A sign warns the public to stay away from vegetation fertilized with biosolids. A key committee in the Oregon Legislature has recommended spending $525,000 on a study of “forever chemicals” in biosolids applied to farmland.
SALEM — Oregon’s farmlands haven’t been spared from worries about so-called “forever chemicals,” prompting a legislative committee to recommend studying potential contamination from treated sewage used as fertilizer.
State and federal regulators are increasingly scrutinizing the widespread and long-lasting toxicity of PFAS, the perflouroalkyl and polyflouroalkyl chemicals used in non-stick and water-proof products.
Under House Bill 3123, which the House Agriculture Committee has passed unanimously, researchers from Oregon State University would receive $525,000 to determine the concentrations of PFAS in biosolids generated by wastewater treatment facilities around the state.
Because these chemicals are so pervasive and persistent, they’re likely to end up in sewage. However, little is known about the levels at which they accumulate or how they vary among wastewater facilities.
“PFAS is now so ubiquitous, it’s in air, it’s in dust, it’s on land, it’s in water. It’s in practically everything in highly variable amounts,” said Susie Smith, executive director of the Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies.
Since roughly 75% of the state’s biosolids are applied to farmland, it’s raising questions about whether these soil amendments contain enough PFAS to harm human health or the environment.
“HB 3123 would help fill this information gap,” Smith said.
Researchers would compare farmlands treated with biosolids with those that have not, while also examining the potential for PFAS to leach into groundwater or to be absorbed by crops commonly grown across the state.
State environmental regulators and wastewater service providers would help OSU complete the study, which would be submitted to the Legislature in about two years.
“There are no mandates associated with this. It’s voluntary participation,” she said.
The state’s Department of Environmental Quality hasn’t taken a position on HB 3123 but the agency believes the study could offer valuable insights to guide Oregon’s regulatory approach.
Regulators from DEQ and the Oregon Health Authority are currently developing a strategic plan for PFAS, which could use more reliable research, said Rian vanden Hooff, DEQ’s legislative analyst.
Though Oregon is thought to have lower environmental PFAS levels than other parts of the country, he said, minimal study has been devoted to their presence in biosolids used for fertilizer.
Regulatory plans for PFAS also are taking shape at the national level, with the American Farm Bureau Federation concerned that contaminated farms could be designated as “Superfund” sites under a proposal being considered by federal officials.
Data that’s been collected suggests Oregon doesn’t have many “point sources” of PFAS contamination aside from areas where certain fire-suppressing foams were heavily used, such as firefighting training facilities, said Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, the committee’s chair.
“I don’t want people to walk away from this thinking we’ve got PFAS raining down on us all the time in dangerous amounts, because that’s not what we’ve been told,” he said.
Federal regulators are still figuring out the levels at which PFAS in the environment poses health risks, so information about the full extent of the problem is incomplete, Smith said. “We need to be cognizant this can be a bit of a moving target for a while.”
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