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NYS shrugs off threat of PFAS in sewage sludge as farmers force other states to act

  • / Updated:
  • Peter Mantius 

More than 600 sewage treatment plants in New York hold state permits to discharge their effluent into lakes and rivers without testing either that effluent or the plants’ residual sewage sludge for PFAS.


Despite evidence that sewer plant discharges nationwide tend to be contaminated with the ‘forever chemicals,’ New York doesn’t even require checks for PFAS in sewage effluent that flows directly into sources of public drinking water. 

Meanwhile, the state is proposing to allow a dramatic increase in the spreading of untested sewage sludge on farm fields, according to a draft state waste plan.

State legislators are now trying to reform the state’s policy of shrugging off the widely recognized environmental hazard. 

On June 6, legislation to require tests for PFAS in sewage effluent passed the New York State Senate by a 62-0 vote, prompting supporters to hail it as “landmark” and “a nation-leading testing protocol.” 

DiSanto Propane (Billboard)

But the bill didn’t address sewage sludge. And it was never called for a vote in the state Assembly before the Legislature adjourned June 10. So the measure is dead for 2023.

Assembly member Anna Kelles (D-Ithaca), sponsor of the Assembly’s version of the bill, said the unanimous vote in the Senate reflects “the ubiquitous understanding of the negative impacts of PFAS.… It’s made it into pop culture, the main media (CBS News). Even some movies.” The move “Dark Waters” starring Mark Ruffalo portrays a lawyer who fights Dupont on behalf of a West Virginia farmer with PFAS woes.

Kelles said her bill fell victim to procedural obstacles in the Legislature’s closing days, rather than outspoken opposition from early opponents like the water utilities. But procedural issues are often used to quietly kill or delay bills.

In any case, Kelles said she’s confident it will pass both chambers next year and become law.

But by passing up the chance to require PFAS testing of sewage plant outputs this year, New York falls further behind the curve.

Last year Maine passed a law that bans sewage sludge spreading on fields.

Michigan began requiring tests of both effluent and sewage sludge five years ago, and it’s already touting desired results. That state claims to have identified the largest industrial sources of PFAS and slashed the levels of PFAS in both sewage effluent and sludge.

PFAS is the nickname for a class of thousands of man-made chemicals (per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds) found in stain-resistant clothing, non-stick cookware, cosmetics and a host of other household products. 

Even trace concentrations have been linked to kidney, testicular and breast cancers and other endocrine and immune system problems, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. They are extremely persistent and they bioaccumulate in plants, animals and humans.

New York now enforces a contamination limit of 10 parts per trillion in public drinking water for two of the most common PFAS variants: PFOS and PFOA. Michigan limits PFOA to 8 ppt and PFOS to 16 ppt.

But Michigan has far been more proactive than New York in addressing the sources of PFAS contamination.

In 2018, Michigan began testing effluent from the 95 sewage treatment plants in the state that accepted wastewater from industrial users such landfills and metal finishers. Since then, most of those industrial users have installed carbon filters to cut PFAS levels in their discharges to sewage treatment plants. That’s helped the sewage plants slash PFAS levels in their effluent.

Michigan also tested sewage sludge from 162 wastewater plants. Twenty-six of those reported PFOS above 20,000 parts per trillion, and seven exceeded 50,000 ppt. The median concentration for all 162 plants was about 8,000 ppt. Only sewage sludge that tested higher than 125,000 ppt was banned from being spread on fields.

Michigan cattle farmer Jason Grostic has sued an auto parts manufacturing company after the state determined his farm was contaminated with PFAS due to sewage sludge spreading.

Maine enacted its total ban on sewage sludge spreading after discovering PFAS at more than a dozen farms where sludge had been spread for decades. Tests showed the soil, crops, animals, tap water and farmers’ blood all showed dangerous levels of PFAS. 

Michigan checked the fields of farmers who had been spreading sludge obtained from sewage plants that took wastewater from landfills and metal finishing industries. They soon had to deliver the bad news to farmers like Jason Grostic, as described in the documentary “Toxic Farmland.”

Grostic had to surrender his farm. He has since sued an auto parts manufacturer linked to the sludge spread on his fields.

The Environmental Working Group now estimates that up to 20 million acres of U.S. farmland is contaminated with PFAS, thanks to sewage sludge spreading. 

New York’s policy, under the Administration of Gov. Kathy Hochul, is to effectively deny that it’s probably dangerous to spread sewage sludge on farmland. 

The draft state waste plan proposes to “recycle” 85 percent of all state wastes by the year 2050. To reach that goal, it classifies sewage sludge as “recycled waste.”

The draft plan proposes to boost the rate of sludge “recycling” (land spreading or compost mixing) from 22 percent of all sewage sludge generated in 2018 to 57 percent in 2050.

Last summer, Casella Organics acquired or leased 2,789 acres on Bonny Hill that Leo Dickson & Sons Inc. has used for decades to spread sewage sludge.

Such a policy leaves little room for further scientific confirmation of the dangers of sludge spreading/mixing or for resistance from the farmers and communities targeted for the “recycled” waste.

But three Steuben County towns recently passed one-year moratoriums on new or expanded waste operations in response to Casella Organics’ plans to spread more sewage sludge. The company recently took over a 2,789-acre sludge spreading operation on Bonny Hill that extends across all three towns. 

Thurston, Cameron and Bath have recently enacted identical measures that they believe protect them from Casella’s bid to add a major new source of sludge from Long Island.

Thurston supervisor Michael Volino said an official at the state Department of Environmental Conservation told him in April that it was poised to transfer the sludge spreading permit from the previous owner, Leo Dickson & Sons Inc., to Casella and add the Long Island sludge source as a minor modification to that permit.

The “minor modification” terminology could allow the DEC to skip a public hearing on the addition of Nassau County’s Southwest Water Reclamation Facility (formerly Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant). 

The existing sludge spreading permit Casella hopes to obtain would allow it to continue accepting sludge from 28 sewage plants in the Southern Tier, the Finger Lakes and northern Pennsylvania. The Nassau County facility’s capacity is roughly equal to the total capacity of the 28 smaller plants.

Volino and other Steuben County officials contend that the local moratoriums legally block DEC from transferring the sludge spreading permit or adding the Long Island waste site. They say they are awaiting the DEC’s decision on whether to acknowledge the authority of the moratoriums or to rule in Casella’s favor.

The Environmental Working Group lists the Long Island facility formerly know as Bay Park as a “suspected releaser of PFAS.” 

Records show that the Nassau County sewage plant accepts wastewater from several types of sources that Michigan identified as PFOS releasers, including metal finishing operations

The Nassau plant accepted wastewater from Nassau Chromium Plating Co. Inc. in Mineola, an electroplating operation. It also accepts wastewater from the DEC’s own “groundwater/remediation” site in Elmore, records show.

Michigan warns anglers not to eat PFAS-contaminated fish.

When Michigan zeroed in on electroplating as a PFAS source, it had to contend with the parts manufacturing industry that supplies the state’s all-important auto industry. Some of Long Island’s electroplating operations supply the aircraft/aerospace industry.

Both Michigan and New York have concerns that fish caught in the Great Lakes have consistently higher levels of PFAS than freshwater fish in other parts of the county, as reported in a widely-publicized January 2023 report by EWG.

Michigan borders four of the Great Lakes (Michigan, Superior, Huron and Erie), while New York borders two (Erie and Ontario).