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PFAS in biosolids prompt lawsuits

Texas farmers sue fertilizer company, and environmental group plans to sue EPA

by Britt E. Erickson
February 28, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 7


A pile of dried biosolid-based fertilizer made from sewage sludge sits next to an agricultural field.
Credit: Shutterstock
Fertilizers made from sewage sludge are commonly spread on agricultural fields.

Five farmers in Johnson County, Texas, are suing Synagro Technologies, a Baltimore-based biosolid management company, and its Texas affiliate over high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in fertilizers produced by Synagro. The firm makes fertilizers from sewage sludge, also known as biosolids.

The farmers claim that PFAS in fertilizer made by Synagro and spread on a neighboring farm contaminated their water, killed their livestock, and decreased their property values. According to their lawsuit, a liver sample from a stillborn calf on one of the farms contained 610,000 parts per trillion of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), one of the most toxic PFAS. Last year, the US Environmental Protection Agency proposed a limit of 4 parts per trillion for PFOS in drinking water.

The lawsuit alleges that Synagro failed to warn product users about the adverse health effects associated with exposure to PFAS. Some of the chemicals are linked to cancer and impaired function of the liver and immune system. Synagro markets its fertilizers as “safe and organic,” according to the suit. Johnson County is also pursuing a criminal investigation over the PFAS contamination.

“Similar instances of PFAS poisonings of farms, dairies, and ranches have occurred in several states,” Kyla Bennett, science policy director at the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), says in a statement. Maine banned the land application of biosolids after dozens of farms were contaminated with PFAS linked to that type of fertilizer, Bennett says. “This lawsuit against Synagro will likely be the first of many,” she predicts.

Indeed, other states are also grappling with PFAS in biosolids. A report released Feb. 26 by the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental group, raises the alarm about PFAS in sewage sludge spread on fields in northeastern Tennessee. One sludge sample contained a total PFAS concentration of 1,200 ppb, the group reports.

PEER announced Feb. 22 that the group and injured individuals intend to sue the EPA for failing to regulate PFAS in biosolids used in fertilizers. In the US about 25% of biosolids separated from sewage are applied to agricultural fields, according to PEER.

The advocacy group claims that the EPA should have regulated at least 12 PFAS that the agency identified as toxic pollutants in biosolids. Another 18 PFAS in biosolids are not yet on the EPA’s list of toxic pollutants, but they should be, PEER says.



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