This all-formats package holds state and federal regulators accountable for doing little or nothing to address rising concerns that sewage sludge, used as cheap farm fertilizer, is contaminating food with potentially harmful chemicals.
They interviewed numerous experts and officials about PFAS, a group of chemicals used in a wide variety of household products and industrial processes, finding concern mounting that certain of these chemicals, associated with increased risk of cancer and organ damage, could wind up in the food chain fertilized by contaminated sludge. But they also found that the federal government and most states had done little if anything to assess the amount of PFAS in sewage sludge being spread on farm fields across America. Regulators had set no limits on the chemicals in fertilizers, nor standards for determining safe levels. The inaction had left fertilizer companies and farmers wondering what to do and fearful of consumer backlash. Municipal officials, meanwhile, feared they’d have to foot the bill for testing, cleanup and upgrading facilities to treat PFAS-laced sewage.
For this accountability story with public health implications, Concord, New Hampshire, administrative correspondent Michael Casey gathered valuable information during a Boston conference where federal officials were unusually blunt about potential dangers to foods from PFAS. Washington reporter Ellen Knickmeyer looked into the halting response of federal agencies to PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t degrade naturally. Traverse City, Michigan, correspondent John Flesher traveled to Lapeer, Michigan, where free sludge had been distributed to area farms for years until the state stopped the practice when PFAS contamination was discovered. The city now pays millions of dollars to have it treated and shipped away.
The story was accompanied by photos from Flesher in Michigan and Robert Bukaty in Maine. Detroit video journalist Mike Householder produced a compelling video featuring interviews in Lapeer, farmland footage and a visit inside the local sewage plant with its pools of bubbling sludge. Play was strong nationwide, including web sites of the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Miami Herald, The Washington Post, St. Louis Post Dispatch, The Seattle Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Canadian Press, while MSN, Yahoo Finance, The Indianapolis Star and USA Today were among the outlets that ran the video story.