June 23, 2024

The US may soon bail out farmers whose livelihoods were destroyed by toxic PFAS “forever chemical” contamination.

The proposal for a $500m fund aims to head off a crisis for the nation’s growers and is moving through Congress amid increasing evidence that PFAS-contaminated sewage sludge used as a cheap fertilizer alternative poisoned crops and livestock. Separately, around 4,000 farms nationwide have been contaminated by PFAS from neighboring military bases.

The bipartisan proposal was included in the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill, and the funds could be used to remediate farms, buy out farmers and monitor health – or fund state level testing for the dangerous chemicals.

The bill is modeled off legislation approved unanimously in the Maine legislature, said Sarah Alexander, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

“Farms have been contaminated through no fault of their own and farmers shouldn’t be left holding the bag over chemical contamination,” she said. “It’s critical to address PFAS holistically and the agricultural aspect of this has not been taken up yet.”

PFAS are a class of around 15,000 compounds that are dubbed “forever chemicals” because they don’t naturally break down, accumulating in the human body and environment. The chemicals are linked to a range of serious health problems like cancer, liver disease, kidney issues, high cholesterol, birth defects and decreased immunity.

Sludge is a mix of human and industrial waste that is a byproduct of the wastewater treatment process. Its disposal is expensive, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows it to be spread on cropland as biosolid fertilizer.

But virtually all sludge that has been tested has been found to contain PFAS, which concentrates in the nation’s sewer systems. Maine last year banned biosolids after it found PFAS had highly contaminated crops or water on dozens of farms.

Though the EPA has acknowledged the threat of PFAS in sludge, it has taken little action. Earlier this year, two groups, including Alexander’s, filed separate citizen lawsuits that effectively ask courts to order the EPA to ban biosolids under the Clean Water Act.

Advocates are optimistic about the suit and are attempting to have the bailout fund in place by the time the legal fight plays out. Some farmers in Maine hesitated to have their fields tested because they faced the prospect of financial ruin if their fields were contaminated, Alexander said. Some states have also not tested for sludge because it could wreak havoc on the farming industry.

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Once Maine put the bailout fund in place, more farmers were willing to test for PFAS contamination, Alexander said. So far, only five of around 70 farms found to be contaminated have been put out of business because the state was able to pay for remediation.

Despite bipartisan support, the provision was not included in the House version of the bill approved in committee, though advocates are pushing for it to be added in the House or in reconciliation.

“Nobody is opposed to a safety net for farmers and we haven’t encountered opposition,” Alexander said.

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