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Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues through a collaborative network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.

Farmers threaten to sue the EPA over PFAS contamination spread to their farms through biosolids

Grostic continues to care for nearly 150 cows that were “seized” by the state, yet remain on his land and can’t be sold. Grostic said Michigan State University is now using his farm and cows to conduct research on how PFAS is transferred from soil to various crops and cattle. He hopes it can lead to more science-backed decisions and help farmers better navigate PFAS.
Adam Miedema
Jason Grostic, a Michigan farmer, continues to care for nearly 150 cows that were “seized” by the state. He said he was blindsided when the state of Michigan ordered him to shut down his farm, citing high levels of PFAS in his beef and soil, after he had used contaminated biosolids. Now farmers in Maine are asking the EPA for federal standards on biosolids.

The EPA could soon face a lawsuit for not protecting farmers from “forever chemicals.” Few states regulate PFAS in biosolids fertilizer, but farmers in the northeast are now calling for federal standards.

The EPA could soon face a lawsuit for not protecting farmers from “forever chemicals.”

Biosolids are a type of treated sewage byproduct that make a nutrient-rich fertilizer, but PFAS are slipping through the cracks of wastewater treatment and could be contaminating millions of acres of farmland.

Few states have regulations on what level of PFAS are safe in biosolids. A group of farmers in the northeast are now demanding the EPA implement federal standards.

Sarah Alexander leads the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which filed the notice against the EPA. She said the federal government needs to step up and ensure biosolids are safe.

"We do believe the EPA has a responsibility here, and we need federal action," Alexander said. "State-by-state action on this isn't enough to address the full scope of this issue."

PFAS are a group of more than 15,000 chemicals that are associated with various cancers, decreased immune response, liver disease and reproductive or developmental issues, among other adverse health outcomes.

But these chemicals don’t break down, and most wastewater plants can’t treat them. Routine testing for PFAS at plants is also still sparse across the Midwest.

Michigan is one of few states in the country that requires wastewater plant testing and has standards for what levels are acceptable in biosolids.

If wastewater plants detect two compounds, PFOA and PFOS, above 100 parts per billion (ppb) in biosolids, they are considered “industrially impacted” and can no longer be applied to land. If they're under 20 pbb, they’re in the clear.

So far, the state has only shut down one farmer.

Jason Grostic, a beef farmer in southeast Michigan, was ordered to stop selling his products after using contaminated biosolids on his land. He previously told Harvest Public Media he felt like the rug had been pulled out from under him when he was forced to close.

“I took a fertilizer source that was recommended and was EPA-approved, and the government dropped the ball by not testing it and assuring it was a clean product,” Grostic said.

Grostic is now on the brink of bankruptcy while still caring for more than a hundred cows, and engaged in a lawsuit against the auto parts supplier, which released PFAS into the wastewater system.

He said he was never warned of the risks of PFAS in biosolids and supports more protections like financial safety nets for farmers.

“As a farmer that can’t farm nothing, what am I supposed to do?” Grostic said.

A few other states in the Midwest are in the midst of developing a strategy to address PFAS contamination in biosolids. But the majority told Harvest Public Media earlier this year they need more federal guidance before implementing any standards.

The EPA is expected to release a risk assessment on PFAS in biosolids later this year. According to the EPA's PFAS Strategic Roadmap, the assessment will “serve as the basis for determining whether regulation of PFOA and PFOS in biosolids is appropriate.”

Alexander said she believes no further study is necessary to see if PFAS in biosolids fertilizer are a threat. Her home state, Maine, banned the application of biosolids after uncovering more than 70 farms with PFAS in the soil.

"We have had to deal with this firsthand, and there is a lot of data and experience here in Maine that shows the exact result of what happens when (contaminated) sludge is spread on land," Alexander said. "We have enough information to take action on this."

Under provisions in the Clean Water Act, the public can sue the EPA for failing to perform its duty. The agency has roughly two months to respond to the MOFGA's notice of intent or go to court.

"We don't know the scope of the issues and problems (with PFAS contamination), but we’ve got to take some first steps," Alexander said. "The EPA has to take responsibility around this. We believe they do have the authority to do that under the Clean Water Act."

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

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