emerged.) Since 1998, EWG [the Environmental Working Group] notes, ‘despite mounting evidence of PFAS’ toxicity and contamination, EPA has inexcusably dragged its feet. The [agency] has failed to set a legal limit for any PFAS in tap water, and its non-enforceable health advisory level for PFOA and PFOS is 70 times higher than what independent studies show is needed. In 2019, EPA announced a toothless “action plan” that would do nothing to reduce ongoing PFAS releases or clean up legacy PFAS pollution.’”

These chemicals are contaminating waterways, water bodies, and drinking water sources; the food supply; wastewater and biosolids; soils; and now, us — PFAS is present in the bloodstreams of 97% of the U.S. population. Exposure to these compounds has been linked to a variety of human health anomalies, including cancers, kidney dysfunction, neurodevelopmental compromise in children, immunosuppression, pre-eclampsia, increased risk of cardiometabolic diseases (via exposure during pregnancy), and respiratory system damage — not to mention that it may increase the risk of Covid infection and severity. As Beyond Pesticides has written, PFAS presents a chronic danger to Americans that demands immediate regulatory action.

Absent such protective federal action on these chemicals, states have been stepping up, particularly in the past five years or so, to deal with the host of problems PFAS represent. Maine has been a particular hotbed of activity; media have helped put the PFAS issue in front of plenty of eyeballs in the state (and elsewhere). A recent (and small) sampling includes The Penobscot Times coverage of PFAS runoff from a Two Rivers Paper Company landfill into the St. John River; the Press Herald’s reporting on PFAS contamination of Maine fish stocks and wild deer; and publication about research by Northeastern University and the Penobscot Nation on PFAS-contaminated leachate from the Juniper Ridge Landfill.

The Penobscot Times article noted that the Two Rivers pollution is not unique: “Every landfill that has produced results so far from the first of five rounds of state-required testing of landfill runoff shows some concentration of the so-called forever chemicals.” The problem extends to PFAS in wastewater and solid waste; a University of Maine Cooperative Extension newsletter, quoting from another Penobscot Times issue, writes: “PFAS is flowing into Maine waters, but no one knows the level of contamination. Treatment plants release millions of gallons of wastewater into Maine’s waterways each day that could contain elevated levels of so-called forever chemicals.” Indeed, from wastewater and solid waste treatment plants, and from septic systems that discharge the PFAS from consumer product use, PFAS is finding its way into myriad water sources.

Recent high-profile cases of PFAS contamination in Maine have no doubt added momentum to the legislature’s pursuit of controls. For several years running, an Arundel dairy farmer testified to Maine legislators about the ruination of his multi-generational dairy operation by the discovery of PFAS in his water and soils, and in his cows’ milk. The farmer attributes the wholesale contamination to the “biosolids” (waste sludge) he had used on his silage crop fields for years through a state program, and/or ash from a nearby paper mill.

Early in 2022, Beyond Pesticides wrote about another Maine farming operation, Songbird Farm in Unity, Maine, which is now facing similar issues. The farmers grow diversified, organic grain and vegetable crops and were stunned to learn that their fields were victims to the legacy use, a quarter century before their tenure on the land (starting in 2014), of contaminated sludge. Now, their water, soil, and produce were all likewise contaminated; their well water has tested at 400 times the state limit.

Because Songbird Farm is a Certified Organic operation, in which trust between farmer and consumer is fundamental, the owner-operators felt they needed to halt sales of their crops. They now await answers from the state and some kind of way forward. One of the farmers said to WBUR Radio, “At least we know and we can stop drinking our water. But who still doesn’t know? Who is drinking water right now that’s as high as ours? Who is about to have a baby? Who is thinking about having a baby? It’s so too late . . . to be telling everybody this.”

Her partner added that the state has to assure farmers and homeowners of some kind of long-term financial support in the face of this calamity. “To leave people in limbo is untenable. It’s not going to be good for the farming community and it is not going to be good for the state to do that. And I know that everyone is scrambling to catch up on this issue. We’re just learning about PFAS contamination in Maine. We’re just acknowledging it. It’s 30 years old, but we’re just recognizing it.”

The Maine legislature has moved more quickly in response than have many other states; in its 2019–2020 session, it passed “An Act To Protect the Environment and Public Health by Further Reducing Toxic Chemicals in Packaging,” which included measures to reduce the use of PFAS in food packaging. In 2021, Maine lawmakers passed “An Act To Stop Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances Pollution,” which bans (in 2023) the sale or distribution of carpets, rugs, or fabric treatments, and in 2030, use of PFAS in all consumer products in the state.

It also passed, as the Press Herald reported last year, “Bills . . . with broad, often-unanimous support . . . set[ing] among the nation’s strictest limits on PFAS pollution in drinking water, prohibit[ing] the uncontrolled testing of PFAS-laced firefighting foam, and provid[ing] millions of dollars to detect and clean up contamination.” The drinking water legislation established a limit of 20 ppt (parts per trillion) for the six most common types of PFAS; this more protective than the federal government’s current “advisory level” of 70 ppt for two PFAS compounds.

