“Forever chemical” contamination of groundwater is both extremely hazardous and difficult to clean up or otherwise mitigate. They don’t break down, and can continue to move through the hydrogeological system for years, often ending up in wells used for human and livestock drinking water, and crop irrigation.
In a compelling, detailed story by Chris Clayton, DTN Progressive Farmer looks at how one such group of persistent chemicals — PFAS — is threatening the livelihood of two dairies 2,000 miles apart.
The culprit here is a group of about 5,000 synthetic chemicals, known collectively as PFAS, that includes purfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These fluorochemicals are used to manufacture a wide range of products ranging from the teflon used on non-stick pans, to fire-fighting foams and stain repellents.
The EPA advises that chronic exposures in drinking water over 70 parts per trillion (ppt) (that’s about 0.07 milligrams per liter) or greater could have adverse health effects.
The problem is that once PFAS gets into the environment, they don’t go away. They are “persistent organic pollutants” that continue to migrate, mostly intact, through the environment for years, or even centuries. This allows them to accumulate over time in water supplies, or in soils irrigated with contaminated water.
And accumulating they are. The Environmental Working Group has identified and mapped PFAS contamination sites in the U.S. It turns out there are hundreds of them, and no doubt thousands more that persist undetected:
Military bases are often a vector for pollution, due to the fire-fighting foams used over the years in training exercises, and nearby dairy farms sometimes serve as the canary in the coal mine.
Art Schaap runs Highline Dairy near Clovis, New Mexico. His troubles with PFAS started when the military tested wells near Cannon Air Force Base, which has been home to a firefighting training facility since 1970. The base was surrounded by dairies, including Schaap’s 4,000-head operation.
DTN reports that the military’s sampling revealed wells at Highland Dairy were contaminated – some had up to 300 times the EPA’s health advisory level. This meant no more milk sales as of October 2018 from this dairy, and Schaap had to let go most of his 40 employees.
Highline had to dump thousands of gallons of milk a day, with USDA compensating him for 75% of the lost income. His only option is to install an expensive water filtration system that comes with steep maintenance costs. Used filters have to be disposed of as toxic waste. The Air Force has no plans to help Schaap with these costs.
Out of viable options, Schaap may have to euthanize his whole herd, as his contaminated cows can not be sold for meat either.
Meanwhile, 2,000 miles away in Maine, Fred Stone’s family farm has found itself in a similar situation. At this century-old dairy, PFAS levels of up to 1,400 ppt were found in the underlying aquifer.
The culprit? Contaminated sewage sludge that he spread on his fields until around 2004, a common practice at the time, and one that was fully supported, and even encouraged, by state officials.
Over the last couple of years, Stone has worked to remove contaminated cows from his herd. The latest tests are below the state’s limit of 210 ppt. But, even with his license back, “once you lose your market, it is awful hard to find another one” (Clayton, 2019).
The DTN piece shares a couple more sad stories of farms impacted by PFAS contamination, and explains that as an “emerging contaminant,” USDA is still working on sampling protocols and residue standards.
Recent national sampling efforts have revealed widespread contamination, including in some municipal water systems. Levels in tap water as high as 76,000 ppt have been reported – over 1,000 times the EPA’s health advisory level.
Farmers like these dairymen are eager for some guidance and support from the EPA and state agencies as they grapple with what to do next. They played no role in creating the problem, whereas government agencies surely did via inadequate attention and far-too-soft controls on chemicals widely known as persistent and extremely toxic.
Chris Clayton, “‘Forever Chemicals’ Ruin Dairies,” DTN Progressive Farmer, Date published: 5/1/2019, Date accessed: 5/7/2019.
Amy Linn, “Groundwater contamination devastates New Mexico dairy — and threatens public health,” La Cruces Sun News, Date published: 2/22/2019, Date accessed: 5/7/19.