The U.S. Department of Agriculture will begin testing cattle for a toxin that Decatur Utilities distributed on Lawrence County farms.
“We will go out and purchase some random cattle from some of the farmers in the area that have the bio-sludge on their land,” said Roger Sockman, spokesman for USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service.
“We’ll take them to a lab and have them slaughtered, then take tissue samples for analysis.”
He expects to have results from the tests in late April or early May.
Don Alexander, a cattle farmer in Lawrence County, said it’s about time environmental officials began taking PFOA seriously in the Decatur area.
He does not receive sludge directly from Decatur Utilities, but his farm is across West Flint Creek from one that uses the biosolids.
His concern for his cattle comes from the fact that the adjoining farm drains into the creek, which is his cattle’s source of drinking water. The creek also floods on his property occasionally, leaving him concerned that floodwaters are leaving PFOA on the soil where his cattle graze.
“They piled sludge on (the property across the creek) in big piles,” Alexander said. “It was an awful, awful stink. It was terrible. The flies were awful.”
He said he first noticed Synagro taking the biosolids to the farm in August, and the company dumped huge amounts on the property.
“They hauled probably until November, load after load of it,” Alexander said. “They hauled it in big long trailers, 18 wheelers. They dumped it, and then they came back with a spreader and spread it on the property with that. They didn’t even cut it in. They didn’t cover it up or anything. They left it like that.”
Alexander said water from West Flint Creek feeds into the Tennessee River at Point Mallard, so he also worries it is contaminating drinking water.
Decatur’s public water supply has no PFOA contamination, according to tests the Alabama Department of Environmental Management took in January. Alexander also worried that PFOA would contaminate crops on the land.
“On this particular property, the owner has gone to pretty extraordinary lengths to manage the runoff and erosion,” said Steve Bradley, a public relations consultant that Synagro hired. “He’s installed vegetative filter strips, grassed terraces and grass waterways.”
Bradley would not give the name of the owner or operator of the farm.
“It’s an emotional issue and it’s gotten a lot of attention, but Synagro goes to great lengths to comply with EPA and other regulations. If people think it’s just applied willy-nilly, they’re wrong.”
The toxin is PFOA, a perfluorinated compound that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found in high levels on farms where DU, through its contractor Synagro, applied processed sludge. The sludge is made of industrial and household solids that enter the utility’s wastewater treatment plant on Alabama 20.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management has received test results from several Lawrence County ponds near land where DU applied sludge. Five of the 32 livestock ponds ADEM tested had levels above the recommended health advisory limit for PFOA in drinking water.
Scientists know little about the effect of PFOA on cattle, but several factors raise concerns, according to Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., a senior scientist with Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group.
Up to 18 percent of the dry matter cattle consume is soil or sludge. Also, several studies indicated PFOA can enter mammals through plants that absorb the chemical.
Mammals — especially humans — are slow to eliminate PFOA from their body. It takes up to four years for people to eliminate half of their ingested PFOA, and 10 years to eliminate 95 percent. This leads to a process called bioaccumulation when mammals receive ongoing exposure to PFOA. Since the mammal is taking the chemical in faster than the body can eliminate it, levels in the body can increase far above the concentrations found in the food or water being consumed.
Human consumption of animals, such as beef and fish, can accelerate the bioaccumulation, Naidenko said. If the concentrations of PFOA in the meats are high, humans will accumulate PFOA at a more rapid rate.
A study released last week linked PFOA in humans to birth defects and high blood pressure in pregnant women. Other studies have linked exposure to problems in the reproductive and immune systems, liver and kidney problems, and cancer.
PFOA does not exist naturally. It is a precursor chemical used to make Teflon-related products.
Scientists have found it in highest concentrations within the United States in Decatur and Washington, W.Va. 3M, Daikin America and Toray Fluorofibers have used the chemicals in Decatur. DuPont has a plant that uses the chemical in the West Virginia town.
While other materials in biosolids eventually dissipate in the environment, PFOA does not. Its concentrations continue to increase, according to Naidenko.
That has Alexander concerned. He doesn’t want to be the one who oversaw the contamination of his farm.
“I’ve been on this property all my life,” Alexander said. “My people have been on it since before the Civil War.”