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Environment and Outdoors
The Rural Maine Reporting Project is made possible through the generous support of the Betterment Fund.

Groups call for ban on sludge spreading as PFAS found on more Maine farms

PFAS-farmers.jpg
Kevin Miller
/
Maine Public
Adrienne Lee of New Beat Farm, an organic operation in Knox, addresses reporters at a press conference at the Maine State House on PFAS legislation on Wednesday as Ken Lamson and their toddler daughter watch.

Agricultural and environmental groups are calling on state lawmakers to pass a bill prohibiting sludge spreading in Maine as additional farmers come forward to disclose PFAS contamination on their land or in their water.

Standing outside of the Maine State House on Wednesday, Brendan Holmes said Misty Brook Farm in Albion pulled its dairy products from store shelves two weeks ago after high levels of the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS were found in the farm's milk. Holmes said the contamination was traced to hay purchased from a neighboring farm that was fertilized with sludge in the past. So he joined several speakers urging the Legislature to pass a bill banning the once-common practice of spreading treated municipal sludge on fields as well as the sale of compost made from sludge.

“I’m stubborn, I won’t give up and my farm won’t fold but I need your help,” Holmes said. “I need your help financially and I also need this bill to pass so that we quit this insanity of poisoning the best agricultural land in the state of Maine."

Wednesday's event was organized by the groups Defend Our Health, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Maine Farmland Trust and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. The two farm groups are working closely with state officials as they begin investigating more than 700 sludge application sites that are considered high risk for PFAS contamination based on the source of the sludge.

PFAS, which is short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, have been used for decades as coatings in countless consumer products, including nonstick cookware, stain- and water-repellant carpeting and grease-resistant paper food packaging. The chemicals are also a key component of firefighting foam used at airports and on many military bases. But some of the chemicals have been linked to a host of health problems such as cancer, kidney malfunction, low birth weight and decreased vaccine response in children.

Many states have allowed treated municipal sludge to be used as fertilizer. But a growing number of farms in Maine are discovering PFAS contamination linked to sludge that likely contained waste or wastewater from industrial plants that used PFAS, such as papermills.

Nell Finnigan said her family was thrown into "torturous limbo" after learning in late-January that two wells on their organic vegetable farm contained high levels of PFAS. While sludge was never spread on Ironwood Farm's fields, Finnigan said they believe their wells were contaminated by PFAS that leached from sludge spread nearby during the 1990s.

Finnigan said Wednesday that Maine state government will need to provide millions of dollars in financial support to prevent affected farms from going bankrupt as the lengthy investigations take place on their lands.

“The investigation is its early days but there isn’t a single person that I’ve talked to at the state or at any of these organizations that are represented today that think that we are it, those few of us that have come forward to date,” Finnigan said. “There will be more. This is an enormous mess to clean up and we need to stop adding to the problem."

Adrienne Lee of New Beat Farm in Knox also learned this month that their well contained roughly 100 times as much PFAS as the state says is safe to drink. The farm is now in limbo at a time when they should be starting seedlings and planning for next year.

“In a matter of weeks our business went from forecasting for record growing in 2022 to the insecurity of being able to pay our bills or to see a path forward for this season,” Lee said. “The pride and confidence we had that we were feeding our families and local community safe and healthy food has been crushed. We pulled our crops off the market and started drinking bottled water and even refrained giving baths to our 19-month-old because we were afraid we wouldn’t be able to keep her from drinking the tub water.”

State officials are exploring ways to compensate farmers for lost incomes due to contamination linked to the state-licensed sludge spreading program. And Gov. Janet Mills has proposed spending an additional $9 million on PFAS response on top of the $30 million that is currently budgeted. But those speaking Wednesday said more money will be needed.

A legislative committee endorsed the bill, LD 1911, to ban sludge application or the sale of compost made with sludge. But the measure has yet to come up for a vote on the House or Senate floor.

Wastewater treatment plant operators have warned that the bill will increase their costs significantly because sludge will have to be landfilled. Casella Waste Systems, which operates a composting facility in Unity as well as the state-owned Juniper Ridge landfill in Old Town, has also warned of potential consequences of passing the bill.