'Forever Chemicals' and Risks to Farms
Michigan Farm Is Cautionary Tale of PFAS Contamination and Sewage Sludge Fertilizer
BRIGHTON, Mich. (DTN) -- Jason Grostic looks over his mama cows and wonders how he became the guy that the state of Michigan has shut down from selling either his meat or his cattle because of contamination from "forever chemicals."
After working with state officials to test biosolids for more than two years, Grostic was asked to join a Zoom meeting in late January. On that call, state officials told him he was under a seizure notice. No animals or meat were allowed to leave his farm.
"They said, 'You're out of business.' I said, 'Now what am I supposed to do?' They said, 'We haven't got a clue, but you're not selling your beef, and you can't get rid of your cattle."
Grostic's 300-acre farm was shut down after Michigan officials concluded his water, his ground, his feed and his cattle were contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances -- known as PFAS, PFOS or PFOA chemicals. The acronyms encompass more than 5,000 various manufacturing chemicals that are created to be more resistant to heat, water or oil. The traits that make those chemicals great for manufacturing have a side effect. They are called "forever chemicals" because they don't break down, but instead remain in the environment and tend to accumulate in soil, water, animals and people.
PFAS chemicals have been linked to higher levels of certain cancers such as kidney and testicular cancers, lower fertility in women, higher rates of diabetes, liver damage and problems with immune systems.
PFAS contamination is often found in water systems. States such as Michigan have been finding high volumes of PFAS chemicals in city water and wells. But along with that, PFAS chemicals attach themselves to biosolids such as sewage sludge, which is how farmers in a few states are learning that their soils are contaminated.
Last month, Maine became the first state in the country to ban the spreading of municipal or industrial sewage sludge as farm fertilizer because of PFAS contamination. Michigan officials last year set a standard of not allowing PFAS for land applications containing more than 150 parts per billion, and biosolids such as sewage sludge must be tested before it can be applied on land.
In a report last month, Environmental Working Group cited that sewage sludge was used for fertilizer on as much as 5% of the cropland in some states. Since 2016, EPA reports show more than 19 billion pounds of sewage sludge biosolids have been applied to farm fields.
A MICHIGAN CENTURY FARM
Grostic, 48, and his family took their now 100-year-old family dairy and converted it to a beef operation after his dad died in a farm accident in the late 1990s. Grostic developed a market selling meat directly to consumers, using a USDA-inspected meat locker. He built up a nice local market for his 120-or-so-head operation.
"I had what I could call for this area a huge market," Grostic said.
His situation began in 2019 when Michigan researchers asked to conduct a study on his farm about biosolids. A private company had knifed in sewage sludge from a nearby waste-water treatment plant that state officials had already found to have among the highest levels of PFAS in the state -- 2,150 ppb. The PFAS chemicals traced back to a company that makes chrome-plated products for auto manufacturers.
Grostic said he wasn't aware the biosolids getting applied to his alfalfa or corn silage acres were filled with chemicals that build up in the ground and can be absorbed into crops.
"It was a free fertilizer source. I didn't use any starter fertilizer, and we would plant right into the fields. We eliminated the headache of starter fertilizer."
Then, researchers came back to Grostic's farm for more water testing and put in some monitoring wells.
"I said, 'Yeah, whatever,' you know. If it's PFAS, then we've got to figure out what's going on with it. They said, 'Oh, the numbers are nothing to worry about.'"
Six monitoring wells were installed. They also took samples from crops and feed. After officials pulled manure samples and dozens of soil samples, they came back to test both meat and livestock. "They came back to me in November 2021 and said, 'You've got problems. You've got PFAS in everything you own.'"
Then came the January Zoom call and seizure notice.
In their news release about Grostic's farm, Michigan officials noted that the test results from his meat and cattle "didn't fit current USDA criteria for a recall or market withdrawal," although USDA does not have any national standards for PFAS in beef. Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services concluded that prolonged consumption of Grostic's beef could increase PFOS levels in the human body.
POFS levels in Grostic's cattle came out to an average of 1.9 parts per billion. Michigan officials noted USDA has found higher levels in beef samples in other states.
Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) bought all his meat inventory and took it to a landfill. MDHHS also started buying any market-ready cattle that Grostic otherwise would have sold. He was initially sending a few at a time to researchers at Michigan State University, but MDHHS has started buying some cull cows as well.
"I took them 13 animals in early April, and they just started processing the first four of them," Grostic said at the end of April.
The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development offered Grostic a $50,000 operating loan and funds to buy feed. They also told Grostic to look at bids to build a new barn with concrete floors to raise the cattle indoors. Grostic said the problem that won't go away, though, is that the farm ground he uses for alfalfa and corn silage is still contaminated.
"You can't raise cattle and buy feed. I tried to do it three years ago, and it almost bankrupted me," he said. "I'm not going to keep doing it, but this is where we're at right now, and this is what they have got to offer. We've been buying feed and turning in receipts."
Grostic also doesn't know what to do with his alfalfa and crop acreage that he normally planted to feed his cattle. "They (state officials) said, 'You just keep running your business, other than you can't sell anything.'" Grostic said. "They won't give me any suggestions on what to do with those fields because they don't have the science to back it up."
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, spent most of her allotted time April 28 on a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing asking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to visit the farmers in her state who have found PFAS contamination. High levels of PFAS have shut down dairies, and at least some organic vegetable farmers have voluntarily stopped selling produce after water levels showed high concentrations of PFAS chemicals.