Most recently, the legislature has been considering a group of four bills:

  • the subject ban on pesticides containing PFAS, effective in 2030
  • a ban, effective immediately, on the spreading on farmland of fertilizers derived from treated human waste (a practice previously promoted by the state); such waste is nearly always contaminated with PFAS
  • creation of a fund to compensate farmers who, to date, are unable to grow and sell food products because their land has been contaminated with high levels of PFAS; that fund is likely to have a starting appropriation of $60–$100 million
  • launch of a study of the remediation possibilities for PFAS in landfills, which then leak into water supplies

The bill to create a compensation fund was, according to WMTW News, the least controversial of this batch of PFAS bills, while those featuring the ban on pesticides and the ban on spreading of waste biosolids were opposed by the Maine Farm Bureau and some farmers, concerned about the associated costs to farming operations. But many legislators and advocates have been outspoken in their support for the bills that address the PFAS issue. State Senator Craig Hickman responded to critics of the legislation: “Chemical weapons of warfare, that is what we are talking about. We cannot continue to kill ourselves in the name of agriculture.”

The contamination of pesticides with PFAS has been covered by Beyond Pesticides, and confirmed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The source of the contamination may be twofold; storage of pesticide compounds in plastic barrels that leach PFAS into the pesticide is one culprit. But as Beyond Pesticides has noted, “Why would PFAS be found in a pesticide formulation? The chemicals can work well as dispersants, surfactants, anti-foaming agents, or other pesticide adjuvants intended to increase the effect of the active ingredient. EPA includes PFAS chemicals in its “Inert Finder” database, and a PEER [Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility] press release indicates that many companies have patents on file for pesticide formulations containing PFAS.”

The 2030 target date for the state ban on pesticides contaminated with PFAS is too far in the future for some in the health and environmental sector, who would prefer to see the effective date be much sooner. Executive director of the Maine Farm Bureau, Julie Ann Smith, has said, “Even with allowing that ban to not take effect until 2030, you’re going to see over 1,500 different products eliminated from the market, with nothing else available for use.” On that point, advocacy director for Defend Our Health Sarah Woodbury, conceded: “You . . . have to give industry time to switch over and find alternatives.”

Beyond Pesticides would remind both “sides” that alternative management practices and products are available to all producers: organic regenerative agriculture. Transition, of course, requires time and effort, and should be supported by the state (and federal) governments, but getting off the toxic chemical treadmill in agriculture resolves multiple environmental and health problems simultaneously — including that of PFAS in pesticides and fertilizers.

There has been considerable controversy about the bill to ban use of “biosludge” fertilizers on farm fields — precisely what has contributed to the compromise, if not destruction, of multiple farm businesses in the state. Nevertheless, the Press Herald reports, “A group of farmers and wastewater treatment operators that calls itself the Maine Work Boots Alliance . . . warn[ed] lawmakers against a ‘knee-jerk, misguided reaction’ to all sludge recycling and farm use. . . . The group asked lawmakers to narrow the ban at the heart of L.D. 1911 so that it only prohibits the recycling or land application of sludge with unsafe levels of PFAS. ‘No Maine farmer wants to contaminate their land,’ said Courtney Hammond, a third-generation blueberry farmer in Harrington and past president of Maine Farm Bureau. ‘What we are looking for is a science based approach to monitoring for these PFAS levels.’”

But as Ms. Woodbury has pointed out, “The State of Maine set screening standards for PFAS and sludge. Over 95% of that sludge has tested above the screening standards that the DEP put into place a couple of years ago. We don’t want that stuff on our farmland.” According to the Press Herald, sponsor of the “sludge” bill, Representative Bill Pluecker, said that “there is no such thing as farming-safe sludge, at least not yet, because science has yet to determine how much PFAS is acceptable in all crops, meats and fish. State and federal authorities can’t even agree on safe drinking water levels.” Maine Farmland Trust’s Amy Fisher commented, “Now that we know that PFAS chemicals accumulate and are persistent in our soil and water, and that so much of this contamination is directly linked to sludge, we simply can’t afford to continue spreading sludge that contains PFAS.”

Beyond Pesticides adds that biosludge products are not only sold to farmers; they also show up on the shelves of retailers as fertilizers for consumer home and garden use. The organization wrote in 2021 that these products not only often contain PFAS, but also, harbor “hazardous pesticides, heavy metals, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and a range of other toxicants. . . . None of these risks [is] relayed to consumers on fertilizer packages. With fertilizer regulations failing the American consumer, it becomes more important than ever to seek out certified organic fertilizer products.” Some communities and states have taken action to restrict the use of such fertilizers, including the flurry of activity in Maine. See more on the biosludge issue here and here.

Beyond Pesticides welcomes Maine’s legislative attention to these PFAS issues, and encourages the public to insist that their own states and local jurisdictions take up issues related to PFAS — whether contamination of drinking water (as so many Northeast states and locations near Department of Defense facilities now face); agricultural practices that “invite” PFAS contamination of food, water, and soil through pesticide and/or biosludge use; and/or lack of consumer knowledge about the presence of PFAS in thousands of consumer products, which then end up in groundwater or (post-wastewater treatment) in water bodies/ways.

As we often say, organic practices solve many problems in one fell swoop. Certified organic production and food labeled “USDA Organic” may not be produced with biosolids or fertilizers containing biosolids, and the National Organic Program proscribes the use of toxic pesticides. Please consider working to get your state or locality to act protectively on pesticide use and/or to stop the use of biosolids. Beyond Pesticides can help; contact us at [email protected] or 202.543.5450.

Sources: https://www.pressherald.com/2022/04/11/maine-lawmakers-approve-ban-on-pesticides-with-pfas-by-2030/ and https://www.wmtw.com/article/maine-legislators-move-toward-final-passage-of-bills-restricting-pfas-forever-chemicals/39707206

 

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

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