Will the EPA’s New PFAS Rules Protect Our Water, Farms and Health?

Polluters should be held responsible for the billions per year in estimated cleanup costs.

Laura Orlando May 9, 2024

What do the atomic bomb and a West Virginia cattle farmer have in common? The first ushered in the mass production of per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS); the second helped expose PFAS’s terrifying toxicity and the corporate lies that kept it a secret for decades. Twenty-six years after Wilbur Tennant of Parkersburg, West Virginia, contacted Cincinnati attorney Robert Bilott about pollution that he thought was making his cows sick, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finally taken actions commensurate with the dangers posed by PFAS.

On April 10, the EPA imposed the first national limits on PFAS, mandating their reduction in drinking water to near zero levels. The agency followed this with an April 19 ruling that designates PFOS and PFOA, two of the most studied PFAS, as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund law.

These rulings signal that the federal government is paying attention to the well-founded public fear of PFAS poisoning and the reams of scientific evidence that show PFAS exposure is harmful to your health. These human-made chemicals can cause cancer, immune system disfunction, kidney disease, thyroid problems, cardiovascular disease and other serious health problems. If PFAS was a villain in a Hollywood movie, it would be a horror flick. On second thought, it does have a starring role in the Hollywood movie Dark Waters (2019)—but the chemical giant DuPont is the villain.

PFAS, also called “forever chemicals,” are a class of thousands of chemicals with nearly indestructible carbon-fluorine bonds used to make products resistant to water, stains and heat. They are currently manufactured by twelve corporations, including 3M and Chemours (a spinoff of DuPont). Yet, the chemicals seem to be everywhere, including in the blood of 97% of Americans.

The U.S. Geological Survey reports that at least 45% of the nation’s tap water is contaminated with the chemicals. This estimate includes water coming from both private wells and from public water utilities.

Private wells are not regulated by the federal government, so they are not subject to the new rule. Testing is up to the well owner and so is the cost of trying to address PFAS if they’re found. However, some states like New Hampshire have implemented programs to help private well owners cover treatment costs or connect to public water systems. At the national level, a bipartisan bill was introduced in February to address PFAS contamination in private water wells. It is no surprise that Maine’s two senators, Susan Collins (R) and Angus King (I), are sponsors, since Maine has been on the forefront of addressing the PFAS disaster.

A farmer sprays biosolids, a euphemism for sewage sludge on cropland. Sewage sludge is a byproduct of wastewater treatment and contains PFAS and hundreds of other dangerous chemicals.

Two years ago Maine became the first state to ban sewage sludge and sludge-derived products in fertilizer and compost. Before the ban, millions of cubic yards of sludge were put on Maine farms, golf courses and school playing fields. For more than three decades, sewage sludge, which is a byproduct of wastewater treatment, has been known to contain PFAS and hundreds of other dangerous chemicals. A recent study of a 2001 EPA sewage sludge survey found PFOS in sludge at an average of 403,000 parts per trillion (ppt) and PFOA at 34,000 ppt. These concentrations are thousands of times higher than the 4 ppt that triggers the cleanup of PFOS and PFOA in drinking water in the EPA’s new ruling. Recent testing shows similarly high concentrations. Whether you eat, drink or breathe PFAS, it does the same kind of violence to your body.

Landfills and wastewater treatment plants are the two indirect sources of PFAS pollution, with firefighting foam and manufacturing facilities direct sources. One mindboggling fact is that more PFAS comes out of a wastewater treatment plant than goes in, sometimes as much as 19 times more. Why?

Essentially, a wastewater treatment plant is a giant chemistry set. The chemical building blocks to make PFAS enter treatment plants from industry and landfill leachate, the contaminated liquid that’s captured by the plastic lining in landfills and brought to wastewater treatment plants for disposal. Millions of gallons of this polluted water are trucked to wastewater treatment plants big and small across the country.

Nearly all municipal wastewater treatment plants receive waste from not just households, but industries and manufacturers. A mistake in some recent reporting about PFAS and sludge claims that a significant driver of PFAS pollution comes from households. That’s incorrect. Whatever PFAS people might excrete is miniscule compared to the millions of pounds of PFAS entering the sewer from industrial sources. Part of the trouble with these chemicals is that, unlike pharmaceuticals, we do not excrete them in a matter of hours or days. Instead, PFAS bind to proteins in our bodies and stick around in our blood and internal organs for years.

What about treatment of the chemicals at the wastewater treatment plant? There is none. The treatment at the plant is for nutrients and pathogens, not chemicals like PFAS. Regarding chemicals, what goes in, comes out: either in the treated wastewater that is discharged into a receiving body of water like a lake, river or ocean; or in the sewage sludge.

South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas are facing polluted farmland, dead livestock and poisoned water from sludge spreading. A Michigan cattle farmer lost his livelihood because of sludge spreading on his farm. It is happening across the country, but Maine is the only state with a ban.

Maine farmers spoke up when they found PFAS in their cows’ milk, hay, grains, produce and in their own bodies from contaminated sludge, some of it applied to their property years before they bought it. The state legislature listened. In addition to prohibiting putting sludge on fields, the state created a $60 million fund to help farms and farm families impacted by PFAS. Hoping to build on that momentum, farmers and their supporters are asking Congress to include the Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act (S.747 and H.R.1517) in the 2024 Farm Bill.

