State politicians eye bill to protect soil, farms from PFAS

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-15-2023 7:32 PM

NORTHAMPTON — PFAS contamination from using treated sludge as a fertilizer, leaving the so-called forever chemicals in the soil and groundwater, has forced the closure of dairy farms in Maine and impacted more than 50 farms in that state.

While similar action of closing farms to address the impact of PFAS is not being proposed in Massachusetts, a bill sponsored by Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Rep. Paul Schmid, D-Westport, is advocating for the testing of sewage sludge, also known as biosolids, putting warning labels on products containing PFAS, and providing money to help farmers access alternatives to these products.

At a Joint Committee on Agriculture, chaired by Sen. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, and Schmid, and whose members include Comerford and Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, a handful of people spoke in support of S.39 and H.101, “an act protecting our soil and farms from PFAS contamination,” which aims to give farmers and policymakers a better sense of the PFAS situation on the agricultural land across Massachusetts.

“We need more research, we need more education,” said Winton Pitcoff, director of the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative.

Pitcoff, a former member of the Plainfield Select Board, said farmers have a strong history of adapting their management practices and remaining sustainable, and will do so given more information. The legislation, he said, would give a picture of the scale of the issues, while making sure farmers are not at risk of losing their land and that food security is promoted.

The concern is that when PFAS is introduced to soils used for growing crops, it contaminates the food grown in that soil and can then get passed on to people consuming those products. This happens most frequently through the application of fertilizers made from treated wastewater.

“We can’t let emotion get ahead of the science,” Pitcoff said, adding that buying up farmland and taking it out of production is pretty extreme. Instead, there may be opportunity for different crops to be grown, including those where the forever chemicals don’t get passed through the food chain.

Schmid said in proposing the legislation, he wants to avoid a situation where farmers lose their land. There is also no ban on the land application of biosolids.

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Laura Spark, senior policy advocate for Clean Water Action, said the challenge with biosolids is that PFAS are persistent and can be toxic at very low levels. Edible leaves, stems and buds can contain PFAS when consumed by people, and animals may also absorb PFAS, such as cows when eating hay.

“I think Maine’s approach is certainly the most protective,” Spark added, noting that the Massachusetts legislation takes a middle-of-the-road approach to begin testing and finding out where contamination exists. “We don’t really know yet in Massachusetts.”

Brian Wick, executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, said the legislation is a good first step.

“At a minimum we support the intent and process that this is going to be a process we’re all undertaking,” Wick said.

Agricultural disaster relief

Meanwhile, two bills sponsored by Blais were also on the hearing agenda, but neither were commented on during the 40-minute session. The first, H.753, “an act relative to agricultural disaster relief” would create the Massachusetts Agricultural Disaster Relief Fund” and the money in this fund would go to assist farmers in the commonwealth who have suffered agricultural losses, financial losses or property damage caused by an event of force majeure.

The second, H.754, “an act supporting farm diversification and sustainability” allows for a special permit for a trial period of one year to evaluate how nonagricultural activities are working on a farm.

Other bills that were part of the hearing included H.97, “an act relative to agricultural crop and property destruction” that would specify accountability in cases when crops are damaged by off-highway or recreational vehicles.

Wick said Mass Cranberry supports strengthening laws protecting crops from damage by all-terrain vehicles.

Similarly, Wicks said H.98, “an act protecting the viability of farms in the commonwealth” would ensure there is a process to protect agriculture from negative impacts by state law.

“I’m seeing an erosion at local level, sometimes unintentional,” Wick said. “This legislation will go a long way to supporting basic agricultural rights for farmers.”

In addition to getting written testimony, Schmid said the Joint Committee on Agriculture plan a series of listening sessions across Massachusetts, and will take itself on the road in July and resume conversations at the legislative level in the fall.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>