MOFGA Advocates for National Support for Farmers Impacted by PFAS Contamination

May 29, 2024

Across the country livestock are being sickened and crops are being poisoned by the scourge of farmland contaminated by PFAS chemicals. A farm in Texas had its cows and horses unexplainably die after the farm spread contaminated sludge processed by Synagro that was being marketed as fertilizer. A farmer in Michigan was informed by the state that his beef cows were under a seizure notice because they were so poisoned they could not be sold off his farm. More than 350 farms of all types across the country have been informed by the U.S. Department of Defense that their land is contaminated by chemicals used on nearby military bases. These are just some of the instances in which PFAS contamination is putting farmers’ livelihoods and health — and the health and viability of our entire food supply — at stake. While Maine has taken steps that have moved us far ahead of other states by banning the spread of sludge on land and creating a fund to support farmers affected by PFAS contamination in 2022, the problem reaches far beyond our borders.

The work of confronting PFAS contamination of farmland is being led by many Maine organizations, from MOFGA to the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (DACF), Defend Our Health, Maine Farmland Trust and the University of Maine, but awareness of the toxic health and economic threat of PFAS contamination is still being spread in other states. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been slow to take action to address the threat. In fact, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA because of their delinquency in enforcing the Clean Water Act provisions that would halt the land spreading of contaminated sludge. (And, MOFGA filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA on May 14.) The EPA did come out with new rules this spring regulating two individual types of PFAS as well as combinations of others in drinking water, which is great news in the effort to move the national conversation about the dangers of PFAS forward, but we are facing potential contamination from thousands of different types of PFAS that are currently unregulated.

We know that PFAS is a problem in the national food supply. It is found not just in food packaging, which is supposed to be voluntarily phased out in the coming years, but also in the food that is grown in land contaminated from sludge applications, firefighting foam, solvents and pesticides. Action must be taken to address the issue not just in Maine but nationwide.

What enabled Maine to take action before the rest of the country was the courage of our farmers, largely organic growers, who recognized that they could not in good conscience sell contaminated products once they learned that their ground and/or water — and therefore their harvests — were contaminated. Even without federal or state laws that set allowable limits on PFAS contamination in our food, these farmers took their food off the shelves and spoke out about what they were experiencing. Due to their advocacy and willingness to be open about the threat PFAS posed to their livelihoods, Maine’s Legislature started taking steps to turn off the PFAS tap through product and sludge-spreading bans. We now need farmers from many states who are willing to speak out on the national stage to move this issue forward at the federal level. Though our Maine farmers had to speak out without knowing that there would be policies and funds to support them, we cannot expect this to happen in every state. Knowing that we need a program to support contaminated farmers nationally, Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Chellie Pingree have each sponsored a bill, called the Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act, in their respective chambers. This bill creates a federal fund similar to the fund that MOFGA administrates in cooperation with DACF to offer income replacement, health monitoring, investment in infrastructure, and assistance in remediation strategies for PFAS-affected farmers. This would enable farmers with contaminated land and water to have the confidence to step forward and speak publicly about what they are going through, and the threat it poses to their businesses, families and customers.

MOFGA has been working closely with the staff from both Collins and Pingree’s offices to ensure they have the public support they need to move this marker bill forward. The legislators and MOFGA are hoping that the bill will be included in the full Farm Bill when it is introduced. The Farm Bill is currently working within a one-year extension that will expire in September of 2024. The Farm Bill is the subject of fierce partisan debate over the inclusion of funding for conservation programming and food access, and because of the troubles in Congress and the partisanship, there is generally waning hope that a bipartisan compromise will develop to move the bill forward this year. A glass half full view of this partisan dysfunction gives us hope that this will allow MOFGA more time to build national support for the inclusion of the Relief Act in the full Farm Bill.

MOFGA has been making connections with sustainable agriculture groups nationally, especially targeting states with conservative senators on the Agriculture Committee in an effort to build bipartisan support for the bill. Mainers are blessed to have the full tripartisan support of all Maine’s federal delegation, which gives us a step up in these conversations. MOFGA has also been targeting states where we know the farmland contamination is especially intense. MOFGA will continue to dedicate resources to this work as the state’s financial resources — and our farmers — need the support of the federal funds; and without federal support, the polluters, like Synagro, will continue to pressure Maine to step back from our progress to turn off the PFAS tap. In the long run, the polluters will have to pay, and Maine’s attorney general has joined a class action effort to do so. In the meantime, we must hold firm in Maine’s response and build national support for our federal work.

– Bill Pluecker, MOFGA’s Public Policy Organizer

This article was originally published in the summer 2024 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener. MOFGA is working at the local, state, and national level advocating for a food system that is healthy and fair for all of us. Support this important work by making a donation.

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