Fury Over “Chemicals Forever” As US States Spread Toxic Sewage Sludge | Environment

States continue to allow the spread of sewage sludge on cultivated land as fertilizer and in some cases by increasing its quantity, even as the PFAS-contaminated substance has ruined farmers’ livelihoods, poisoned water supplies, contaminated food and put public health at risk.

Michigan and Maine are the only two states in the United States to test sludge extensively, and the regulators of each say contamination was found in all samples tested. However, in recent months, Virginia officials have increased the amount of sludge that can be spread on farmland without testing the PFAS, while Alabama regulators have rejected requests from residents and environmental groups to test the sludge. for chemicals.

Similar struggles are taking place in other states, including Georgia and Oklahoma, and public health advocates fear regulators are ignoring the dangers to appease the waste management industry.

“We’re in an absolute mess and the government knows we’re in a mess, but they don’t seem to know what to do,” said Julie Lay, an Alabama agricultural worker who has organized residents to try to stop sludge from spreading into the country. state. “It’s terrible.”

Sewage sludge is a byproduct of the water treatment process that remains when water is separated from human and industrial waste discharged into the nation’s sewage systems. The Sierra Club defined sludge as “the richest man-made substance on Earth”.

The biosolid treatment process does not remove PFAS, or “chemicals forever,” a widely used toxic compound – typically used to make thousands of products resistant to water, stains and heat – which experts say contaminates all sludge. Chemicals can easily move from sludge into soil, crops, livestock and nearby sources of drinking water. Michigan regulators and Maine testing programs have identified widespread contamination in fields where the substance has been spread, as well as crops, beef, groundwater, and even farmers’ blood.

Maine last year became the first state to ban the practice after contamination damaged its agricultural industry. Likewise, Michigan officials and environmental groups have discovered PFAS contamination on dozens of farms, forcing one to close and raising questions about the safety of the state’s farmland. The state has launched a plan to identify farms at risk for the highest levels of contamination, banned some wastewater treatment plants from selling sludge, and forced polluters to stop discharging PFAS into sewers.

But other states are taking a different approach. In July, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) gave the green light to a permit request from waste management giant Synagro to spread sludge on nearly 5,400 acres of farmland in King William County. just north of Richmond. The application followed a 2013 permit that allowed the company to spread over 7,155 acres in the county and the DEQ is now considering a new permit application for an additional 1,900 acres, said Tyla Matteson, president of York River Group. Sierra Club.

About 80 local residents and environmental groups opposed the latest Synagro permit and called for a public hearing. Among other concerns, they say the sludge spread over nearby fields has disgusted them, emits a noxious stench, and contaminates their drinking water, soil and food with PFAS.

But state regulators have said Synagro is complying with all state and federal laws, denied the request for a public hearing, and ignored PFAS test requests. Synagro did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“We are disgusted, because we are slowly being poisoned,” Matteson said. “Virginia must have a backbone and do what other states are doing.”

In a statement to the Guardian, the Virginia DEQ said it was waiting for the Environmental Protection Agency to finish analyzing the risk of PFAS contamination in biosolids before considering testing the chemicals. No limits have been set on PFAS in sludge or food at the state or federal level.

A spokesperson cited a study suggesting that PFAS does not accumulate on agricultural land at high levels and said the discovery of widespread contamination in Michigan and Maine could be an “outlier.” The Virginia DEQ claim contradicts the Michigan regulators study that found a direct correlation between biosolid use and PFAS accumulation on farms.

In response to several years of complaints from residents about odors, pollution, PFAS contamination and other issues, regulators at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management tightened some rules on how sludge is applied and stored in June. waste products spread over agricultural land.

But the state ignored requests to test the sludge for the PFAS and did not respond to a request for comment from the Guardian. Refusal to test amid ongoing crises in Michigan and Maine is “worrying,” said Jack West, director of policy and defense of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, who petitioned the state to test the PFAS. .

“We want to eat food grown in our state, but it is worrying to go to grocery stores or farmers’ markets and not know if the food we are buying has been grown on sludge applied land when no one is testing the sludge for PFAS. “, he said.

In the absence of significant help from state regulators, public health advocates intend to push lawmakers to address the issue in the next session, West said.

In Northern Alabama, Julie Lay and her neighbors have asked a judge to order a nearby farm to stop spreading sludge and are attempting to educate farmers about the risks. Sludge spread over a nearby field could poison an aquifer from which at least 30,000 residents draw water, Lay said. She equated the stench of mud with that of decaying bodies and said the substance made her neighbors sick.

Unknowing farmers fall victim to industry players like Synagro pushing low-cost biosolids, Lay added.

“What they are doing is evil,” Lay said. “[Synagro has] I have no idea what’s in the sludge as long as the toilets are dumped in the sewers and the waste from the industry decreases as well. “

In Virginia, Matteson said farmers and residents do not have good options to prevent approval of sludge permits, but added that they will continue to oppose new permit applications and raise awareness.

“I believe in people who speak for themselves,” he said. “I believe in never giving up”.

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