Michigan Farm is a cautionary tale about PFAS contamination and sewage sludge fertilizer

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The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) purchased all of its meat inventory and took it to a landfill. The MDHHS also began purchasing any market-ready cattle that Grostic would otherwise have sold. He initially sent a few at a time to researchers at Michigan State University, but MDHHS also began purchasing cull cows.

“I took 13 animals from them in early April, and they just started processing the first four of them,” Grostic said in late April.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development offered Grostic a $50,000 operating loan and funds to purchase fodder. They also told Grostic to consider offers to build a new barn with concrete floors to raise the cattle inside. Grostic said the problem that won’t go away, however, is that the farm soil he uses for alfalfa and corn silage is still contaminated.

“You can’t raise cattle and buy fodder. I tried to do that three years ago, and it almost bankrupted me,” he said. “I’m not going to keep doing it, but that’s where we are right now, and that’s what they have to offer. We buy groceries and issue receipts.”

Grostic also doesn’t know what to do with his alfalfa and cropland that he normally sows to feed his livestock. “They (state officials) said, ‘You just continue to run your business, other than you can’t sell anything. ‘” Grostic said. “They won’t give me any suggestions on what to do with these fields because they don’t have the science to back it up.”

MAINE PROBLEMS

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, spent most of her allotted time April 28 at a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing asking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to visit farmers in his state who found PFAS contamination. High levels of PFAS have shut down dairies, and at least some organic vegetable growers have voluntarily stopped selling produce after water levels showed high levels of PFAS chemicals.

“We find it all over our state,” Pingree said. “Some farmers don’t have time to wait for the state, so they pay for their own testing. They are seeing extremely high levels of contamination in their bodies and in the bodies of their children. So I just can’t let’s not say enough how difficult it is to witness what is happening.”

In an interview with DTN, Pingree credited Maine lawmakers for agreeing to spend $100 million this year to help farmers whose soil has been contaminated. Decades of using sewage sludge as fertilizer has ruined farms, Pingree told DTN.

“I don’t know what else to do to help my state other than to get the feds involved,” Pingree said.

Last week, Vilsack agreed with Pingree that a national standard for PFAS was needed, along with better research to understand what should be considered acceptable levels of PFAS chemicals. Vilsack also said the USDA needs a more comprehensive program for growers. The USDA currently has a program for the dairy industry, “But we don’t necessarily have something for produce,” Vilsack said.

Maine’s congressional delegation had written to the USDA in March, asking for help in helping their growers and strategies to deal with PFAS cleanup.

The issues facing farmers in Maine, Michigan and a few other states will become a more widespread problem, especially as departments seek to establish more federal standards for PFAS contamination, Pingree said.

“We’re dealing with a very small tip of the iceberg here,” Pingree said. “I think, unfortunately, Maine and Michigan are two of the states where we’ve been responsible and supportive of our farmers and concerned about our consumers. That’s why we’re moving forward, but it’s like pushing a rock up to get the some kind of understanding and cooperation across the country, or from the USDA, to be able to support our farmers.”

NEW MEXICO DAIRY PRODUCTS

Four years after milk from his dairy cows tested positive for high levels of PFOS, Art Schaap was finally able to euthanize the last of his 4,000 head dairy herd last month.

DTN first reported in May 2019 the Schaap Dairy near Clovis, New Mexico. Schaap learned in October 2018 that his dairy farm had been contaminated by groundwater just outside Cannon Air Force Base, where PFOS-laden foam chemicals were widely used to train firefighters. Schaap’s dairy was prevented from selling 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 cows would lose PFOS in their bodies once they would be on clean water. But the tests never showed any signs of improvement.

Schaap said the biggest complication in trying to figure out what to do with his cows was that the EPA still hadn’t set a national standard for approved levels in water.

“So nobody wanted to be held responsible for making a decision because they said they had no authority,” Schaap said. “The folks running the USDA, they tried and they responded the fastest, but they’re deer in the headlights with this thing.”

Schaap, along with some Maine dairies, received USDA compensation for dumping their milk.

REGULATORY STATUS

“Hopefully they have some rules in place soon so no one has to go through what I went through,” Schaap said.

After years of pushing for tougher regulations, the Biden administration last fall launched a “strategic roadmap” to tackle PFAS. That plan outlined 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, the EPA said perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) chemicals were “probably carcinogenic.” So far, the EPA has set a non-binding drinking water advisory guideline of 70 parts per trillion for PFAS chemicals. Last week, the agency announced a new method for testing chemicals to detect their presence and forms of PFAS in wastewater. The EPA has also issued guidance on PFAS releases and has begun reviewing water quality criteria for fish and other aquatic animals.

The National Law Review also this week reported increased lobbying by water utilities to shield them from PFAS chemical liability after the EPA issued a notice that the agency will continue with plans to regulate PFOA and PFOS chemicals as “hazardous substances”. under the “Superfund” law known as CERCLA. A Superfund designation triggers the power to meet potential cleanup costs from chemical companies, water utilities, waste management companies and others.

For the USDA, the White House said the Agricultural Research Service continues to investigate the causes and implications of PFAS in the food system. The USDA would also focus on PFAS in the environment and the food supply.

The USDA 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 various USDA agencies.

The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service initiated an exploratory test for PFAS/PFOS in fiscal year 2020. FSIS tested approximately 2,400 cattle and found only five samples positive for the 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 issued warnings last week encouraging residents not to eat fish from certain streams, rivers or lakes due to high levels of PFAS/PFOS.

NO CLEAR NEXT STEPS

Grostic spoke several times with state officials as well as with leaders of the Michigan Farm Bureau and the Michigan Cattlemen’s Association. At the breeders’ meeting, Grostic said many producers feared they might be next. They wanted more answers at the state and federal level.

“That’s what everyone wants to know 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 one who’s taken biosolids in the state of Michigan with PFAS. When you start looking at PFAS and the industry it’s in find, there is a factory in every city. So where is all this?”

See a video report on PFAS, including DTN’s interview with Jason Grostic, here:

https://www.dtnpf.com/….

For more, see “Forever Chemicals Ruin Dairies” here:

https://www.dtnpf.com/….

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

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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