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Daily News Blog

27
Jun

Biosolid Biohazard: EPA Sued for Failing to Protect Farmers and Public from PFAS-Contaminated Biosolids

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) sue EPA on behalf of Texas farmers over PFAS-contaminated biosolids and fertilizers

(Beyond Pesticides, June 27, 2024) Earlier this month, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on behalf of a group of ranchers and farmers in Texas harmed by biosolids contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The plaintiffs charge that their health and livelihoods were severely damaged due to contaminated biosolids leaching from neighboring properties onto their land. Despite EPA’s responsibility under the Clean Water Act (Section 405(d) and 40 CFR Part 503) to identify toxic pollutants in biosolids and regulate them to protect human health and the environment, the agency has not effectively addressed the dangers posed by PFAS in biosolid fertilizers. EPA’s failure has dramatic impacts on farmers as well as the public, who are eating or drinking PFAS-contaminated crops, dairy milk, beef, or other meat products. The shortcomings of federal regulations underscore the urgent need for a shift in how federal and state agencies approach these issues, prioritizing precaution to prevent future harm. The persistence of these legacy or “forever” chemicals in the environment illustrates the severe consequences of a historically lax regulatory framework in the U.S. 

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) has identified PFAS as an “emerging risk” and a “major hazard” to American agriculture, affecting farmers and ranchers nationwide. Beyond Pesticides argues that ending the use of toxic petrochemical pesticides, fertilizers and biosolids in agriculture addresses environmental and health issues simultaneously, including biosolids, a known source of PFAS contamination in soil, groundwater, and drinking water. Organic regenerative agriculture is a viable solution, and under the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), which establishes the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic seal and certification process, the use of biosolids or fertilizers containing biosolids, as well as toxic synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, is prohibited.

What are Biosolids or Biosludge?

EPA estimates more than 2.4 million tons of biosolids, or sewage sludge, are applied as fertilizers on farms, homes, parks, and other lands across the U.S. annually. Biosolids result from the wastewater treatment process, which collects wastewater and greywater, including anything flushed down the drain from homes, businesses, and industries. Some of the industries that discharge to wastewater treatment plants include metal plating, pulp and paper mills, fabric, and plastics manufacturing. Wastewater may even include the liquid waste or “leachate” that oozes from landfills.

Many persistent chemicals found in these waste streams are not removed during the treatment process. The Clean Water Act Section 405(d) requires EPA to review biosolids regulations every two years, identify any new pollutants found, and set regulations if there is the potential for harm to human health or the environment. As reported in Nature in 2022, EPA has identified 726 chemicals and “structure-based classes” in the biosolids it has tested, including pesticides and drugs (and their associated metabolites), cosmetics, flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated biphenyl ethers (PBDEs), dioxins, and dibenzofurans. Some chemicals are sent as liquid waste into local waterways, while others settle into the remaining solids known as biosolids. PFAS chemicals are not broken down during sewage treatment and yet biosolids are not currently tested for the presence of PFAS or other chemicals, outside of some heavy metals and pathogens. EPA is in the process of determining next steps since this issue attracted public interest last year. According to the agency, “The EPA committed in the agency’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap to conduct a biosolids risk assessment for two PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), in biosolids. . .The assessment is currently underway and is expected to be published by the end of 2024.” 

EPA allows biosolids to be applied to the land, incinerated, or landfilled, depending on the level of treatment. According to EPA’s 2002 ‘A Plain English Guide to the EPA Part 503 Biosolids Rule,’ biosolids can be applied on farms by conventional farmers, as long as they receive a permit from their EPA Region. EPA’s established standards on pollutant concentrations, pathogen density, and the attraction of potential pathogen vectors (e.g., insects, scavenging mammals, and birds) can be found in the Biosolids Rule (40 CFR Part 503). As Beyond Pesticides report, “Biosolids or Biohazards?,” noted in 2012, “While heavy metals, pathogens, and disease vectors are regulated, there are a myriad of chemicals, pesticides, and emerging contaminants, like PFAS in biosolids, that do not have any regulatory limits.”

