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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Tom Perkins

Texas farmers claim company sold them PFAS-contaminated sludge that killed livestock

Sewage sludge
Sewage sludge in Lapeer, Michigan. Photograph: John Flesher/AP

A Texas county has launched a first-of-its-kind criminal investigation into waste management giant Synagro over PFAS-contaminated sewage sludge it is selling to Texas farmers as a cheap alternative to fertilizer.

Two small Texas ranches at the center of that case have also filed a federal lawsuit against Synagro, alleging the company knew its sludge was contaminated but still sold it. Sludge spread on a nearby field sickened the farmers, killed livestock, polluted drinking water, contaminated beef later sold to the public and left their properties worthless, the complaint alleges.

The PFAS levels independent testing found on the farm were “shockingly high”, said Kyla Bennett, policy director for the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Peer) non-profit, which is assisting in the analyses.

The farms’ drinking water was found to be contaminated at levels over 13,000 times higher than the federal health advisory for PFOS, one kind of PFAS compound, a Guardian calculation indicates, and affected meat was as much as 250,000 times above safe levels, the lawsuit alleges.

The complaint alleges the families will likely have to abandon their ranches from which they sell livestock.

“It’s devastating and terrifying,” said Mary Whittle, an attorney representing the farmers. “They have developed these properties to be the center of their world … and this is how they make their money.”

PFAS are a class of around 15,000 compounds that are dubbed “forever chemicals” because they don’t naturally break down, and accumulate in the human body and environment. The chemicals are linked to a range of serious health problems like cancer, liver disease, kidney issues, high cholesterol, birth defects and decreased immunity.

Sewage sludge is produced when wastewater treatment plants clean sewer system water. Disposal of the industrial waste is highly expensive, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows it to be spread on cropland as “biosolid” fertilizer because it is also rich in plant nutrients.

Regulators in Maine and Michigan have found PFAS in every sample they have tested, as did a 2001 federal review of the nation’s sewage sludge. Crops can absorb the chemicals from the soil, and the chemicals also can end up in dairy, beef, and other agricultural products at levels the EPA states are dangerous to humans.

In recent years, biosolids have sickened farmers, destroyed their livelihoods and contaminated food across the nation. Maine became the first state to ban biosolids after it found highly contaminated crops or water on at least 73 farms where sludge had been spread. The state recently established a $70m fund to bail out affected farmers.

The sludge spread near the Grandview, Texas, farms came from the city of Fort Worth’s wastewater treatment facility, about 30 miles north. Sludge was spread on a crop field across the street from the plaintiffs’ farms in late 2022, and the highly mobile chemicals migrated to their properties, the suit alleges.

Soon after, virtually all fish died in a pond from which the family ate what it caught. Testing showed catfish with PFOS levels in their blood as high as 74,000 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOS – a level 30,000 times above the dosage at which humans may get sick from consuming.

Around 10 cows and several horses on one farm have died without explanation since the sludge was spread. Testing of a stillborn calf liver found levels as high as 613,000 ppt.

Among other health issues farmers say they have experienced since the sludge was spread are high blood pressure, respiratory problems, cardiac issues, generalized pain and skin irritations, and one farmer grew a mass on her thoracic spine that threatens to leave her paralyzed.

Testing of drinking water in the two properties’ wells found levels as high as 268 ppt, far above the .002 ppt EPA health advisory level for PFOS.

Results from testing of the farmers’ blood has yet to be returned.

A criminal case may prove difficult because there are very few laws regarding sludge – the EPA only requires monitoring for nine heavy metals. Meanwhile, there are still no legal limits in place for PFAS in food and water.

Johnson county investigator Dana Ames said poisoning food, drinking water or the environment with unregulated substances can still be a criminal act.

“If you knowingly do something that is causing contamination and harm to animal and human health, that has potential criminal liability written on it all day long,” Ames said.

The civil lawsuit will hinge on what Synagro knew, or should have known, about PFAS in its sludge. In company literature, Synagro has acknowledged the “potential of unwanted substances”, like PFAS, and last year partnered with a company to attempt to eliminate the chemicals from its products, the lawsuit alleges.

Synagro did not respond to requests for comment.

The company also should know about the issue because the problem is being tackled by regulators and lawmakers, Whittle said. The EPA has begun to investigate the practice’s safety, and Peer has filed a federal lawsuit alleging the agency has not taken swift enough action.

It is “not a state secret” that there is PFAS in all sewage sludge and regulators are examining the issue, Whittle said.

“When there’s no regulation, and there hasn’t been a lawsuit to hold them to account, they are going to continue poisoning people by selling this product that they know has a problem,” she said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

  • This story was amended on 1 March 2024. The previous version stated that testing of drinking water in two properties’ wells found levels as high as 268,000 parts per trillion. That number has been corrected to 268 ppt.

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