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Watershed Group Researches PFAS Forever Chemicals

PFAS Forever Chemicals: Research & Advocacy

“Forever chemicals” – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or ‘PFAS’ for short – have been in the news nationwide as people become aware of the threat of these toxic and cancer-causing compounds.  One major concern in rural areas is the use of ‘biosolids’ – the sludge remaining after treating sewage at wastewater treatment plants – as fertilizer, both in products purchased for home gardens and directly applied in bulk to farmland.   Although lower levels of PFAS are found nearly everywhere, ‘biosolids’ from sewage treatment plants that receive leachate from landfills – as the Rockbridge sewage plant does – and those that receive waste water from industries that manufacture or use PFAS, are of particular concern for significant contamination with PFAS.

The PFAS Working Group of Rockbridge Conservation’s Watershed Committee has been doing critically important work on PFAS “forever chemicals” that potentially threaten our local groundwater, farmland, and steams.  We don’t know yet whether significant PFAS are in the sewage sludge biosolids produced by the Rockbridge wastewater treatment plant, but the Working Group has reached out to local government leaders and the folks at the local wastewater treatment plant and landfill to get testing done that will help our local farmers protect their fields. This is important because PFAS will build up rather than break down when released into the environment, and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) records show that sewage sludge biosolids from Rockbridge, Rockingham, and Nelson Counties are spread on some local farm fields.  

Currently there are no requirements in Virginia for sewage sludge biosolids to be tested for PFAS, and few sewage treatment plants or applicators are voluntarily testing their sludge before offering it to farms.  In other states, the unsuspecting use of contaminated sources of this material as fertilizer has essentially poisoned agricultural land.  In Maine, a number of farms have been shut down because the ground is so polluted with PFAS that crops grown on the soil, livestock and wildlife that graze there, and water from nearby wells are not safe for human consumption.  The Maine Cooperative Extension Service has recently published guidance for landowners with questions about PFAS.

The local Rockbridge Conservation PFAS Working Group of Dave Agnor, Joe DiNardo, Sandra Stuart, Gretchen Sukow, and Barbara Walsh has reached out to government leaders, wastewater treatment plant staff, landfill staff, and to the agricultural community to assess the local situation.  DiNardo, a trained toxicologist, has been a huge resource for this effort, and has briefed local authorities as well as made several presentations to educate community members and raise awareness (view the recording on the Rockbridge Conservation website). 

The PFAS group has determined that there is an urgent need for testing and recently met with a scientist at Virginia Tech who is interested in studying the problem.  Tech may focus their study on Rockbridge because of the interest shown here.  

If you have land or a water well where biosolids have been applied and are interested in participating in the Virginia Tech study; or would like more information about PFAS or doing your own testing; or are interested in volunteering to help with local educational and research efforts, please contact Barbara Walsh at rockbridgeconservation@gmail.com or 540-463-2330.

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