This Sunday, more farms than ever in 30 years of Maine Open Farm Days will welcome children and families to barns, milking parlors, and more for activities that demonstrate and celebrate Maine agriculture.
One farm won’t.
Stoneridge Farm in Arundel has been ruined by toxic chemicals. Evidence suggests the chemicals may have come from sludge that state agencies authorized, beginning in the 1980s, to be spread at Stoneridge and other farms. The agencies authorized the practice even though the sludge was not tested to discover it carried high levels of PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances). All 50 states have encouraged farmers to spread sewage sludge, euphemistically called “biosolids,” as fertilizer.
But here’s what’s even more shocking: the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is still allowing sludge and compost that it knows to be contaminated with PFAS to be spread on Maine farms and gardens.
Earlier this year, after the Stoneridge Farm story became widely known, DEP did the right thing and ordered that sludge be tested for PFAS, for the first time. But now, under pressure from commercial industries and sewer districts, it is allowing sludge and compost that exceeds the department’s screening level for PFAS to be used anyway, according to an investigation by The Intercept.
No one experiencing the pride of Maine’s Open Farm Day should have to think about PFAS contaminating Maine farmland and threatening public health for generations to come. Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS do not readily breakdown in the environment. Feed and food crops, such as hay, corn, and leafy green vegetables can take up these toxic chemicals from the soil.
Health risks are frightening. The PFAS found at Stoneridge, for example, is linked to harm to the immune system, thyroid disease, liver damage, decreased fertility, developmental problems in children, and possibly some cancers.
When Maine’s tests this spring revealed that 31 out of 32 sludge producers and 14 out of 15 compost producers exceeded the state’s screening level for one or more PFAS, I was one of many Mainers who assumed the contaminated sludge wouldn’t be used as fertilizer.
I was wrong. Turns out the state is going with the ill-conceived adage that “the solution to pollution is dilution.” That’s the notion that dumping raw sewage into a river or ocean mixes it with enough clean water that it won’t have an impact. That’s false, of course.
DEP is saying it will allow PFAS-contaminated sludge to be spread on “clean” fields that have undetected or low levels of PFAS. The agency says that if contaminated sludge spread on clean soil creates a mix that tests below the state’s standard for PFAS, it will give a green light to spread the waste.
In other words, DEP has created a policy to encourage clean fields to receive sludge contaminated with PFAS.
Obviously, all of us contribute to the sewer system every day, and the waste needs to go somewhere. The better of the not great available options is to dispose of the contaminated sludge in landfills where we can monitor the PFAS. This may cost sewage districts more, but it doesn’t additionally contaminate Maine farm land.
In the long term, both in Maine and nationwide, we need to do more to prevent PFAS from entering our bodies, the waste stream, and the environment. Some PFAS chemicals are still widely used to produce grease-resistant paper packaging, plastics, water-repellent textiles, and a variety of consumer products. One example of a prevention solution is Maine’s national leadership in phasing out the use of PFAS in food packaging by Jan. 1, 2022.
But you can do something right now. Please call upon the Maine DEP to halt all spreading of PFAS-contaminated sludge and compost. Do it for our children’s future, and for the incredibly hard-working farmers inviting you to visit this Sunday.
Patrick MacRoy is deputy director of the Maine-based Environmental Health Strategy Center.