The Problem with PFAS in Biosolids

Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS do not break down in the environment. Instead, these chemicals leach into soil and groundwater where they are absorbed by plants and animals. Once absorbed by some plants and animals, they bioaccumulate up the food chain, posing significant risks to humans, livestock, and wildlife. PFAS are often found in very high concentrations in biosolids, due to their widespread use in residential and commercial applications. PFAS health risks include developmental, metabolic, cardiovascular, and reproductive harm, cancer, damage to the liver, kidneys, and respiratory system, as well as the potential to increase the chance of disease infection and severityGestational (during pregnancy) and childhood exposure to PFAS increases cardiometabolic risk, or the risk of heart diseases and metabolic disorders, later in life, according to a Brown University study published in Environment International in 2021. 

Concern over the high amount of PFAS in biosolids prompted EPA’s Office of Water, to work with the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) to create Principles for Preventing and Managing PFAS in Biosolids. Ostensibly, the principles “define key areas for regulators and stakeholders to work collaboratively to ensure the fate and transportation of PFAS contaminated biosolids do not result in harm to human health or the environment.” Practically, these principles ignore the dramatic harms and reveal the lack of regulatory will necessary to address this crisis, despite EPA recognizing the grave impacts of PFAS on biological systems calling it an “urgent public health and environmental issue facing communities across the United States” in its 2021 PFAS. Roadmap.

While EPA has recently promulgated drinking water standards for a small subset of over 9,000 PFAS, regulations set limits for only a handful, including two of the most studied PFAS (PFOA and PFOE), for which EPA acknowledges there is no safe level of exposure for human health. Yet no federal agency has yet implemented a program to assist farmers plagued by PFAS on their land or to establish guidelines for PFAS in food.

Failure of EPA Regulation

The plaintiffs in the PEER case represent just a fraction of the farmers nationwide who face agricultural contamination due to EPA’s inaction on regulating toxic chemicals in biosolids. The lawsuit emphasizes that EPA has failed to use its authority under Section 405(d) of the Clean Water Act to regulate these toxic chemicals effectively and, based on PEER’s discussions with EPA before the lawsuit, the agency has no definitive timeline to take action. According to PEER, out of over 350 pollutants typically found in biosolids, EPA currently is only regulating nine heavy metals for land application, ignoring all others, including PFAS. 

In fact, EPA has been aware of hundreds of pollutants regularly found in biosolids, including 61 designated as acutely hazardous, hazardous, or priority pollutants in other programs. EPA’s failure to adequately regulate the use of biosolids prompted the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to investigate the situation in 2018. The OIG found that EPA’s management of biosolids was “incomplete” and “may not fully protect human health and the environment,” lacking the appropriate data or risk assessment tools. The OIG investigation also found that EPA reductions in staff and resources in the biosolids program have hamstrung the program. They lack the data necessary to determine which pollutants pose the greatest threats to humans and the environment. In addition, the OIG determined that EPA has not provided the public with sufficient information to understand the full spectrum of biosolids pollutants and their potential impacts.

Instead of developing regulations to prevent PFAS from entering the waste stream in the first place, in 2020 EPA provided “interim” guidance for destroying PFAS and PFAS-containing materials, which was updated in 2024 to provide information on methods to “remediate, dispose of, and destroy PFAS contamination.” This guidance is part of the EPA’s broader PFAS Strategic Roadmap, which outlines the agency’s strategies for addressing PFAS contamination. It identifies biosolids as a source of contamination to land, but states that alternative means of destroying PFAS in waste (incineration and landfill) also have contamination concerns and that further research is needed before additional guidance (or regulation) can be developed.  

Moreover, in 2022, EPA punted the responsibility for eliminating PFAS from biosolids to the states through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program. Through NPDES permits, EPA says states may “choose” to monitor levels of PFAS in sewage sludge and include permit requirements to reduce PFAS contamination, where appropriate. Meanwhile, EPA says they will continue to “research, restrict, and remediate PFAS in the environment, including in biosolids.”

