Should Rural Landowners be Worried about PFAS? by: Brianna J. Schroeder

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The headlines about PFAS are everywhere from agricultural news websites to Good Morning America. But what should farmers and rural landowners be worried about when it comes to PFAS?

From a real property standpoint, the biggest potential PFAS problem facing agriculture will likely be biosolids (assuming your farm is not impacted by a military base). “Biosolids” generally refers to the solid matter left at the end of the wastewater treatment process. Biosolids can be incinerated, landfilled, or—far more likely—land-applied. According to the EPA, something like 51% of the nation’s biosolids are applied. There are, of course, benefits to the land application of biosolids. This includes recycling nutrients and fertilizers, cost-saving on chemical fertilizers for farmers, and a reliable disposal source for towns and municipalities.

Unfortunately, PFAS can end up in biosolids due to the long-term use of PFAS throughout society, for industrial and residential purposes. Some plants will take up PFAS from contaminated soil or water. There are no federal standards for PFAS levels in plants, but we know plant uptake varies according to a number of factors, including PFAS concentration in soil and water, the type of soil, the amount of precipitation or irrigation water applied to the plant, the type of plant, and the other nutrients or components in the soil. PFAS in biosolids can create a few different exposure pathways: soil to groundwater, soil used by hay eaten by beef cattle, soil used by hay eaten by dairy cows, or even directly from irrigated water to vegetables.

In October 2021, the EPA announced a “whole agency” approach to PFAS, with actions, strategies, and proposed deadlines. Some deadlines have been met, some pushed back. EPA has released drinking water health advisories and laid the foundation for enhancing data and testing capabilities on PFAS. EPA has also proposed to designate two PFAS chemicals as CERCLA hazardous substances, but pushed back the timeline for the final rule on PFAS CERCLA designation from August 2023 to February 2024. The EPA’s most recent step was to release its Joint Principles for Preventing and Managing PFAS in Biosolids with other stakeholders.

In various policy documents, the EPA has recognized there are PFAS situations which may present “equity concerns,” including farms who have applied someone else’s biosolids as fertilizer. Rural stakeholders should push for federal programs that would provide protection to landowners who are concerned they are staring down years of potential great liability simply because they’ve accepted municipal biosolids over the years for land application.

Some states are already doing this. Maine banned land application of biosolids and enacted an updated state budget that includes $60M to set up a fund for impacted farmers. This fund will provide income replacement, medical monitoring funds, and funding for research. Massachusetts had a proposed bill in 2023 which would have set up a special relief fund to assist farmers who suffered losses or incurred costs resulting from standard agricultural practices that may have resulted in actual or suspected PFAS in soil, water, or agricultural products.

The importance of PFAS relief funds for rural landowners and farmers is demonstrated by a recent Michigan scenario. In January 2022, a Michigan beef farm was the focus of a consumption advisory from the state health and agriculture departments. The notice advised consumers that beef from the farm contained unsafe levels of PFAS traced to the application of biosolids as fertilizer on fields used to grow feed crops. The farm received biosolids sludges for five years from a municipal wastewater treatment plant. The chemicals were traced back to a chrome plater that made automotive parts and sent its effluent to the sewage plant. Needless to say, the consumer advisory ruined the beef farm’s ability to market its product.

Consumers are worried about PFAS in household products, food, and water. Farms are therefore rightly concerned about potential PFAS impacts to livestock or crops grown on land which received municipal biosolids. Now is the time for the EPA and state legislatures to step up to protect rural landowners and farmers by creating liability exceptions and relief funds for impacted agribusinesses.