Walk into the University of California, San Francisco’s Kalmanovitz Library and the first thing you notice is the Golden Gate Bridge framed by floor-to-ceiling windows. The second is a wall with quotes from tobacco executives that makes it clear they knew for decades that they were pushing an addictive chemical (nicotine) that caused great harm to people’s health. The wall of shame is a kind of art installation to introduce the library’s archive of 14 million documents from tobacco companies. It also has a PFAS collection, much of it gathered from Robert Bilott’s successful suit against DuPont on behalf of Wilbur Tennant. The library hosts no wall of shame for PFAS manufacturers, yet, but the parallels between the two industries are striking.

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Chemical company executives knew how poisonous PFAS were decades ago. Instead of acting on this information to protect public health, they used the tactics of the tobacco industry to hide the truth from the public and prevent government regulation that might curb their use.

And as usual, it’s the taxpayer who is paying for this corporate maleficence. The federal government’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides a one-time $9 billion investment for communities with PFAS-contaminated drinking water. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $3.8 billion per year estimated by the American Water Works Association to remove just two of the six regulated PFAS from drinking water. The Biden administration made an additional $3 billion in grants available to states and territories for small and disadvantaged communities. But rural water utilities say that’s not enough because they already operate on shoestring budgets and the cleanup technologies alone, not to mention their operation and maintenance, are prohibitively expensive.

It will cost billions of dollars every year for generations of Americans to cleanup PFAS unless the polluter pays. This is where the Superfund law comes into play. Once a chemical is listed by EPA as a hazardous substance, like PFOS and PFOA were last month, it triggers reporting requirements that can lead to actions to remove the substances. The Superfund program is essentially a trust fund used to help clean up a contaminated site, like a river or mine. The money comes from taxes on the chemical and petroleum companies—taxes that come and go with congressional votes, settlements from polluters sued by the federal government and occasional infusions of public funds. But already the Superfund program can’t keep up with cleanup costs.

When the EPA announced that PFOS and PFOA were going on the hazardous substances list, the Agency included a memo saying it would not enforce the rule on farms where biosolids, another word for sewage sludge, are applied to the land. This is a welcome move, but it is also an admission that those farms are being poisoned. Why not stop the land application of PFAS-contaminated sludge? The federal government established the rule that allows for land application. It could change it to end the practice.

The EPA also exempted publicly owned wastewater treatment plants and landfills. The trouble with this is that the authorities and private contractors that operate them know they are responsible for massive amounts of PFAS going into the environment, and instead of doing something about it, they claim they are “passive receivers” of PFAS and should not be held responsible. The federal government should use the EPA’s new rule as leverage to end the land application of sewage sludge and mandate that landfills pretreat their leachate to remove PFAS before sending it to a sewage treatment plant.

Meanwhile, industry groups like the National Waste & Recycling Association, Solid Waste Association and the U.S. Composting Council want more than a promise of no enforcement. They want a federal exemption from the Superfund law. This would be a mistake.

The EPA’s new drinking water standards and the regulation of two PFAS as hazardous substances under CERCLA is a good first step to confront the PFAS nightmare. But millions of children and adults can have a healthier future if we keep pushing for change. The path should include legislative action to:

  • End the production of PFAS (which is the most important thing to do to help landfills and wastewater treatment plants with their PFAS problems).
  • Regulate PFAS as a class of chemicals, not one by one.
  • Build a robust safety net for farmers impacted by PFAS contamination by passing the Relief for Farmers Hit by PFAS Act and expanding the Dairy Indemnity Program.
  • Give farms a federal exemption from CERCLA enforcement, not the municipal and corporate polluters.
  • Fund the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to do PFAS soil and water testing on farms.
  • Ban the land application of sewage sludge and the use of sludge-derived products as fertilizers or soil amendments.
  • Establish maximum contamination levels of PFAS for food and food packaging.
  • Amend the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to classify all PFAS as hazardous waste.
  • Classify all PFAS as hazardous substances under CERCLA with no loopholes for polluters.
  • Commit federal funding to research remediation options and implementation for PFAS-contaminated livestock and farmland.

Each of these actions is in reach and legislatively possible, but the federal government’s track record on facing chemical threats when those chemicals have big corporate backers is dismal. But maybe, just maybe, the fact that 200 million Americans have PFAS in their drinking water will compel Congress to act.

More Resources:

Northeastern University’s PFAS Project Lab

Environmental Working Group PFAS information

Ecology Center: Sludge in the Garden (2023)

Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter: Report: Sewage Sludge ‘Fertilizer’ Contaminates Farms with Toxic PFAS (2023)

Univ. of Maine Cooperative Extension: Assessing PFAS Contamination on Dairy Farms

Vice TV: The hidden chemicals destroying our farms (2023)

Montana PBS: Dangerous chemicals in compost (2023)

CNN: They told us this material would be safe. (2024)

Laura Orlando

Laura Orlando is a contributing editor at Barn Raiser and Senior Scientist at Just Zero.

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