"We are finding it all over our state," Pingree said. "Some of the farmers don't have the time to wait for the state, so they are paying for their own testing. They are finding extremely high levels of contamination in their bodies and in their children's bodies. So, I just can't say enough how hard it is to witness what is going on."
In an interview with DTN, Pingree credited Maine lawmakers for agreeing this year to spend $100 million to help farmers whose ground has been contaminated. Decades of using sewage sludge as a fertilizer has ruined farms, Pingree told DTN.
"I don't know what else to do to help my state other than get the federal government involved," Pingree said.
Vilsack last week agreed with Pingree that a national standard for PFAS is needed, as well as better research to understand what should be considered acceptable levels of PFAS chemicals. Vilsack also said USDA needs a more comprehensive program for producers. USDA right now has a program for the dairy industry, "But we don't necessarily have something for produce," Vilsack said.
Maine's congressional delegation had written USDA back in March, calling for aid to help their producers and strategies to deal with PFAS remediation.
The problems facing farmers in Maine, Michigan and a few other states are going to become a more widespread issue, especially as departments look to set more federal standards for PFAS contamination, Pingree said.
"We are dealing with a teeny, tiny tip of the iceberg here," Pingree said. "I think, unfortunately, Maine and Michigan are two of the states where we have been responsible and supportive of our farmers and worried about our consumers. So that's why we are moving forward on this, but it's like pushing a boulder uphill to get the sort of understanding and cooperation around the country, or from USDA, to be able to support our farmers."
NEW MEXICO DAIRY
Four years after milk from his dairy cattle tested positive for high levels of PFOS, Art Schaap finally was able to euthanize the last of his 4,000-head dairy herd last month.
DTN first reported in May 2019 about Schaap's dairy near Clovis, New Mexico. Schaap learned in October 2018 that his dairy farm had been contaminated through groundwater just outside Cannon Air Force Base where PFOS-laden foam chemicals were used extensively to train firefighters. Schaap's dairy was prevented from selling both milk and cattle.
Schaap's cattle were moved to clean water in February 2020. Schaap told DTN that USDA officials under the Trump administration wanted to see if the cows would shed the PFOS in their bodies once the cows were on clean water. But tests never showed any signs of improvement.
Schaap said the biggest complication trying to figure out what to do with his cows was that EPA still hasn't set a national standard for approved levels in water.
"So nobody wanted to be liable for making a decision because they said they didn't have any authority," Schaap said. "The people who are running USDA, they have been trying and they responded the quickest, but they're deer in the headlights with this thing."
Schaap, along with some dairies in Maine, received indemnity payments from USDA for dumping their milk.
"Hopefully they will have some rules in place soon so nobody has to go through what I went through," Schaap said.
After years of pressure for tighter regulations, the Biden administration last fall launched a "strategic roadmap" to combat PFAS. That plan laid out details for the Food and Drug Administration to expand testing of the food supply and work to "phase out" certain PFAS chemicals from food packaging materials.
In November, EPA indicates perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) chemicals as "likely carcinogenic." So far, EPA has set a non-enforceable advisory guideline for drinking water at 70 parts per trillion for PFAS chemicals. Last week, the agency announced a new testing method for the chemicals to detect their presence and forms of PFAS in wastewater. EPA also issued guidelines for PFAS discharges and began looking at water-quality criteria for fish and other aquatic animals.
The National Law Review also reported this week increased lobbying from water utilities to "carve out" protections for them from liability for PFAS chemicals after EPA issued a notice that the agency will move ahead with plans to regulate PFOA and PFOS chemicals as "hazardous substances" under the "Superfund" law known as CERCLA. A Superfund designation triggers authority to make chemical companies, water utilities, waste-management companies and others face potential cleanup costs.
For USDA, the White House stated the Agricultural Research Service was continuing to investigate the causes and implications of PFAS in the food system. USDA also would focus on PFAS in the environment and food supply.
USDA's press office did not respond to questions from DTN about the department's work on PFAS chemicals. DTN has filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with different USDA agencies.
USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service started an exploratory testing for PFAS/PFOS in fiscal year 2020. FSIS has tested about 2,400 cattle and found only five samples positive for PFOS chemicals. In fiscal year 2021, FSIS expanded its testing to chicken, pork and catfish. As noted, no regulatory levels for PFAS in meat and poultry have been set.
Officials in Maine and Michigan each have released warnings in the past week, encouraging residents not to eat fish from certain streams, rivers or lakes because of high levels of PFAS/PFOS.
NO CLEAR NEXT STEPS
Grostic has talked with state officials multiple times as well as leaders from the Michigan Farm Bureau and Michigan Cattlemen's Association. At the cattlemen's meeting, Grostic said a lot of producers were concerned they could be next. They wanted more answers on both the state and federal level.
"It's what everybody wants to know about now," Grostic said.
Grostic, who feels like he's lost his livelihood, said other farmers need to understand what can happen with PFAS and sewage sludge.
"They keep telling me I'm the only one," he said. "Well, BS, I can't be the only one. I'm not the only who has taken biosolids in the state of Michigan laced with PFAS. When you start looking at PFAS and the industry it's in, there's a factory in every town. So where is it all?"
See a video report on PFAS, including DTN's interview with Jason Grostic, here:
To read more, see "Forever Chemicals Ruin Dairies" here:
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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