For Clovis, New Mexico farmer Art Schaap, PFAS contamination in seven of his 13 wells from a nearby U.S. Air Force based, required him to euthanize his 4,000-head dairy herd. According to local authorities, the PFAS plume is spreading slowly — not only under Schaap’s farm, but across the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest aquifer in the nation spanning 174,000 square miles in portions of eight states, including South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.

PFAS, a suite of 3,000-plus different chemical compounds, have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe, including the U.S. since the 1940s. Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are very stable man-made chemicals that have the ability to repel water, oil, fat and stains.

Those unique properties make it an ideal ingredient for fire-fighting foam routinely used at airports, oil repellants and some types of nonstick cookware and common household products, including stain-protectant “Scotchgard,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Unfortunately, those same unique properties have made PFAS very persistent in the environment — meaning they don’t easily break down – and they bioaccumulate or build up in human and animal tissue. As a result, there’s growing evidence that prolonged exposure to PFAS can also lead to adverse human health effects.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, two major types of PFAS — perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) — have the ability over time to increase cholesterol levels, change hormones and enhance the chances to contract cancer in humans.

With the scientific concerns and impact to human health surrounding PFAS being relatively new, the primary focus, thus far, has been on possible groundwater contamination — particularly in areas surrounding PFAS manufacturing facilities and airports — especially those used for training fire-fighting exercises.

EPA has established a lifetime health advisory limit (LHAL) for PFOA and PFOS combined at 70 parts per trillion (ppt). To put that in perspective, according to United States Navy’s PFAS website, 1 ppt is the equivalent of traveling 6 inches out of a 93 million-mile journey toward the sun, making 70 ppt equivalent to traveling 35 feet out of that 93 million-mile journey.

Michigan’s PFAS Action Response Team

In 2017, Gov. Rick Snyder signed an executive directive creating the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) as a temporary body to investigate sources and locations of PFAS and protect drinking water and public health.

Since the 2017 Executive Directive, MPART has identified 49 PFAS sites throughout Michigan (see linked interactive map below). State environmental authorities have also tested water samples from 1,744 sites, including community water supplies for 75 percent of the state’s population.

Of those samples, 179 have tested positive for PFAS, with two testing in excess of EPA’s lifetime health advisory limit (LHAL) for PFOA and PFOS combined at 70 parts per trillion (ppt) — the water supply in Parchment (Kalamazoo County) and Robinson Elementary School in Grand Haven.

This past February, Gov. Whitmer signed Executive Order 2019-3, establishing MPART as an enduring body to “address the threat of PFAS contamination in Michigan, to protect public health, and ensure the safety of Michigan’s land, air, and water, while facilitating inter-agency coordination, increasing transparency, and requiring clear standards to ensure accountability.”

In April, MPART announced plans to develop enforceable drinking water standards for PFAS in the state, including publishing health references for major PFAS chemicals by July 1, 2019, and proposing enforceable maximum contaminant level limits for public drinking water by October 2019.

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As of April 4, 2019, there are 49 PFAS sites in Michigan --CLICK IMAGE FOR DETAIL.

Impact to Agriculture?

While the initial PFAS focus has been on groundwater used for direct human consumption, the study of implications for production agriculture is still uncharted territory. However, news of two dairy farms — one in Maine and one in New Mexico — testing for high levels of PFAS in their water supply has caught the attention of many farmers nationwide.

This past February, Art Schaap, owner of Highland Dairy in Clovis, New Mexico, faced every dairy farmer’s “worst nightmare” after PFAS were found in seven of his 13 wells used on his 4,000-cow dairy operation. Test results found PFAS levels at 20 to 300 times over the EPA’s health advisory limit of 70-ppt.

U.S. Air Force officials and state-level environmental regulators believe his groundwater was contaminated from firefighting drills routinely conducted at Cannon Air Force base, located adjacent to the dairy farm. Ultimately, Schaap was forced to dump milk until his entire herd could be euthanized.

In March, New Mexico announced that it was suing the U.S. Air Force over PFAS groundwater contamination at the Cannon Air Force base, and at a second location, the Holloman Air Force base, claiming the federal government has a responsibility to clean up plumes of toxic chemicals left behind by past military firefighting activities.

Last October, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued a second notice of violation for PFAS contamination against the U.S. Air Force in the waters of Clark’s Marsh near Oscoda in Alcona County.

The PFAS contamination was caused by the use of firefighting foam at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base (WAFB) bordering the marsh. Surface water samples from Clark’s Marsh show PFAS levels far exceeding the 12 parts per trillion (ppt) surface water quality standard. Groundwater monitoring data showed contamination levels as high as 42,000 ppt beneath the marsh and surface water contamination as a high as 1,410 ppt.

Under the violation notice, the DEQ is requiring the Air Force to increase pumping and treatment of contaminated groundwater at the WAFB from 250 gallons per minute (gpm) to 1,040 gpm. The DEQ is also requiring the Air Force to increase the size of the capture zone of the PFAS plume emanating from the WAFB.

According to Kevin Besey, the food and dairy division director for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), state agencies are currently testing for 24 different PFAS chemicals.

In addition, he said MDARD has written to the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture asking for help, including “better guidance.” According to Besey, federal organizations will send assistance on a case-by-case basis.

Laura Campbell, manager of MFB’s Agricultural Ecology Department, said Michigan is leading the country on much of the testing and investigation of potential sources of PFAS chemicals in the environment and ultimately production agriculture.

“The State of Michigan is doing this right – using science and rigorous investigation to find out what needs to be done to protect human health and environmental quality, and informing stakeholders and the public of what they’re doing and what they’re finding,” Campbell said. “It will be important for farmers to stay informed and help where they can with agency testing efforts around the state."