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CRD’s biosolids maker sued by Texan farmers over illnesses, animal deaths

Lawsuit claims ‘forever chemicals’ in biosolids fertilizer made by company operating Hartland facility
The maker and operator of the residuals treatment facility at Hartland landfill is being sued by Texas farmers over the alleged impacte of biosolids. (Courtesy of Synagro)

The company that helps produce the Capital Regional District’s biosolids is being accused of its similar products medically harming Texas farmers and fatally impacting their animals.

Synagro Technologies is the majority equity holder of the contractor that built the regional district’s residual treatment facility at Hartland landfill. It also has a 20-year contract to operate the facility that makes the dried treated-wastewater granules.

Synagro and its longhorn-state subsidiary are named defendants in a civil suit brought on by Texas farmers in February.

The five Johnson County, Texas, plaintiffs claim their farms were polluted by toxic chemicals in a biosolids-based fertilizer produced by Synagro after a neighbouring property spread the product on its crops.

The farmers allege the fertilizer contained high levels of PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkl substances) that made them sick with various illnesses, led to their animals dying, polluted their water and rendered their properties worthless.

PFAS are considered “forever chemicals” that are linked to cancer and other harmful impacts on humans and animals. The lawsuit claims while the wastewater treatment process removes pathogens and toxic ingredients, PFAS is not removed and they accumulate in the biosolids that Synagro uses to make its fertilizer.

The farmers said that since their land was “polluted” from the fertilizer in 2022, they’ve experienced PFAS-linked medical issues like high blood pressure, respiratory and cardiac issues, skin irritations, masses and other conditions. Farmers from one farm claimed their dogs, horses, cows and various other animals have died after drinking water polluted by the fertilizer, while another farm had 10 cows die of unknown causes.

“Now that their property and only water source is polluted with ‘forever chemicals,’ they face the stark possibility of having to abandon the home they love and the property they have developed into a working ranch, raising cattle, freshwater fish, and game birds, which may have to be euthanized since they cannot be safely consumed,” the civil suit states about one farm.

“Their property is their main asset which has been rendered worthless.”

The south-of-the-border suit comes as the practise of applying biosolids to the land as a growth supplement remains contentious on the Island. The Capital Regional District doesn’t allow the practise beyond Hartland landfill’s borders, but has been sending biosolids up Island, where they’re being stored for use in a quarry reclamation project.

The CRD board this month moved ahead with possibly sending biosolids to a second quarry site within the Regional District of Nanaimo, even as the board there called on their South Island counterparts to stop sending the product altogether.

“We’re actually disrespecting our neighbour’s wishes,” Philippe Lucas, founder of Biosolids Free B.C., said in an interview.

As a former Nanaimo resident, Lucas is concerned about contaminants from biosolids leaching into a river that’s just a few hundred metres from one of the quarry sites.

“Of course they’re going to find their way into the river and threaten that ecological balance as well,” he said.

When asked on Tuesday (March 19) about the lawsuit’s local connections, the CRD said it will need a few days to provide a response. A spokesperson noted the province regulates what’s safe and what isn’t. The province has maintained that land applying biosolids is safe and environmentally beneficial when done properly.

The Texas farmers’ claim states county officials tested their land and found high levels of PFAS in the soil, surface water and wells used for drinking water. It added the county’s Environmental Crimes Investigator detected PFAS in tissue samples from fish and two calves – one stillborn and one that died one week after birth – from the plaintiffs’ properties.

The suit states the investigator tested Synagro’s biosolids fertilizer and found PFAS present. The same official found “extremely high concentrations” of PFAS on the farmers’ properties.

B.C. conducted a review of the regulation that deals with biosolids last year, but the government is months behind on providing the review’s results, according to CRD staff. Asked if the review looked at the impact of PFAS, a spokesperson for B.C.’s environment ministry said experts looked at scientific articles and evidence on contaminants of emerging concern.

Lucas was shocked by the lawsuit and said the CRD contract with the company causes him great concern. But he’s more worried about the board seemingly not being made aware of the lawsuit. There was no mention of the lawsuit at the board’s March meeting.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions around that lawsuit,” Lucas said. “There is no reason why the CRD board would not know more about this.”

Synagro has hailed itself as the “the preeminent provider of biosolids and residuals solutions services in North America.” Citing the company’s public reports, the lawsuit alleges Synagro recognized its products may have PFAS present in them.

“One of our industry’s challenges to move toward a more circular world, is the potential of unwanted substances in biosolids, like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS),” the company’s 2022 sustainability report states.

That report noted Synagro does not “generate PFAS or use them in our processes,” but also said its collaborated with a company on high-temperature pyrolysis to treat biosolids and that “process may address PFAS.”

Plaintiffs said Synagro knew or should’ve known about the foreseeable risks of its biosolids fertilizer and that the product was unreasonably dangerous. The farmers are seeking multiple damages, including over $75,000 and whatever else a jury deems proper.

Synagro has not yet responded to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

READ: Calgary company hopes to fill CRD’s biosolid gasification needs

Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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