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Lawmakers consider $100 million fund for Maine farms affected by PFAS. But is it enough?

In this Thursday Aug. 15, 2019 photo, hay dries after a recent cut at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel, Maine. The farm has been forced to shut down after sludge spread on the farm land was linked to high levels of PFAS in the milk.
Robert F. Bukaty
In this Thursday Aug. 15, 2019 photo, hay dries after a recent cut at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel, Maine. The farm has been forced to shut down after sludge spread on the farm land was linked to high levels of PFAS in the milk.

State lawmakers heard hours of testimony Tuesday in support of a proposal to create a $100 million fund to help the growing number of Maine farms that are discovering so-called "forever chemicals" in their water or on their land.

But some advocates are warning that massive sum of money still may not be enough.

“We've invested every nickel that we have into this land, started our family up here and begun our dream as a young of family to live and farm off our own piece of land in the state of Maine that we love so much and are native to,” Scott McCormick said Tuesday to the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. “That dream has quickly become a nightmare since learning our water is contaminated because now there are many unknowns about what else is contaminated?"

McCormick told lawmakers that he and his wife Ashlee learned about one month ago that the water on their 90-acre farm in Jackson was contaminated with the industrial chemicals known as PFAS. The unwelcome news came just two weeks before Ashlee gave birth to the couple's second child, a little girl. And now, the McCormicks are in the agonizing position of waiting for more test results that could dictate their financial future on the farm they purchased in 2014 as well as the health risks the young family potentially faces.

He was among more than two dozen people who testified Tuesday in support the bill, LD 2013, to create a $100 million fund within state government to help farms caught up in Maine's expanding PFAS crisis. Money in the fund could be used to compensate farmers for lost income, buy out contaminated land, and to pay for ongoing health monitoring for farm families, among other purposes.

For decades, farmers have used municipal sludge to fertilize their fields under a program that was licensed and promoted by the state. But it is only now coming to light that some of that sludge was laced with chemicals long used as coatings in countless household products, including nonstick cookware, water-repellant fabrics and grease-resistant paper food packaging. These per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances have been dubbed "forever chemicals" because they linger so long in the environment and the human body. And the chemicals have been linked to cancer, kidney problems and potential development delays in young children.

"My farm and my family are the collateral damage of one of these sites," said Justin Morace, who recently stopped selling organic vegetables after discovering contamination on Ironwood Farm in Albion. Licensing records show that sludge was not spread on the fields that he and his wife cultivate. But Morace said neighboring fields did receive waste from the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District, and that facility served a major papermill. And now, the couple's well is heavily contaminated with PFAS that spread through groundwater.

"It's time for the state to step up to the plate,” Morace said. “It is going to take a generous aid package for farmer aid, research, health care and remediation. Let's not be another generation that leaves this mess to the next."

Maine lawmakers and the administration of Gov. Janet Mills have already budgeted $30 million for PFAS investigation in the current budget. Mills has also proposed setting aside another $10 million from the current $1.2 billion surplus. But that money won't even cover the state's review of more than 700 sites where high-risk sludge was potentially spread. Officials with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection identified those sites based on reviews of decades of sludge application licenses and permits.

All four members of Maine's congressional delegation signed onto a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week urging the USDA to do more to help Maine farmers. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, as well as Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, urged Vilsack to quote "fully utilize all existing programs and authorities" to help farmers in Maine. While PFAS is a national problem, Maine is on the leading edge of investigating contamination in agricultural settings.

“We cannot overstate how devastating this situation is for the affected farmers and their families,” the delegation wrote. “In addition to extreme financial hardship, they are also facing the potential health risks associated with being exposed to these forever chemicals. While the state is dedicating resources to assist with testing costs, water filtration, and some level of indemnification for affected farms, these resources are not sufficient to make these farmers whole. These farmers are looking for immediate income replacement while they are unable to sell their products, in addition to longer-term supports to help them recover. However, the federal support provided by USDA programs is currently very limited.”

But farmers and their advocates the state needs to do more. Among them was Maine Farm Bureau executive director Julie Ann Smith, who which testified neither for nor against the bill. Smith pointed out that $100 million only equates to approximately $142,000 if divided among the 700 properties identified on DEP maps as having potentially received sludge that could contain PFAS.

“It is nowhere near enough," Smith said.

Smith said the Maine Farm Bureau applauded the intention of the bill but has concerns even beyond what she described as an inadequate amount of money. The organization also accused state regulators of misleading farmers about sludge safety and now creating a crisis by moving aggressively on testing of farms without conclusive scientific evidence on what are acceptable levels of PFAS in soil.

For those reasons, Smith said the fund should be administered by an advisory committee made up of farmers.

"We do not believe the Department of Environmental Protection nor the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry are suited to make the best decision on behalf of impacted farmers,” she said.

Officials from the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry testified in support of the bill but say they want to work with lawmakers on how the fund would be administered. The committee, which drafted the bill based on earlier briefings on PFAS, will hold a work session on the legislation on a future date.