by Tamara Scully

Just over three years ago, Fred Stone and his family in Arundel, Maine, experienced the beginning of an ongoing nightmare on Stoneridge Farms. The historic dairy farm has been in the family for over 100 years. Stone recently spoke during a webinar, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Farmers Union, explaining how pollution from land applied biosolids spread from 1983 through 2004, have caused severe distress today.

That distress is not going to go away any time soon. And it’s likely that Stone and his family are just the first farmers to be impacted.

Land application

Of the eight million tons of biosolids generated per year in the United States, about 36 percent are land applied to agriculture lands, Darree Sicher, Pennsylvania Farmers Union, said. Together, about 50 percent of all biosolids – which are formed as a byproduct at wastewater treatment plants as the effluent is cleaned – often are spread on land for use as a soil amendment and fertilizer. Commercially bagged fertilizers often contain these biosolids, so homeowners across the nation have been using these in their garden beds, too.

These biosolids aren’t devoid of harmful elements. They contain heavy metals and synthetic chemical contaminants. They can have pathogen loads high enough to cause human illness. And very little of this is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, or individual state regulations. The EPA only tests biosolids for nine heavy metals and two indicator bacteria, escherichia coli and salmonella, and sets acceptable levels. States are free to implement higher standards.

The EPA and the FDA both acknowledge that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in particular are getting into the food supply, including via biosolids. And these manmade PFAS are forever chemicals, which bioaccumulate in soils and in our bodies.

Cornell University had released a report in 1997 that stated the limited ability to predict risk associated with biosolids use on agricultural land was inadequate, and the amount and extent of contaminants in biosolids was not well-documented, Dr. Murray McBride, Soil and Crop Sciences, Cornell University, said in the webinar. The effect on soil, ecology and human and animal health was not and is not fully understood. And new contaminants continually enter the biosolids waste stream.

From the agronomic standpoint alone, land application of biosolids is risky, Dr. McBride said. The nutrient levels in biosolids are extremely variable, and the ratios of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium are nowhere near the proper ratios needed for crop growth. If farmers use the biosolids to apply the necessary nitrogen to their fields, which is standard practice in New York state, the resulting load of phosphorous is excessive.

Today, more than 50 percent of upstate New York agriculture lands now have excessive phosphorous levels, Dr. McBride said, leading to runoff concerns and contaminated groundwater. Dairy farms, in particular, do not need to be importing additional nitrogen or phosphorous, but often apply biosolids. And heavy metal buildup from biosolids applications can impact crop health and forage quality.

“In my view, these negative effects outweigh positives,” Dr. McBride said of biosolids land application. “The build up of contaminants – and this includes pathogenic organisms, metals, and synthetic organic chemicals of which there are thousands – mean that you potentially contaminate food crops, dairy products, and meat.”

Bioaerosols from biosolids contain pathogens and endotoxins, Dr. McBride advised, and have been seen to impact human health of those living adjacent to farmland on which biosolids are spread. The overall impact of biosolids use on the ecology, soil, and human and animal health remains unknown.

Real life effects

The EPA itself has recently issued information warning of the inadequacy of biosolids testing:

“The EPA’s website, public documents and biosolids labels do not explain the full spectrum of pollutants in biosolids and the uncertainty regarding their safety. Consequently, the biosolids program is at risk of not achieving its goal to protect public health and the environment.”

Stone knows firsthand how the lack of regulation can, and has, impacted his dairy. In late 2016, the aquifer used for his farm’s water source was found to have excessively high levels of PFAS. Stone and his family, their veterinarian and their lawyer discussed options. Ethically, they had no choice but to act.

The aquifer also provided drinking water for state residents, but the state doesn’t test for PFAS, so did not know of the elevated levels. They alerted the state of the water testing results.

“What else can you do?” Stone asked. “Although you will be amazed at the number of people in our industry, both organic and conventional, who told me that I screwed up. All I had to do was keep my mouth shut.”

They also tested their milk supply, and found it to be well above the EPA guidelines for drinking water. His processor would no longer collect his milk, and the state of Maine wanted to euthanize his herd. He refused to do so, although he has no market for his milk.

The state began testing his fields, and found extremely elevated levels of PFAS in some locations, while other fields were not contaminated. Stone stopped using contaminated fields, importing much of his feed from outside of Maine, as the use of biosolids is common in the state. He installed carbon filtration systems on his water to remove PFAS. He also added new cows from out of state to his herd. It helped for a while, eliminating the PFAS in his herd’s milk, but they soon reappeared. The expense for all of this testing and infrastructure, of course, was his alone to bear.

Stone hadn’t applied biosolids to his heavily contaminated fields for the past 15 years. Stone feels betrayed. He has had little support from the USDA or from Maine government. Now, with his land contaminated and his herd’s milk unsellable, his financing – secured by the land and the herd, of course – is in question.

“We were assured by the state that this would not be a problem,” Stone said of any potential contamination from the biosolids he land applied. “We did it by the book. There’s no way of cleaning this up. That’s why they call it a forever chemical.”

Stone and his family had their PFAS blood levels tested. All of them show extremely elevated levels – measured in parts per trillion – but no one knows how this will impact their health.

Both Federal and State regulators are caught unprepared to deal with a potentially serious, emergent and long term health issue – one that began decades ago, but was simply ignored. And farmers are left with the blame, the repercussions and the heartbreak.

View the webinar here: