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BOH May Bar Human-Waste Fertilizer Due To Hazardous Contaminants

Water Superintendent: ‘PFAS is Scary, Even In Parts Per Trillion. We already Have It In Two Of Our Three Wells.’
by Connie Sartini
[See related News article in this edition of the Groton Herald]
As promised last fall, Groton Board of Health revisited the discussion on use of fertilizers that contain human waste, heavy metals and contaminats like PFAS [so-called ‘forever’ chemicals] at their Monday night meeting.
     The continuation of the discussion is a result of an incident that occurred at Brooks Orchard property last July where reportedly five tractor-trailer loads of processed human waste was dumped at the site, but was not immediately spread onto the fields.
     According to the Martins Pond Road area neighbors, as a result of not being spread on the fields, the large piles began to heat up, creating a fog, then erupted into spontaneous combustion. If water was put on the piles to put out the fire, it would turn the pile into liquified human fecal matter. Area residents reported the intense smell in the area was so strong that at least one resident had to leave their home until this smell issue was resolved.
     As a result of this incident, at their September 3, 2019 meeting, the Board of Health issued a directive that the farmer responsible for the dumping of this material had to complete the spread of the human waste material within a five-day period. The Board stressed that they did not want this to happen in the future and indicated that they could put regulations in place to prevent it.
     Monday night, Nashoba Board of Health Agent Ira Grossman advised that there is research into biosolids and a lot of the research shows that every product of this type has PFAS and biologicals. According to Grossman the state has two tiers regarding the use of this material. The first is unrestricted use and the second requires notification that it is being used.
PFAS - (per and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a group of manmade fluorinated compounds that are used for a variety of applications by both industry and residential households. These are called “forever chemicals” and never degrade.
Board of Health member Bob Fleisher said, “There could be as many as 80,000 compounds in this material. PFAS is the tip of the iceberg. The contaminants could also be biological.”
     Grossman pointed out that the sludge is not tested for PFAS in Massachusetts, adding, “You can’t prove what is in something that is not tested. It is reason for concern.”
     Brooks Orchard abutter Josh Degen said that the MWRA uses a “licensed facility to bake this human waste and PFAS sludge and it is tested every three months, but we don’t know what’s in it and we have animals that eat the hay that could contain these biosolids and heavy metals. We need to test for this.” He added that because the testing is only done every three months, not every batch gets tested.
     Groton Water Superintendent Tom Orcutt told the Board of Health, “PFAS is scary, even in parts per trillion. We already have it in two of our three wells. It’s below standard, but it’s there.” Orcutt said it could be a result of septic systems, “but you have to be careful when you spread human sludge anywhere in Groton. When you spread it on farms, it can enter the aquifer. Be very careful.”
     Orcutt added, it was “found in the MRWA product and we found it in our own water.”
     Board of Health Chairman Jason Weber advised that history shows that what was initially thought to be safe levels reduce over time. He added that not handling new compounds affects public safety. “The onus should be on the applicant for all the compounds in the material.”
     Weber suggested that there be “proof of safety” but Fleisher was concerned that testing for 80K compounds was impossible. Weber replied, “From a public health perspective, it’s nuts.”
     Orcutt cautioned the Board, “Don’t risk this one.” Fleisher added, “Testing 80K compounds doesn’t make sense. Banning makes sense.”
     Weber stressed that the choices were banning the product, setting a moratorium or requiring testing of the product.
Grossman pointed out that this sludge product is used mostly on farms, golf courses, and hayfields. He added that there are new PFAS testing regulations. New applications have to be tested.
     He stressed that the piles of this “material should not be accumulated, but spread right away, but it is an unrestricted Tier 1 product. There is no notification for spreading this material. This happened in a neighborhood. What else is in this stuff; we have no clue but it caught fire.”
     He added that an effective way to deal with this is a dialog with the state regarding a moratorium. He added that there is no direct link to these products that would make it necessary to take them away from farmers’ fields. “There is cost/benefit/harm no matter which way we go.”
     Weber suggested working with the Agricultural Commission and other town departments such as the Conservation Commission and Water Department. “We can’t stop farmers from spreading this anymore than we can stop people from throwing wood with arsenic into fires.”
     Following further discussion, the Board asked Grossman to explore a moratorium and continued this meeting to February 3. The BOH will ask the Agricultural Commission to attend that meeting. The Board also asked
Grossman to let his contacts at the state level know that the town will be moving toward this. Grossman said that he also wanted to so more research on the biologics.
     It is clear that the issue with human waste and PFAS used for fertilizer is not limited to Groton or to Massachusetts. Maine, New Hampshire, Michigan and other states are seeing the results of the use of the human waste/ PFAS “fertilizers”.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced in March a memorandum to licensed facilities that land apply, compost, or process biosolids (i.e., wastewater treatment sludge) that it will require the testing of that material for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), In March, the state announced that it would temporarily halt the land application of sludge and begin the testing, after milk from a dairy farm in Arundel, Maine, was found to be contaminated with PFAS that had likely come from sludge that the farmers had spread on their land as fertilizer.
     In July, New Hampshire approved strict limits for PFAS chemical contamination in drinking water. New Hampshire is now the first state to require local water systems, landfills and wastewater plants to routinely test and treat for four chemicals classified as PFAS.
     According to a September article from Associated Press, a town in Michigan sent leftover sludge from its sewage treatment plant to area farms, supplying them with high-quality, free fertilizer while avoiding the expense of disposal elsewhere.
     The practice was stopped in 2017 when it was learned that the material was laced with one of the potentially harmful chemicals known collectively as PFAS.
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