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Ban PFAS Fertilizer Spread on Land, Maine Farmers Ask Lawmakers

Feb. 23, 2022, 6:09 PM

Maine farmers and agricultural groups urged state lawmakers on Wednesday to pass legislation restricting a type of fertilizer from being spread on farmland, golf courses, and other properties if it contains “forever chemicals.”

After learning earlier this month that PFAS was in their well water and on their land, “We pulled our crops off the market and started drinking bottled water, even refraining from giving our 19-month-old daughter baths out of concern we couldn’t keep her from drinking the tub water,” said Adrienne Lee, who with husband Ken Lamson operates the New Beat Farm in Knox, Maine.

“We’ve been thrown into a tailspin, a torturous limbo,” said Nell Finnigan, who operates Ironwood Farm in Albion, Maine.

Ironwood also pulled all its groceries from local stores after learning on January 25 that its two wells tested high for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

Lee and Finnigan were among a group of farmers speaking outside Maine’s legislature on Wednesday asking lawmakers to pass a bill (LD 1911) that would establish the nation’s first statutorily-mandated limits on the amount of PFAS that could be in land-applied biosolids.

Those nutrient-rich wastes are left over from municipal and industrial wastewater treatment and used on farmland, in forestry, as fill for road construction, on golf courses, and elsewhere. But, they’re one way PFAS can get into water, plants, animals, and people. Instead of being spread on land, biosolids exceeding the threshold would be sent to landfills.

PFAS, a huge group of compounds, often are called “forever chemicals,” because nature is unable to break some of them down. The long-lasting ones build up in the environment and are associated with liver, kidney, and other health problems.

Full Ban Possible

The state legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee supported the bill during a Feb. 7, but members disagreed about whether to totally ban all the uses of contaminated biosolids. They also didn’t decide whether to include a fund to help municipalities pay for landfill disposal costs they’d incur shifting from land application to disposal in a landfill.

The proposed bill’s requirement shifted almost overnight from a practical approach that would restrict the amount of PFAS to a complete ban, said Emily Remmel, director of regulatory affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA).

The association, which represents publicly owned wastewater treatment facilities, opposes the bill. Landfills may not have the capacity to manage the additional waste they could receive, Remmel said.

The legislation doesn’t resolve the problem PFAS are causing farmers, but shifts the problem to landfill owners who would have to deal with PFAS leachate that landfills release, Remmel said. Nor does it recognize that scientific studies have shown other types of fertilizers, including ones homeowners buy for their gardens, contain PFAS, she said.

VIDEO: What are “Forever Chemicals,” and how is the race to regulate and litigate them shaping up across the country?

More Laws, Restrictions

The bill also doesn’t recognize problems landfills would face if the federal Environmental Protection Agency designates two PFAS—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS)—hazardous substances under the superfund law or hazardous wastes under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which governs solid and hazardous wastes, she said.

The EPA’s proposed rule designating both chemicals as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or superfund law, is under review by a White House agency.

The agency also is crafting proposed rules to would designate four “forever chemicals” as RCRA hazardous wastes.

Maine already limits the amount of PFAS that can be in biosolids to 2.5 parts per billion (ppb) PFOS and 5.4 ppb PFOA. LD 1911 would better protect public health by close loopholes that allow the contaminated biosolids to be shipped to composters and then spread, said Sarah Woodbury, director of advocacy at the nonprofit Defend Our Health, during the farmers’ rally.

‘Teetering on the Edge’

Whether the state restricts or bans biosolids with PFAS, Maine’s law would be the most aggressive in the country, said John Gardella, an environmental trial attorney and shareholder at CMBG3 Law. Michigan’s interim strategy bars biosolids from being spread on land if they have more than 150 ppb PFOS.

But Michigan lawmakers along with those in Maryland, Vermont, and Minnesota are watching Maine and discussing possible legislation to restrict or ban biosolid use when it contains PFAS, he said.

Meanwhile, Ironwood Farm’s Finnigan said: “We’re teetering on the edge of losing everything—our business, our home, our career, our health, everything.”

To see the latest updates on state-level PFAS regulations and legislation, check out Bloomberg Law’s PFAS State Activity Tracker here.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at prizzuto@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com