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Presque Isle Residents Demand Action after Town Contaminates Drinking Water with Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’

Environmental Health Strategy Center
02.06.2020

Decades of the town spreading PFAS-contaminated sewage sludge polluted Presque Isle families’ drinking water with high levels of dangerous chemicals

PRESQUE ISLE, February 5, 2020—A group of Presque Isle families sent a public letter to the Presque Isle Utilities District and state government officials today demanding urgent action to protect the families from dangerous PFAS (per- and polyfluoralkyl substances) contaminating their land and drinking water, a result of the town’s decades-long practice of spreading of PFAS-contaminated sewage sludge on nearby fields.

The letter from Presque Isle families will be read aloud today during a public briefing on Governor Janet Mills’ PFAS Task Force recommendations before the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, at 1pm in room 216 in the Cross Building in Augusta.

“Our dreams are being shattered because of these chemicals,” said Dan White, a board-certified prosthetist and orthotist who moved with his wife to Presque Isle from Boston five years ago to raise their own meat and grow their own food. Since learning of the toxic chemical contamination, White has ceased selling all meat from his farm, and like many of his neighbors, now buys his family bottled water to drink.

Since Presque Isle officials informed these families in the fall of 2019 that their well water contains high levels of PFAS, dangerous chemicals linked to certain cancers, infertility, and other lifelong health problems, the town has refused to take action.

“The town has shown no concern at all,” said White’s neighbor Eric Harvath, who has lived in his Presque Isle home since 1994. “We spend money to buy all our water at Walmart, and it shouldn’t be this way. At a minimum, the town should be supplying us all with clean water.”

White’s drinking water contained five different PFAS totaling 82 parts per trillion (ppt), and Harvath’s totaled 34.6 ppt—both far above the levels deemed unsafe in neighboring New England states (see chart at end of release). Unlike its neighbors, Maine continues to rely on an outdated USEPA advisory level that only includes two of the chemicals.   

White’s farm borders fields that were used by the Presque Isle Utilities District to spread sludge left from the sewer system for many years. Last fall, the state required sampling the fields for PFAS, and when PFAS was confirmed, the wells of the White family, along with those five neighboring families, were tested to see if the contamination had spread. Several neighbors had PFAS levels similar to White’s and Harvath’s.

“The sewage sludge spreading was not disclosed to me when I purchased my home more than 20 years ago,” Harvath said. “Since then, we have had several pets die at a young age from kidney failure. This past year, after learning the water is unsafe, I’ve stopped using it for cooking and drinking, and I’ve had a turnaround on some bad health issues.”

White, Harvath, and their neighbors felt further betrayed when they learned that Governor Janet Mill’s PFAS Task Force failed to recommend a health-protective drinking water standard—as all other New England states have already done—to compel town officials to install a water filter to get rid of the toxic PFAS in family’s drinking water. The Task Force recommendations are now pending before the Governor, as she considers what action to take.

“Other states are holding themselves to a higher standard because they seem to care about their residents. We see Maine coming out with these numbers that are astronomical, even though studies show that at that level, PFAS exposure will cause cancer,” said White. “These are forever chemicals, they accumulate in our bodies. And so if these chemicals cause cancer at a certain rate, and people are living here at ground zero being exposed at this rate for 30, 40 years—what happens?”

“With levels of PFAS in their drinking water more than four times the amount allowed in Vermont and nearly four times the amount allowed in New Hampshire, had these families lived in neighboring states, the government would be recommending immediate action to protect them from these harmful chemicals. Instead, Maine officials have tried to just falsely reassure this community that there is no problem and the water is safe to drink based on outdated science. Mainers deserve better than that,” said Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center.

“This is our dream. This is not some gimmicky lifestyle we've chosen—we've worked hard and long to get there,” said White. “But if the state sticks to the maximum contaminant level of 70 ppt, I'm not going to raise my children here. We’re talking about packing up and leaving.”

Harvath added: “The town should buy this contaminated land, and make sure that no one else lives on it.”

PFAS exposure is linked to certain cancers, including kidney cancer and testicular cancer, as well as thyroid and liver dysfunction and infertility.

PFAS are used in a wide variety of consumer products, such as nonstick coatings on cookware and water- and grease-resistant coatings on food packaging, outerwear, and furniture. These chemicals are also used in many firefighting foams, which then contaminate soil and water.

First-ever state testing in 2019 revealed most sewage sludge used as fertilizer or for compost in Maine is contaminated with toxic PFAS in excess of the state’s screening standard.

Potentially unsafe levels of PFAS in drinking water are a concern throughout the state, although most public water supplies have not yet been tested. Some public water supplies in Maine already tested were found to contain toxic PFAS at levels that exceeded or nearly exceeded nearby states’ standards, including one serving an elementary school in Trenton, Maine.

Chart: Comparison of Levels to Allowable Limits of Nearby States

 

PFAS Total

PFOA + PFOS

PFOA

PFOS

PFHpA

PFHxS

PFNA

PFBS

Presque Isle Residents

White Family

82.2

56.6

46.8

9.8

18.9

6.69

ND

20.1

Harvath Family

34.6

23

19

4.01

8.19

3.4

ND

9.74

Public Systems in Exceedance

Trenton Elementary

33.9

24

16.6

7.4

ND

ND

9.9

ND

Standards

NH Standard

N/A

N/A

12

15

N/A

18

11

N/A

VT/MA Standard

20

N/A

Inc.

Inc.

Inc.

Inc.

Inc.

N/A

ME/USEPA

N/A

70

Inc.

Inc.

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

Bolded values reflect exceedances of a nearby state’s standard.
Total excludes PFBS since it is not regulated in neighboring states.
“ND” means not detected
“N/A” means the standard does not include the particular chemical.
“Inc.” means the total standard includes the particular chemical.
Note: Vermont’s standard is based on the sum of five chemicals, while USEPA and ME applies to the sum of two chemicals. Massachusetts’ standard currently applies to groundwater and has been proposed for drinking water.

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The Environmental Health Strategy Center works to create a world where all people are healthy and thriving, with equal access to safe food and drinking water, and products that are toxic-free and climate-friendly.