Dairy farmer Fred Stone with his cow, Lida Rose, on his farm that was devastated by PFAS contamination.

Tackling Toxic PFAS: Part II

06.26.2019

Our recent work tackling toxic PFAS chemicals (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances) has taken us from farm fields in rural Maine to the nation’s capital. Here’s a peek into our efforts on the state and national fronts to tackle the growing crisis of PFAS contamination in our food, water, and soil. (Read the first installment of our “Tackling Toxic PFAS” series here.)

After the devastating PFAS contamination of Fred Stone’s dairy farm in Arundel, Maine, made headlines across the country earlier this year, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection did the right thing, and halted the spread of sewage sludge—the suspected cause of the Stoneridge Farm contamination—until it was tested for PFAS.

When that testing found that nearly all the sewage sludge tested was contaminated with toxic PFAS, we expected the Maine DEP to stop it from being used as fertilizer. This would keep the sludge off farm fields—where these “forever chemicals” can contaminate a farm’s crops, water, and animals for decades, as they have on Stoneridge Farm.

Instead? Reporting by The Intercept and the Lewiston Sun-Journal has just revealed that the Maine DEP is still planning to allow this contaminated sludge to be spread on Maine farms—even the sludge that exceeded the state standards.

We’re outraged, and calling on the DEP to immediately act to keep this toxic sludge off of farm fields.

How did this happen? Read on.

PFAS Task Force

The Mills administration has an opportunity to define itself as a leader for health, in part by making our state one of the best examples in the nation of the many states dealing with the crisis of contamination by toxic chemical PFAS.

Leading up to its first meeting on May 22, I was hopeful that the PFAS task force Governor Janet Mills convened would make strong recommendations for action to address already-identified PFAS contamination in Maine as well as contamination that may be revealed by further testing. 

The meeting itself, though, was disappointing.

Alarming Test Results

This past March, following a national news article investigating the contamination at Stoneridge Farm, the state ordered PFAS testing of sewage sludge destined for land applications or compost.

At the first PFAS task force meeting, the state claimed that with only 40 percent of the results in, it was too early to interpret the data. It was not shared at the meeting.

Thankfully, Kevin Miller of the Portland Press Herald didn’t accept this dodge. He obtained and reported the test results in an article the next day—and they were clearly alarming: 18 of the first 22 sludge samples have exceeded the state’s screening level.

Subsequent reporting found that the PFAS contamination was even more widespread.

“Of 44 samples taken from Maine farms and other facilities that distribute compost made from the sludge, all contained at least one of the PFAS chemicals. In all but two of the samples, the chemicals exceeded safety thresholds for sludge that Maine set early last year,” reported Sharon Lerner in The Intercept on June 7.

We also received from DEP the numerical results as of May 30, and they showed that, for the most part, the sludge and compost wasn’t only failing the test, it wasn’t even close. Even if the screening levels were twice as high, only four more sludge facilities and four more compost facilities would have passed. The highest results were more than 20 times the screening standard.

When the second task force meeting convenes later today, we expect to hear further results of the state’s sewage sludge testing—and unfortunately, we don’t expect good news.

‘You Won’t Find PFAS by Not Looking for It’

At the first PFAS task force meeting, I was surprised to hear a representative of the state argue that Maine was more fortunate than other states, like Michigan, that have identified widespread PFAS contamination. Michigan, however, has aggressively tested its drinking water supply for PFAS contamination. Here in Maine, we’ve done the opposite: A drinking water program representative noted that only 40 wells out of the approximately half a million wells across the state have been tested. Without testing, we simply don’t know how widespread PFAS contamination is in Maine.

You won’t find it by not looking for it. Public officials need to be clear that Maine has fewer identified PFAS contamination sites because our state has not, by and large, tested for these chemicals. That needs to change. 

The previous administration was aware of the potential scope of Maine’s PFAS problem for at least two years. Tests of a municipal well in Arundel revealed PFAS chemicals that the state ultimately linked to the sludge spread on the fields of the neighboring 100-year-old, family-owned Stoneridge dairy farm. For decades, Maine, along with the 49 other states, have encouraged farmers to spread sewage sludge as field fertilizer.

The state closed its investigation at Stoneridge Farm in May of 2017, after documenting contamination that had resulted, unbeknownst to the farm’s owners, in the sale of milk with PFAS 20 times the EPA limit for drinking water and nearly 7 times the state’s definition of adulterated milk.

In the time since then, the state has understood the potential for PFAS in farm-applied sludge to have contaminated additional Maine farms and milk. Yet it still has not tested a single other farm for PFAS contamination.

Time for Action

While there are important topics for the task force to discuss, we cannot let the task force’s deliberation be an excuse to delay action on the problems we already know about.

It is time—actually, past time—for the state to act. 

Maine should immediately test agricultural land and the resulting products wherever sludge has been used.

It should immediately test drinking water supplies. 

It should immediately test fish and streams.

Most importantly, it should immediately prevent contaminated sewage sludge from being spread on farm fields in Maine.

Crops grown on contaminated fields will also be contaminated; animals that eat contaminated crops and drink contaminated water will also be contaminated. Food is our primary source of PFAS exposure, and pregnant women and children are the most vulnerable to the effects of these harmful chemicals.

PFAS are so persistent that they don’t break down in the natural environment for decades, and so preventing future contamination of our soil, food, and water, is absolutely critical.

There is no need to wait to implement these long overdue actions.

While we can’t go back 20 years to prevent PFAS contamination of our soil and water in the first place, we can and must clean up existing contaminated sites and act decisively to prevent any future contamination.

I urge the task force to listen to independent scientists who are supporting a class-based approach, and to move forward rapidly in addressing all ongoing uses of the PFAS chemical class.