EPA to Regulate 'Forever Chemicals'

EPA to Declare Two PFAS Chemicals as Hazardous Materials, but USDA Quiet on Farm Risks

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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USDA paid out more than $696,000 to a New Mexico dairy farm forced to depopulate its herd because of PFAS contamination through groundwater from a nearby Air Force Base. Other farmers have had fields and livestock contaminated by PFAS chemicals in sewage sludge applied as fertilizer. (DTN file photo by Chris Clayton)

OMAHA (DTN) -- An EPA proposal to designate two "forever chemicals" as hazardous substances under the Superfund law likely won't directly help farmers who already have contaminated fields or livestock but could help prevent future farm contamination.

After issuing drinking water advisories and increasing awareness, EPA on Friday proposed to designate two of the most widely used chemicals, perfluorooctanoic sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFAS chemicals, as hazardous substances under the law known as Superfund to add more regulation to the chemicals and "help to hold polluters accountable for cleaning up their contamination."

PFAS chemicals are used in a variety of manufactured products because of their ability to withstand water, heat or oil. That also essentially means the chemicals don't easily break down in the environment either. The chemicals instead tend to accumulate in water and soil. That has translated into PFAS being found in milk products, dairy cows, beef cows and other agricultural products as well.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has called PFAS contamination on farms "a crisis," but USDA's press office did not respond Friday to questions posed by DTN about EPA's proposed rule.

PFAS contamination has been found in a growing number of farms across the country, largely caused by biosolids such as sewage sludge applied to farms as fertilizer. Maine in April banned sewage sludge as a farm fertilizer. Michigan also requires testing before any land application to keep PFAS levels under 150 parts per billion.

The chemicals are linked to kidney and testicular cancer, as well as higher rates of diabetes, lower fertility rates in women, and damage to the liver and immune system.

Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs for Environmental Working Group, said EPA's decision would finally hold companies accountable for PFAS contamination. "For too long, they've had a free pass to dump PFAS into communities and poison their neighbors. Thanks to this proposal, PFAS polluters will finally be forced to pay their fair share of cleaning up their mess."

Still, Benesh told DTN she doesn't think EPA's move will lead USDA to take any specific actions on its own to address PFAS contamination on farms. "And it also doesn't mean that a bunch of farms are going to become Superfund sites," she said. Benesh added, "I don't think today's decision or announcement is going to have a big impact on cleanup of farms."

An EWG report last April projected as many as 20 million acres of farmland nationally could be contaminated with PFAS.

What it will mean is that companies are going to have to become more diligent about not allowing PFAS chemicals into wastewater. And then the municipalities and companies responsible for sewage sludge will also have to pay closer attention in the future to how that sludge is treated. Once the EPA rule is completed, those water-treatment facilities could become more liable for damages to farms contaminated by PFAS in sewage sludge as well.

Vilsack wrote Maine's congressional delegation back in May about PFAS contamination, stating "the tragic reality of this situation extends far beyond Maine." Vilsack stated USDA had an internal working group on PFAS contamination, though he also added USDA had limited options for providing support, adding "quite simply, the resources we have at the ready are not designed to comprehensively respond to the scope of the crisis."

Last year, USDA allowed dairy farmers affected by PFAS contamination to get indemnity payments for loss of milk or having to euthanize animals under the Dairy Indemnity Payment Program. USDA has paid out $1.7 million since last year to four dairy farmers in Maine and one in New Mexico. USDA does not have a similar program for producers facing losses in different livestock or crop farmers because of PFAS contamination.

Documents provided to DTN earlier this month through a Freedom of Information Act request detail some of the challenges facing farmers trying to get help from USDA over PFAS contamination.

Back in February, the FSA administrator for Maine, Sherry Hamel, sent an email to other USDA officials noting "the level of PFAS in Maine drinking water and soils is becoming an increasing hot topic and concern. Daily, our offices are receiving calls and questions about what USDA is doing, or can do, to help those who have been and continue to be impacted."

Hamel added, "We have FSA customers affected who have had to liquidate their dairy herds, and vegetable/crop producers who have had to pull products from the market and/or close their business altogether."

Congress also added language to a Department of Defense funding bill requiring the military to notify farmers "within one mile down gradient" of any PFAS contamination found on a military base. In Washington state alone, that led to nearly 900 letters sent out to farmers and landowners warning them about possible contamination.

Following the Defense notification letters, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Farm Service Agency (FSA) issued their own guidance and fact sheets to farmers about PFAS risks. FSA indicated PFAS contamination could affect appraisal values. That could affect the way FSA would treat a property considered for a farm loan.

Vilsack, in his letter to Maine officials, also said FSA was looking at potential options such as enrolling contaminated farmland in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) as possible ways to "provide long-term relief to producers with contaminated land."

USDA has multiple agencies that have some possible role in dealing with PFAS contamination, but USDA staff pointed to potential legal liabilities or lack of authority in some cases.

A presentation from NRCS last year highlighted that the agency doesn't have any experts on PFAS contamination, and few studies have been done to determine standards for safe soil concentrations for PFAS. NRCS staff essentially pointed to uncertainty about how to handle PFAS-contaminated farms, partially because of potential legal liability. "NRCS is leaning heavily on EPA for information on this subject," the presentation noted.

USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) also does not have any authority to deal with PFAS because it is not a disease pathogen.

Dealing with disposal of PFAS-contaminated livestock was basically being managed on a case-by-case basis with state NRCS staff required to consult with the national office before taking any action. NRCS has a policy prohibiting assistance with the removal of hazardous waste materials.

DTN reported in May about a small beef producer in Michigan who was banned from selling his cattle because of PFAS levels found in the meat. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

EPA expects to publish its proposed rulemaking on adding PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances in the next several weeks, the agency stated.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

Chris Clayton