Several states are mandating the monitoring of wastewater at treatment facilities and by industries that utilize PFAS in their operations or contribute to contaminated stormwater. States such as Maine, Michigan, and Colorado have implemented regulations that require wastewater systems to assess the levels of contamination and control the entry of PFAS pollutants from major industrial sources into the wastewater system.

As a result of nearly absent federal regulation, contamination of US agricultural systems continues.

In a separate lawsuit in February 2024, five farmers from Johnson County, Texas, filed a lawsuit against Synagro Technologies, Inc., a major manufacturer of biosolids-based fertilizers. The lawsuit alleges that Synagro’s products contain high levels of PFAS, which poisoned their land, water, and livestock, thereby decimating their livelihoods. The concentrations of PFAS found in the soil, water, and tissue samples from these farms were alarmingly high and included several PFAS for which there are not safe levels of exposure. As PEER notes, this is “the first in what may be a tidal wave of product liability lawsuits … against a major manufacturer of biosolids-based fertilizer for damages caused by toxic chemicals they contain. Fertilizers produced from sewage sludge have dangerous levels of toxic PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), according to laboratory testing arranged by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and thus present a major threat to American agriculture and public health.”

Synagro manages 6.5 million tons of biosolids each year, producing approximately 26,500 tons of fertilizer annually from sewage sludge purchased from water treatment plants. Despite marketing its fertilizers as safe and organic, the company faces accusations of failing to warn purchasers about the risks associated with PFAS exposure.

Beyond Pesticides has long warned unsuspecting consumers of deceptive labeling and PFAS dangers in fertilizers, calling out biosolid-based fertilizer products like Milorganite, often sold to consumers as “organic,” while contaminated with dangerous PFAS chemicals. A 2021 study published by Sierra Club and Ecology Center, identified biosolids containing residues of hazardous pesticides, heavy metals, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and a range of other toxicants. None of these risks are revealed on fertilizer packages. With fertilizer regulations failing the American consumer, it becomes more important than ever to seek out certified organic fertilizer products.

As the report notes, many of these products advertise themselves as “organic,” “natural,” or “eco-friendly.” But with these products, “organic” does not mean the same as certified organic products, which prohibit the use of fertilizers containing biosolids. The source of this discrepancy lies with the Association of American Plant Food Control Officials (AAPFCO). Fertilizer labeling is currently enacted on a state-by-state basis, and most states follow AAPFCO’s model language. The group defines organic fertilizer as a material containing carbon and one or more elements other than hydrogen and oxygen essential for plant growth. This definition permits fertilizers to be labeled as “organic” (containing carbon) even if they do not comply with the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards to produce organic food. 

State and Local Efforts

Lacking sufficient oversight at the federal level, action to protect health and the environment falls to the states and local jurisdictions. In 2022, the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) conducted a survey of state efforts to regulate, test, and research PFAS in biosolids. Of the 34 states that responded, 23 allow for biosolids contaminated with PFAS to be used on agricultural feedstock, residential and commercial land, food crops, and/or other uses. Only Maine has a ban on land application of biosolids, with the exception of septage (sewage from septic systems). Michigan has also established PFAS limits for biosolids used in land applications. In addition, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Michigan each have some level of required monitoring for PFAS in biosolids. However, 27 states have no legislation regarding this matter.

Local agencies are also picking up the slack left by EPA in the regulation of these toxics. The ECOS survey found that nine states (Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas) have local municipalities that have established measures to regulate or ban biosolids disposal or land application. (To learn more about federal, state, and local legislation and regulations about PFAS, see Northeastern University’s PFAS Project Lab website and PFAS Governance Tracker).

Urgent Response Needed

Land application of biosolids to farms and landscapes is considered the standard means of “disposal.” As Beyond Pesticides reported, chemicals such as PFAS have been found to migrate into food when grown on farms using contaminated biosolids. Over 60% of biosolids are used in crops, and the contaminants in them make their way to our food and water. When biosolids are used in landscaping, the contaminants pose a hazard to landscapers and those using athletic fields. In view of EPA’s failure to provide comprehensive identification, regulation, and elimination of potential contaminants, the biosolids themselves must be tested to ensure safety; otherwise, they should not be used on farms, public lands, or landscapes.

