Why Maine is Taking the Feds to Court Over Sludge - Modern Farmer

Why Maine is Taking the Feds to Court Over Sludge

Maine was the first state in the nation to ban the use of sludge as a fertilizer. Now, the Maine Organic Farmers And Gardeners Association plans to take the EPA to court over farmland lost to forever chemical contamination.

Songbird Farm, which was affected by sludge spreading. Last October, MFT purchased the property to make it available for research on PFAS contamination and remediation.
Photography via the Maine Farmland Trust.

In the 1970s, many rivers, streams and lakes in America were choked with trash, waste and sewage. The Androscoggin River, which flows between Lewiston and Auburn in Maine, was so quenched with toxic waste that 20-foot drifts of yellow and brown foam were said to float down it, and the rotten-egg odor would peel paint off riverside houses. 

It’s no wonder, then, that longtime Maine senator and eventual governor Edmund Muskie helped to craft and pass the legislation that became the Clean Water Act of 1972, establishing regulations for discharging pollution into rivers and streams. But that legislation had unintended consequences. 

As regulations restricted the dumping of waste into waterways, states found themselves with a buildup of sewage and excrement. Municipal sewage plants have to process human waste, food particles and any chemicals, medicines and trace particles that make their way into their systems when we flush them down the drain. The resulting slurry is referred to as “sludge.”

Sludge returning to a wastewater treatment pool . Photography via Shutterstock/TadeasH

“It’s what comes out of our wastewater treatment facilities, so it is anything we flush down the toilet, anything we flush down the drain,” says Sarah Woodbury, from Defend Our Health, a Maine-based nonprofit advocating nationally for equal access to safe and clean drinking water and food. “What is left over [after cleaning the wastewater] is like a mound of brown, sludgy material that is a combination of mostly human waste, and then whatever else ends up in that facility.

“They euphemistically call it biosolids,” says Woodbury, “because sludge doesn’t sound good—even though that’s what it is.”

Songbird Farm property, which was affected by sludge spreading. Photography via Maine Farmland Trust.

Following the Clean Water Act and other environmental legislation in the 1970s and 1980s, the United States had a buildup of sludge and a newfound optimism in slogans such as  “reduce, reuse and recycle”. Since sludge is incredibly high in nitrogen, it seemed like the best way to reuse it was to spread it on farmland, where the chemicals in our waste could help our crops grow. Government pamphlets from the 1990s promoted sludge spreading to farmers as viable and safe, and municipalities offered to spread it for free on farmer’s fields. Sludge application has been practiced nationwide on farmland since the 1980s.

“It was used on many types of farmland,” says Shelley Megquier, with the Maine Farmland Trust. “It really makes sense to a lot of farmers to use it as a low-cost fertilizer and a way to add nitrogen and other nutrients to their soil.”

READ MORE: The EPA just passed the first-ever regulations for ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water. Here are the top five things you need to know.

But there are more than just nutrients seeping in the soil from all of that sludge. While the sludge has gone through treatment facilities, which do filter out some heavy metals, many chemicals remain. They are the chemicals that wash off our non-stick pans, water-resistant fabrics and in our cleaning products. All of these contain PFAS—perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances—or forever chemicals. These are chemicals that are known to cause cancers, birth defects and fertility issues in humans; chemicals that do not dissolve or disintegrate over time but instead can leach into groundwater and crops, ending up in the food we eat.

Songbird Farm property, which was affected by sludge spreading. Photography via Maine Farmland Trust.

In 2016, milk from a dairy farm in Arundel, Maine tested positive for high levels of PFAS. The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry began investigating PFAS contamination, and more dairy farms were found to have dangerously high levels of PFAS in their milk. It did not take long for the state to match up the farms with contaminated milk to the map of farms where sludge had been spread as fertilizer. Further testing has revealed the problem extends to all manner of crops throughout the state, as well as drinking water wells and irrigation systems. More than 60 farms were affected in Maine, a number that could continue to grow as testing continues. Nationwide, nearly 20 million acres of farmland have been treated with sludge, but it’s hard to find the level of contamination without extensive testing; some farms were treated multiple times with sludge and some only once. 

