Jim Buckle of Buckle Farm walks in front of a 2-acre vegetable field in April that will grow a cover crop of peas, vetch and oats this season in Unity. The Buckle farm has a PFAS filtration system. Buckle grows onions, potatoes and broccoli. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

A Maine-based organic farming group announced Monday that it plans to join a lawsuit contending that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has failed to regulate harmful forever chemicals found in the sludge that Maine farmers used as an agricultural fertilizer for years.

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, or MOFGA, claims that federal law requires the EPA to regulate toxic pollutants in sludge and take steps to prevent them from harming humans and the environment. Its failure to do so has put us all at risk, said MOFGA Director Sarah Alexander.

“If the EPA had been regulating appropriately, many of our farmers wouldn’t be facing the harm they are today,” Alexander said. “We demand that the EPA do the work required under the Clean Water Act and stop allowing these toxic chemicals to contaminate the U.S. food and water supply.”

Farmers across the U.S., including Maine, have been impacted by the spreading of sludge contaminated by at least 18 different types of forever chemicals, MOFGA claims. There is sufficient scientific evidence that at least a dozen of these chemicals require EPA regulation to protect the public.

Under a 1987 amendment to the Clean Water Act, the EPA must identify emerging risks from sewage sludge and adopt rules to prevent it from harming people or the environment. The agency has identified more than 250 pollutants, yet only adopted nine sewage sludge rules for land application.

In 2021, the Biden administration said it would consider whether to regulate forever chemicals in sludge after it completed a human health and environmental risk assessment in the winter of 2024 on two of the oldest forever chemicals commonly found in sludge, PFOA and PFOS.

Advertisement

The agency recently announced new national drinking water standards for forever chemicals, including both PFOA and PFOS, that are lower than Maine’s interim drinking water standard, but it has remained mum on the status of its risk assessment and has yet to start the lengthy rulemaking process.

The EPA’s reluctance to regulate sludge has left Maine farmers to shoulder the burden, Alexander said.

“This lawsuit isn’t about money,” Alexander said. “We aren’t seeking damages for the Maine farmers who have lost livestock or crops because of this, some who have even lost their farms. That’s for another day. This is about forcing the government to set a national standard so it won’t happen to anybody else.”

SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE IS NOT LACKING

The EPA can’t claim it didn’t know, MOFGA insists. Ample scientific evidence exists to indicate that a dozen of the 18 forever chemicals found in the sludge Maine farmers used pose an adverse risk to human health, which is the regulatory threshold required by the 1987 law.

It’s not that the other six forever chemicals are necessarily safe, but there is less scientific evidence showing they pose public health or environmental risks, Alexander said. The class of chemicals, found in many household and industrial items, is made up of 15,000 compounds.

Advertisement

The lawsuit wouldn’t change anything in Maine. The spreading of sludge has been outlawed here since 2022 following passage of a law banning the land application of sludge or sludge-derived products after a series of farmers came forward with high levels of forever chemicals in their wells, fields and livestock.

California has taken the opposite tack and essentially banned sludge landfilling in favor of recycling 90 percent of its organic waste, including sludge, to lower its greenhouse gas emissions. California’s sludge is still spread on farm fields as fertilizer.

Other states fall somewhere in between California, known for an environmental ethic that produced the nation’s first greenhouse gas regulatory program, and Maine, which hails itself as a leader in legislative efforts to stop the spread of harmful forever chemicals, resulting in a hodgepodge of regulation.

Over half of the 5.2 million tons of sludge produced in the U.S. each year is applied to farm fields or forests, often for free or far below the price of chemical fertilizers. For decades, it was seen as a win-win, saving farmers money and closing the waste recycling loop. That was before forever chemicals.

At the height of Maine’s sludge spreading days, back in 1997, Maine sent 48% of its 267,000 tons of sludge to farmers to be applied to fields, turned 38% of it to compost, and landfilled 1% in a landfill, according to state Department of Environmental Protection records.

By 2021, the numbers had flipped: Maine buried 82% of its sludge, composted 11% and spread 6%.

Advertisement

Forever chemicals are a group of over 15,000 manmade chemicals used since the 1950s in industrial and household products like waterproof clothing, nonstick cookware and firefighting foam. They have been linked to cancer, kidney malfunction, immune system suppression, and pregnancy problems.

Their strong carbon-fluorine bonds break down slowly, making them highly resistant to heat, corrosion, water and stains. They build up over time, in both the environment and people. They can be found in Fairfield fish and Norwegian polar bears, from China Lake to the blood of Chinese factory workers.

It eventually winds up in the waste stream, which is how the farming sludge came to be contaminated.

MOFGA’s 15-member board unanimously voted earlier this month to take their complaint to court after learning that Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, an organization that focuses on illegal government actions, had filed a similar intent to sue in February.

“We are grateful to have MOFGA joining our suit,” said Kyla Bennett, PEER’s science policy director. “The state of Maine has been a national leader on this issue, but it’s time for the EPA to do its job and ban PFAS-laden biosolids from agricultural application across the country.”

Both organizations have given the EPA 60 days to comply with the sludge regulation provision of the Clean Water Act. If it refuses, MOFGA and PEER can file lawsuits that will probably end up being combined by a judge. The two organizations are already working hand in hand, Alexander said.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.