Sewage Sludge and Contaminated Farms

Texas Farms Detail PFAS Contamination in Lawsuit Over Biosolids Fertilizer

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
Connect with Chris:
A biosolids application being spread on a farm. A pair of Texas farms have filed a lawsuit against the biosolids company Synagro for using sewage sludge from Fort Worth, Texas, that had high volumes of PFAS chemicals, known as forever chemicals. (DTN file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- With regulation of sewage-sludge fertilizer mostly unsettled nationally, a pair of Texas farms are suing the waste recycling and biosolids company Synagro for selling fertilizer that the farmers allege has affected their health, contaminated their water supply and left their fields and livestock with dangerous testing levels of "forever chemicals."

The farms involve five individuals who live or own property on the same county road near Grandview, Texas, about a half hour south of Fort Worth, Texas.

Their lawsuit, filed in Baltimore County, Maryland, where Synagro is based, alleges that their farms were contaminated after Synagro provided a neighboring farmer with a biosolid fertilizer that contained potentially dangerous levels of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS chemicals. The lawsuit alleges the volumes of PFAS chemicals "poisoned them, killed their livestock, polluted their water and rendered their property worthless," according to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which arranged laboratory testing of the farms' soil, water and dead livestock.

The PFAS levels on both farms involved in the lawsuit are significantly higher than EPA drinking water standards. Both farms have stopped selling meat because they are concerned about the effects on human health.

PFAS are a class of thousands of chemicals created for decades that are used in an array of manufacturing processes but now are leading to pockets of contaminated water across the country. Because of their ability to withstand long exposure to heat, water and other environmental conditions, PFAS chemicals are dubbed "forever chemicals." Manufacturers often send PFAS chemicals into the wastewater supply, and they build up in sewage sludge. Maine in 2022 banned the use of sewage sludge for land application because of the high number of farms found contaminated. Michigan also has demanded that sewage sludge be tested for PFAS before it can be applied to soil. Livestock operations in Maine, Michigan and New Mexico have been shut down over PFAS contamination over the past decade.

Kyla Bennett, PEER's science policy director, pointed out that Maine outlawed land application of biosolids after more than 60 farms were found to have unsafe levels of PFAS contamination. She also pointed to the need for EPA to issue rules that will protect farmers and consumers from toxic exposure. "This lawsuit against Synagro will likely be the first of many," she said.

EPA, earlier this month, announced a proposal to list at least nine PFAS chemicals as hazardous materials. Along with protecting drinking water supplies, the rules would focus on cleaning up soil and groundwater contamination.

The lawsuit details that Synagro has a contract with the city of Fort Worth, Texas, to take sewage sludge and convert it to a fertilizer application. Synagro produces about 26,000 tons of fertilizer, which is then sold to landowners in 12 counties. Synagro built a $59 million biosolids processing facility in the area to further process the sewage sludge into compost, fertilizer pellets or soil conditioners.

EPA advises exposure limits in drinking water for PFAS and related chemicals -- PFOA and PFOS -- at a maximum of 70 parts per trillion (ppt).

An environmental crimes investigator with the Johnson County Constable's Office opened an investigation into complaints about piles of biosolids from Synagro on a neighboring farm.

The drinking water wells on the farms that sued Synagro tested at 90,900 ppt. Another family's drinking well tested at 268,200 ppt, and a separate well on the same property tested at 192,710 ppt.

The surface water on the plaintiffs' properties tested in a range from 84,700 ppt to 1.3 million ppt of PFAS.

The county investigator then tested two fish and two dead calves from the plaintiffs' properties. The two fish came back at 57,000 ppt to 74,460 ppt of PFOS chemicals -- 30,000 times higher than EPA's standard for daily exposure.

The liver of a stillborn calf on one of the Texas farms tested at 620,228 ppt -- which is 250,000 times EPA's exposure limits. The lawsuit notes that Maine issued a consumption advisory for beef at 3,400 ppt for children or 7,300 ppt for adults. A Michigan farm was shut down when its cattle came up with testing levels of 2,800 ppt of PFOS.

Also see "Michigan Farm is Cautionary Tale of PFAS Contamination" here:….

The FDA has been testing food samples since 2018 and has reported detection of PFAS chemicals in seafood, but the agency has not set any specific standards for PFAS safety levels in food. USDA also has not set any standards for the meat and poultry safety that it oversees.

The Synagro biosolids product was tested and showed 35,610 ppt of PFAS chemicals. Thirteen of the 27 different PFAS chemicals found in the Synagro biosolids also were in the soil and water samples that Johnson Count took from the plaintiffs' properties.

One couple who filed the lawsuit reported medical issues that they had not experienced before, including high blood pressure, skin irritation and respiratory and cardiac issues. They also reported increased death losses from their various pets and livestock, as animals drank from well water or pond water and grazed in pastures.

"Now that their property and only water source is polluted with 'forever chemicals,' they face the stark possibility of having to abandon the home they love and the property they have developed into a working ranch, raising cattle, freshwater fish and game birds, which may have to be euthanized since they cannot be safely consumed," the lawsuit states.

Another plaintiff has developed a respiratory issue, but the farmer has seen heifers and calves die for unknown causes.

The lawsuit alleges a liability claim against Synagro for selling a defective product and failing to warn about the risks. Given the biosolids industry's knowledge about PFAS in sewage sludge, the plaintiffs allege Synagro knew or should have known about the risks of PFAS-contaminated fertilizer. Synagro did not provide any warnings about potential property or water pollution or take any precautionary measures to prevent or mitigate the pollution, the suit alleges.

DTN reached out to Synagro seeking comment but did not receive a response. DTN also did not receive a response from the Texas Department of Agriculture about PFAS testing or contamination in the state.

Earlier this month, the National Association of State Directors of Agriculture (NASDA) passed a policy calling for increased federal funding to help states respond to PFAS contamination on farms. NASDA also called for indemnity for farmers who have PFAS contamination at unsafe levels. During a panel discussion at the NASDA meeting, they recognized biosolid applications are the new risk being identified by state agencies.

A full copy of the complaint can be found here:….

Also see "PFAS Contamination and USDA's Lack of Engagement" here:….

Chris Clayton can be reached at

Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @ChrisClaytonDTN

Chris Clayton