The state of Maine, along with  several organizations, including the Maine Farmland Trust and Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, jumped into action for impacted farmers. The group created the PFAS Emergency Relief Fund to help shoulder the costs of PFAS testing, remediation and filtration and the temporary farm closings caused by PFAS discoveries.  While more than 40  farms have been found to be impacted so far, less than a dozen were shut down due to the chemicals, thanks to the group’s work. However, Maine’s testing efforts are only the tip of the iceberg across the United States.

“The states and the federal government are acting so slowly, we have to take it upon ourselves to reduce our risk as best we can” Modern Farmer’s PFAS reporting is strengthened by the expertise of organizations like PEER. To connect with PEER CLICK HERE

As a fertilizer, sludge provides farmers with an inexpensive way to enrich acres of soil. Only Michigan requires testing of sludge for PFAS contamination before it is used for farmland, although there are many state and federal efforts to ban PFAS at the source,which is the only guaranteed way to ensure they do not find their way into our food systems. 

Maine passed a state ban on the spreading of sludge as fertilizer in 2022, and Connecticut is currently working on similar legislation. But what might seem like a simple fix has a series of domino effects, forcing farmers to spend large amounts on other fertilizers and pressuring municipalities to find other ways to safely dispose of their waste. 

“Now, what is happening is all of the sludge [in Maine] is being landfilled,” says Woodbury. “It’s not a great option, it’s the best of a bunch of bad options. There’s not infinite space in a landfill. And, so, eventually, they’re going to have to figure that out, and what we need are destruction technologies. We desperately need destruction technologies.”

While sludge is the leading cause of PFAS contamination on farmland, the chemicals are also found in areas where firefighting foam has been spread and near Department of Defense sites. PFAS can leach into the groundwater and affect farms near sites such as these, not just land where the chemicals were directly applied. And some farms, particularly dairy farms, can be impacted by bringing in contaminants unknowingly. Misty Brook Farm in Albion, Maine purchased hay to feed its  dairy cows from an outside farm and later found out the hay was heavy with PFAS, resulting in the cows’  milk being contaminated.

Learn more: Montana PBS Reports: IMPACT “Special Investigation: Dangerous Chemicals in Compost”

If you suspect or know that sludge has been spread in your area, Sarah Alexander, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, recommends starting with a water test. “There are relatively simple, cheap tests, and so, for the homeowner or a farmer who is interested in understanding if this is something they need to be concerned with, we think that can be a good first step.”

A federal ban on the chemicals that end up on our fields is the most straightforward way to stop PFAS, and MOFGA is pursuing this end.

Songbird Farm property, which was affected by sludge spreading. Photography via Maine Farmland Trust.

“We have filed our notice of intent to sue the EPA under the Clean Water Act,” says Alexander. “There has to be a known contaminant that is shown to be in sludge, and that contaminant causes human health impacts—which is well documented for PFAS. [The EPA] is required to take action under the Clean Water Act. And so, our notice of intent is to tell them they should have been taking action already and force them to regulate PFAS and sludge.”

Testing and the cessation of sludge spreading help to control the spread of PFAS in our food systems, but stopping PFAS at the source is the only way to remove them from our water and soil entirely.

“At the end of the day, the folks that have caused the problem should be on the hook for it,” says Woodbury. 

This story is part of our ongoing PFAS series, The PFAS Problem: Demystifying ‘Forever Chemicals’

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five nights at freddy's
26 days ago

I am profoundly grateful and would like to express my sincere thanks for the priceless information you have given me. I am certain that your future pursuits will continue to impress and amaze me.

Alfred Brock
12 days ago
Darren Finch
27 days ago

By using organic products like WaterMix to break down the bio solids and the contaminants (the contaminants are the issue not the sludge itself) this removes the contaminants before they create these issues The naturally occurring bacteria and fungi breaks down the organics in the sludge, the contaminants and the fungi coverts the broken down materials into all organic fertilizer. Greases fat oils hormones, pharmaceuticals, pathogens like E Coli odor are all things WaterMix breaks down at the source (waste water plants, farming manure lagoons, digesters) Remove it at the source then the sludge remains a valuable fertilizer and using… Read more »