WESTMINSTER — Nearly a decade ago, Sue and Tom Ryan moved into a custom-built, four-bedroom house with a pool, views of Mount Wachusett, and more than 3 acres to keep horses, raise chickens, and grow a well-tended garden.
With hopes of living more sustainably and healthily, eating food they grew themselves, the couple cleared much of their land and spread loads of “top-shelf loam” from a company called Mass Natural, an organic composting business across the street in this rural town in Central Massachusetts.
But their health got worse and this spring, they learned of a potential reason why: The water they were drinking and cooking with contained massive amounts of toxic chemicals, known as PFAS — more than 50 times what state regulators consider safe to drink.
“My entire way of life has been destroyed, everything I moved here for,” said Sue Ryan, 63, a chemist.
They won’t eat from their garden, swim in the pool, or drink their water, even though it now flows through an expensive filtration system. “I’m severely traumatized by this,” said Ryan, who has been crushing the eggs from their chickens to ensure no one eats them. “I believe the PFAS has compromised my immune system.”
The per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, known as “forever chemicals” because they never fully break down in the environment, most likely came from a place the Ryans and other residents never thought could be the source of such harmful pollution: a sustainability-minded, family-run composting operation. Its marketing materials describe its business as “partnering with the planet,” a “model site for state regulators” that’s working to combat climate change.
State officials say the PFAS likely spread through ground water from the 240-acre composting facility — the first of its kind in Massachusetts, and now the state’s largest — which has been accepting tens of thousands of tons of organic waste every year and selling it as loam, potting soil, and mulch over more than three decades. It could also be from the loam they spread on their property.
Ingesting even minute amounts of the chemicals has been linked to cancer, low infant birth weights, and a range of diseases, but the quantities found in the farm’s wells were anything but minuscule. When the Massachusetts Natural Fertilizer Co. had its water tested after the owners learned about the problem from state officials in March, the results registered the highest amount of PFAS ever found in a private well in Massachusetts — nearly 300 times the state’s limits for six of the chemicals.
Since then, state officials and an environmental consultant working for the company have identified at least 218 properties in the area that could have contaminated drinking water, raising concerns about the safety of large-scale composting operations at a time when Boston and other municipalities have been rolling out citywide programs to collect food and other organic matter. Those efforts seek to reduce waste sent to landfills, which produce substantial amounts of greenhouse gases.
Mass Natural’s owners, Bill and Diane Page, are now also questioning the wisdom of large-scale composting and aren’t sure whether they’ll remain in business.
“It’s very depressing,” said Diane Page, who acknowledged the irony that they’d set out to improve the environment. “I haven’t slept in about three months. I get customers asking for the materials, and I can’t sell it to them. I feel terrible about that.”
The state Department of Environmental Protection has issued the company a “notice of responsibility,” obliging it to cover the costs of the cleanup. The state has also assigned responsibility to the owners of the land, Otter Farm, and their parent company, Seaman Paper, a Gardner-based manufacturer of paper products.
After the company continued to sell its products, state officials last month ordered Mass Natural to stop selling most of them, which they said pose “a threat to public health and the environment.” They have also required the company to provide bottled water and install expensive filtration systems at homes in the area with contaminated wells.
The Pages say their experience should serve as a cautionary tale for others in the composting business, noting that until recently they didn’t test anything coming into or leaving their business for PFAS. “Every composter and recycler in the state should beware,” Bill Page said. “Everyone should be testing for PFAS.”
He added: “What’s happened here absolutely gives us pause about continuing.”
Part of that pause is not knowing the source of the contamination.
Some local residents think the PFAS are the result of Seaman’s trucking thousands of tons of waste materials over many years from their paper mills to Mass Natural, but officials at Seaman’s insist they’re not the source of the pollution. They’ve tested mill waste water and other byproducts of the paper-making process, and they found no evidence of “high concentrations” of PFAS, they said.
“We are confident that we are not the source of the PFAS chemicals, because of the types of paper products we manufacture,” Ken Winterhalter, Seaman’s CEO, said in a statement. “PFAS chemicals are not used in the production of any product at [Seaman’s], nor is there any indication they have been used in the past.”
State officials said they’re continuing to investigate potential sources, which include refuse from other paper mills as well as sludge from waste water treatment plants.
The contamination in Westminster is part of a growing understanding across the state — and beyond — about how pervasive the chemicals have become in drinking water. So far, 84 community water systems in Massachusetts have tested above the state limit of 20 parts per trillion for six of the chemicals, state officials said.
That limit, which took effect in 2020 and has required multimillion-dollar filtration systems to be installed in public water systems across the state, may now be outdated. The Environmental Protection Agency last month issued new health advisories for two of the most common compounds, known as PFOA and PFOS, finding they’re harmful to human health at substantially lower levels.
State officials declined to say whether they’ll revise their standards. “MassDEP is in the process of understanding the implications of EPA’s new interim health advisories,” said Ed Coletta, a department spokesman, in a statement.
They also declined to respond to questions about whether the department bears any responsibility for the pollution in Westminster, given that it has permitted Mass Natural to receive more than 90,000 tons of organic waste a year, including waste water sludge, with no requirement to test for PFAS.
Environmental advocates who have long promoted the benefits of composting said the contamination here highlights the need for testing requirements at such large-scale operations.
“It would be most prudent, given the widespread use of PFAS in various consumer products, that all compost streams be tested with some regularity,” said Marty Dagoberto Driggs, policy director at the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
Kirstie Pecci, director of the zero-waste project at the Conservation Law Foundation, said she’s less concerned about municipal composting programs, as their organic matter is mainly food and yard waste.
“Composting should be for our food scraps, clean manure, and clean yard waste, and that’s 25 percent of our waste stream that’s being landfilled now,” she said. “Your avocado and banana peels shouldn’t have PFAS in them.”
But Pecci noted that Boston, following a similar program in Cambridge, plans to send some of its compost to waste water treatment plants, which produce soil products that have been found to contain elevated levels of PFAS. That could mean greater amounts of contaminated soil, some of which could find its way back to gardens in Boston.
“If you allow for toxics into the materials, your products will be toxic,” she said.
Alarm is already high for many neighbors of Mass Natural, including Anne Lutz, who last month found excessive levels of PFAS in the soil of her beloved garden of asparagus, broccoli, hazelnuts, potatoes, and much more.
“Composting is my religion,” said Lutz, 58, a child psychiatrist, who spread loads of Mass Natural soil in her yard. “I feel devastated.”
Christopher Cerasuolo, who has lived less than a mile from Mass Natural for 18 years, learned this spring that his family’s water had 2½ times the amount of PFAS the state considers safe.
An avid exerciser and nonsmoker who regularly drank tap water and used hundreds of yards of the company’s loam for a vegetable garden, Cerasuolo was diagnosed six years ago with kidney cancer. Several PFAS chemicals have been linked to a higher incidence of kidney cancer.
“Knowing what I know now, this seems like it could be a smoking gun, and it’s an incredibly ironic one,” said Cerasuolo, 51, a software architect, who now worries about the impact of the contamination on their 10-year-old daughter. “You think they’re doing the right thing — composting, recycling. It’s the last thing you’d expect would be causing cancer.”