Currently, USDA organic certification is the only regulatory safeguard from biosolids threats to human health, given their prohibition in the Organic Foods Production Act. Beyond Pesticides urges consumers to avoid the use of dried sewage sludge on their home yard and garden and encourages reading fertilizer labels carefully. To assist, Beyond Pesticides created a resource of Fertilizers Compatible with Organic Landscape Management. The resource focuses on companies that produce consumer-use fertilizers that bear the certified organic label, which never allows the inclusion of biosolid sewage sludge.

Fight back against sewage sludge on your food and in your agricultural community by urging local leaders to prohibit the use of these products on farm fields. Communities across the U.S. have begun to take on this fight. Additional information on the dangers of biosolids can be found in the report “Biosolids or Biohazards” and here

To raise your voice in support of two bills to fight PFAS contamination, see Beyond Pesticides’ Action:

Tell Congress to Take Action: The Farm Bill must include the Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act and support the Healthy H2O Act to protect farmers and rural communities from PFAS contamination. Led by Chellie Pingree (D-ME), U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), and Susan Collins (R-ME), a bipartisan and bicameral bill—the Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act—has been introduced to provide assistance and relief to those affected by PFAS. A second bill, the Healthy H2O Act, introduced by Representatives Pingree and David Rouzer (R-NC) and Senators Baldwin and Collins, provides grants for water testing and treatment technology directly to individuals and non-profits in rural communities. Click here to tell your Congress member to act now.

Beyond Pesticides offers a variety of articles in the archives detailing the dangers and prevalence of PFAS in biosolids, pesticides, and drinking water, despite the standards EPA announced in April 2024. Click here to sign up for action alerts from Beyond Pesticides to take action on PFAS contamination and other environmental issues, and please take a moment to explore Beyond Pesticides’ Tools for Change webpage to begin your advocacy journey.

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

Sources:

EPA Sued to Remove PFAS from Biosolid Fertilizers: EPA Neglects Duty to Keep Toxic Forever Chemicals Out of Food and Water, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) press release, June 6, 2024

Lawsuit: James Farmer et al vs US EPA and Michael Reagan, Administrator US EPA, Civil Action No. 24-cv-1654, filed US District Court, District of Columbia, June 6, 2024

Senate Farm Bill draft raises hopes for PFAS-impacted farmers, The New Lede, May 25, 2024

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in Biosolids, EPA website

Toxic PFAS in Sludge from Wastewater Treatment Plant Pollutes Tennessee Land and Water, Sierra Club Tennessee Chapter report, February 2024

Texas Farms Poisoned by PFAS-Laden Biosolid Fertilizers: Johnson County Holds Hearing to Warn Citizens About Synagro’s Biosolids, PEER press release, February 16, 2024

Case study of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from biosolids contaminating farmland in Johnson County, Texas, PEER analytical report to Johnson County, Texas, February 21, 2024

EPA accused of ‘egregious’ misconduct in PFAS testing of pesticides, The Guardian, May 28, 2024

PFAS in Biosolids: A Review of State Efforts & Opportunities for Action, The Environmental Council of the States paper, January 27, 2023

Biosolids or Biohazards? Pesticides and You, Beyond Pesticides, Fall 2012

Hidden Dangers of Biosolids, PEER website, December 7, 2022

PFAS Governance Tracker, maintained by The PFAS Project Lab from Northeastern University’s Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute

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One Response to “Biosolid Biohazard: EPA Sued for Failing to Protect Farmers and Public from PFAS-Contaminated Biosolids”

  1. 1
    Paula Morgan Says:

    Forever chemicals are taking over earth! They are found in ocean species, animals, plants, humans, even blood! We eat a credit card size of plastics weekly? Plastics are an end product of Big Oil. Yet both have and are still killing our planet and all life forms on earth including us. Again, politicians are not able to have the knowledge needed to do their job of protecting us. Heck they hardly have the time to do their trade, selling nd buying of personal stocks with inside information.! It’s legal but taking money, or treats, from these two industries needs to be seen and punished as treason. We must end this treachery, now!

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