Dairy Farmer Files Lawsuit on PFAS Groundwater Contamination
In February, we shared the story of Art Schaap, the owner of the New Mexico Dairy forced to dump 15,000 gallons of milk each day. Schaap had to let all but nine of his 40 employees go and plans to cull all 4,000 of his cows because seven of his 13 wells have been contaminated by toxins called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that entered the groundwater at nearby Cannon Air Force base.
We caught up with Schaap at World Dairy Expo, where he gave us an update on his dairy. According to Schaap, he was forced to launch a lawsuit against the 10 manufacturers of the foam that contained PFAS. He is also preparing to file a lawsuit against the Department of Defense because they denied his claim to settle.
PFAS are used in fire-retardant foam to smother flames from mock airplanes set on fire by trainees. The chemicals make the foam resistant to grease, water, dirt and heat, which make it useful in extinguishing jet fuel fires. Currently the EPA hasn’t set a standard for a safe level of PFAS. As a result, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has put out an all-points bulletin to all of the packing plants to tell them not to buy his cows, Schaap says.
“So I’ve got cows on my dairy dying every day from old age and from this PFAS. I’m still dumping my milk,” he says.
Through the dairy indemnity program USDA is helping to offset the cost of dumping the milk. The provisions of this program also include a cow buy-out, he says.
“To me it would be easier to just do the cow buyout and shut the dairy down, [because then] it quits costing the government money to pay me to dump the milk. It doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “So we’re talking to them [USDA], pushing them to use the statute that they have.”
U.S. senators and representatives from the state of New Mexico are pressing congress to pass legislation for PFAS, with as many as 20 bills circulating, Schaap says. And he believes some of those bills will get traction.
“I think this is going to happen because it’s too widespread. This is a nationwide problem,” Schaap says. “The biggest issue is the EPA sitting on the standard. We in agriculture, if we know of sources that could have [PFAS] in milk or meat or vegetables or beef, we need to know it, we need to find it and we need to take it out of the food supply.”
Schaap says it’s critical for agriculture to take a proactive stance, just as the organic market has done.
“[In organics] they're testing, they're finding, they’re eradicating, and you have a clean food supply. And that's what we represent in agriculture. We represent the best in the world. And the best in the world is chemical-free, contamination-free,” he says.
As he waits for the lawsuits to move through the legal system, Schaap continues to lobby legislators to help them understand the risks associated with PFAS.
His main message: “This stuff can get into the food supply, and it got into the food supply.” Second, and of increasing concern, Schaap cites the fact that farmers are the recipient of these contaminants, and they potentially affect property rights, food supply and, ultimately, farmers’ livelihood.
“It contaminates our bodies and our animals’ bodies,” he says. “And whoever these polluters are, if it’s the Air Force, industry, whatever, they need to be held accountable for what they’ve done.”
When asked if dairy farmers, should be scared, Schaap’s answer is unequivocal.
“Yeah. The best thing they can do is test their water. If they have it in their water, start filtering their water, because they don’t want to be in a situation where they have to shut their farm down,” he says.
What would Schaap do differently?
“I would have been more proactive … ” he pauses. “Or maybe I wouldn't have said nothing. But now that I'm involved in it, I need to say something. Yeah. I mean, it sounds bad, but the other side of it is I didn't want to have my milk exposed to anybody in the food supply. And that's why I started dumping.”