Read the full article by David Abel (The Boston Globe)

“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.” …