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Costs of investigating PFAS contamination are rising ‘exponentially’ in Maine

Forever Chemicals Sludge
Robert F. Bukaty
In this Thursday Aug. 15, 2019 photo, dairy cows rest outside the home of Fred and Laura Stone at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel, Maine. The farm has been forced to shut down after sludge spread on the land was linked to high levels of PFAS in the milk.

State environmental officials say the costs of investigating and addressing contamination with so-called “forever chemicals” are rising exponentially in Maine and could reach tens of millions of dollars a year.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has identified roughly 700 sites located in nearly three dozen towns throughout the state that have been deemed to be at higher risk of contamination with the chemicals known as PFAS. Used for decades in a broad range of consumer products as well as firefighting foams, some varieties of PFAS have been linked to cancer, kidney malfunction and other serious health problems.

The DEP has begun testing sites at the top of that list, but the process is expected to take several years.

During a legislative committee on Monday, DEP commissioner Melanie Loyzim was asked how much she expects the department will ultimately spend annually on testing, remediation and installation of water treatment systems. The Legislature earmarked $30 million in the current budget to cover those costs as well as to begin offering financial assistance to impacted farmers.

“Probably somewhere on the order of $10 (million) or $20 million a year, potentially, easily,” Loyzim told members of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “Hopefully we are about to find the worst of it and everything will be better from there. We hope for the best and prepare for the worst, I guess. But these are numbers that we can't even begin to really reliably estimate at this point yet.”

But Loyzim said costs are rising “exponentially” and that the supplemental budget request expected to be released next month by Gov. Janet Mills may contain additional funding for PFAS-related expenditures.

PFAS contamination has emerged as a top environmental concern in Maine. Known as “forever chemicals” because of their longevity in the environment, PFAS were present in treated municipal sludge and other waste that has been used as fertilizer in Maine for decades. Contamination hotspots have now been found on several farms and tests have revealed roughly 200 private drinking water wells in Fairfield or nearby towns that contain PFAS levels above the state’s standard.

Lawmakers are considering several PFAS-related bills this legislative session, including one that would tighten the state’s laws on the use of sludge or compost that contains PFAS. The committee tabled that bill on Monday along with a measure that would require runoff, or “leachate,” from the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town to be treated to remove PFAS. The current treatment process does not remove PFAS from the leachate before it is discharged into the Penobscot River.