Maine has become the leading edge in both understanding the destructive consequences of Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) contamination of food and farmland and identifying and adopting comprehensive policy solutions to address these consequences. PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals including PFOA, PFOS, GenX and many other compounds (currently as many as 9,000 known variations) that have become a massive pollution problem across the United States. These “forever chemicals” are extraordinarily persistent in the environment and bioaccumulate in humans, farm and wild animals, fish and plants. PFAS contamination has wreaked economic and emotional havoc at two Maine dairy farms, poisoning milk and beef so that they cannot be sold, affecting the health of the farming families, and requiring farmers to kill livestock and dump milk without compensation. PFAS is known to have contaminated more than 100 residential drinking water wells in the vicinity of farmland in Maine. An estimated 500 additional sewage and industrial sludge-spreading sites across the state may also harbor PFAS-contaminated soil and groundwater.
Sludge-spreading was first linked to PFAS-contaminated milk in Maine in 2016. Following the discovery and investigation of PFAS at Stoneridge Farm, in 2019 Maine initiated a sludge testing program — and promptly discovered that all municipal sludge tested in the state has contained PFAS. Also in 2019, Maine’s Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources instituted an annual retail milk testing program. This program, limited as it is — milk is tested at the processor level, where milk from multiple farms is combined and diluted, and only if a PFAS spike is detected is the milk traced back and tested the farm level — nevertheless succeeded in 2020 in identifying a second dairy farm with high levels of PFAS contamination. This time, contamination was detected well outside the farm property, triggering a growing public health crisis that continues today. An ongoing investigation by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) found contamination far afield, with PFAS detected in 214 residential wells (so far) in four neighboring communities in central Maine.
According to a DEP database going back to the 1980s, more than 500 permits were granted for land application of sludge in Maine. Based on DEP’s records and local knowledge, it appears that in both the Fairfield and Arundel situations, today’s contamination from these “forever chemicals” is likely caused by sludge that was applied to land 15 or 20 years ago, or even before. The incredibly persistent nature of these chemicals and the extremely high concentrations being measured at significant distances from the location where sludge was applied has raised alarms that there may be much more PFAS contamination waiting to be uncovered in other parts of the state. Without systematic investigation and testing at these sites, there is no way to know.
Action on PFAS became a defining priority of Maine’s 2021 legislative session. PFAS legislation garnered a level of bipartisan support from state legislators (indeed, in most cases, unanimity) that contrasts with partisan responses and deference to the chemical industry in other states such as Wisconsin. IATP coordinated its PFAS advocacy with a coalition of Maine-based advocates including Defend Our Health, the Maine Public Health Association, and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
The campaign was remarkably successful, helped along by outside factors. First, the 2020 discovery of widespread water contamination linked to sewage and industrial sludge-spreading in several communities surrounding the second dairy farm, and the wrenching testimony of those affected, drove home the urgency and seriousness of the problem. Maine DEP’s continuing investigation received ample media coverage and kept the spotlight on public health and the need for corporate accountability. Finally, the availability of federal American Rescue Act (ARA) funding both directly and indirectly contributed to the governor and legislature’s willingness to spend significant funds to address PFAS. Prior to passage of the ARA and payment of other COVID-19 relief funds to individuals and businesses, tax revenues were down, and advocates anticipated difficulty in convincing decision makers to prioritize PFAS-related spending. With the injection of federal funding, the projected budget deficit became a surplus, and policymakers were willing to invest in PFAS regulation and cleanup, and farmer support, both through general revenue funds and by charging manufacturers and others user fees.
Maine’s legislature enacted a suite of nine bills, plus budget provisions, that collectively comprise the most comprehensive and consequential PFAS response anywhere in the country. Indeed, some of these state policies have been adopted ahead of European Union regulation, which generally leads internationally on chemicals policy. The new policies include:
Retroactively clarifying the right to sue for PFAS contamination
Requiring the Board of Pesticide Control to determine how to regulate PFAS in pesticides and agricultural chemical containers, with a report due to the legislature in 2022
Establishing an agronomic research program to better understand PFAS’ impact on food and agriculture and to assist farmers in selecting safe crops to grow
Setting an enforceable drinking water standard of 20 ppt for the “sum of six” common PFAS with comprehensive testing and reporting requirements, catching up with neighboring states Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts and adopting some of the most protective standards in the nation
Embracing the polluter-pays principle with fees on PFAS product manufacturers, sewage systems and septage haulers to fund ongoing product regulation and pollution remediation
Setting aside $10 million in dedicated funding in the state budget to assist impacted farmers and pay for PFAS-related agricultural research, $20 million to the DEP to clean up or mitigate PFAS contamination, and $25 million in American Rescue Act COVID-19 relief funds to upgrade water and sewer systems, some of which will address PFAS concerns
During the coming year, advocates’ attention will be focused on addressing concerns that did not get finally resolved in 2021, including regulation of pesticides contaminated with PFAS and curbing regulatory loopholes that allow land application of composted sludge containing PFAS. IATP will be closely following the state’s progress implementing enacted legislation to keep the focus on food and farming.