Eliminating per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in land and water across the Great Lakes region serves as one of the “biggest challenges looming” for environmental regulators, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) top Midwest official.

EPA Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore outlined the agency’s regulatory responses to PFAS contamination during remarks at The Chicago Farmers’ annual meeting May 8. Region 5 covers Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and 35 federally recognized tribal nations.

“Our goal is to get ahead of the problem and stop the release of PFAS into the environment, which is the most important thing we can do to support our agricultural community,” Shore said, noting that “agriculture and wastewater systems are on the forefront of this battle.”

PFAS, otherwise known as “forever chemicals,” are chemicals used in consumer, commercial and industrial products whose components break down slowly over time. They can move through the natural environment in various ways and have been found to accumulate in soil, water, air, fish and humans across the U.S.

Major manufacturers of products containing PFAS include Chemours, Dow, DuPont and 3M, which at a plant in Cordova, along the Mississippi River, for 50 years produced 49 different PFAS “analytes.”

Those chemicals recently have been discovered in 65 private wells operating in a 3-mile radius around the plant, as well as in neighboring Iowa, where air emissions containing the chemicals eventually deposited them, Shore explained.

EPA directed 3M to continue testing for PFAS in groundwater and municipal water systems around the Cordova plant and the company has since committed to halting PFAS manufacturing by 2025, Shore said.

“Our focus is on holding accountable those upstream users that have manufactured and released significant amounts of PFAS in the environment,” Shore said.

PFAS can also be deposited onto farm fields through the spreading of biosolids and by leaching from plastic pesticide-storage containers made of fluorinated high-density polyethylene (HDPE).

Shore said she was familiar with the practice through her 15 years as an elected commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago prior to her EPA appointment.

“We used, and they still use, land application of biosolids as a sustainable option for our wastewater utility to manage its waste stream,” Shore said. “The land application not only offers cost savings for the utility, but it offers farmers much needed nutrients for their fields, and can be a win-win.”

Even though EPA for years has encouraged farmers to apply biosolids as a valuable, low-cost fertilizer, the agency last fall proposed a rule that if finalized would have severe consequences for farmers.

The proposed rule calls for listing perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid — the two most common PFAS — as “hazardous materials” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA).

Illinois Farm Bureau submitted comments to EPA on the rule, urging the agency to withdraw it due to the potential increased liability risk, lack of compensation for economic losses and threats to the long-used application of biosolids.

Shore said EPA is reviewing about 64,000 comments related to the proposed rule, and noted the agency is “not looking to target farmers or water utilities. In fact, we’re using our authority to protect them by developing an enforcement discretion policy that will limit big polluters from using (the) Superfund to get money from these farmers and utilities,” Shore said.

She further noted a conversation she had with a third-generation Illinois farmer who asked about consequences if the science and the regulations around biosolid applications change.

“He didn’t want to do anything during his stewardship to jeopardize the land he would pass down to the next generation,” she said. “These are real concerns, and it serves the EPA well to be aware of them.”