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Maine’s congressional delegation seeks federal support for farmers grappling with PFAS

In this Thursday Aug. 15, 2019 photo, hay dries after a recent cut at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this Thursday Aug. 15, 2019 photo, hay dries after a recent cut at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel, Maine.

Maine's congressional delegation is proposing legislation that would authorize federal grants to states where farms have been contaminated with the "forever chemicals" known as PFAS.

All four members of the delegation — Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden — are co-sponsoring legislation that was inspired by the growing number of Maine farmers dealing with PFAS pollution on their lands.

The bill would allow states to use federal funds to expand PFAS testing and to pay for health monitoring. States could also compensate farmers for lost income, to help farmers convert to alternative crops or even relocate them if their land is no longer usable.

“USDA needs to step up and provide support to farmers, who at no fault of their own, are at risk of losing their livelihoods,” Collins said in a statement. “This is not just a problem in Maine – PFAS contamination has been discovered on farms in New Mexico and Michigan, and this problem will only become more evident as testing becomes more readily available. Thus far, the federal government’s response has failed to keep pace with this growing problem.”

Dubbed "forever chemicals" because of their longevity in the environment, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, is a family of thousands of chemical compounds that have been used for decades in many household products. But some of the compounds have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer, kidney malfunction, high cholesterol, low birth weight and reduced vaccine response in children.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is currently testing more than 700 sites around the state that are considered at higher risk for PFAS pollution because they were licensed to receive applications of municipal sludge that may have been contaminated with the chemicals. That testing is ongoing but contamination has been found on more than 40 farms around the state as a result of sludge that was used as fertilizer. Hundreds more private drinking wells – as well as some school drinking water supplies – have since been found to be contaminated.

In response, the administration of Gov. Janet Mills and state lawmakers have earmarked $100 million for PFAS testing, response, remediation and research in recent years.

"I think this legislation is really critical for setting a safety net for farmers that is at the federal level because we know that the problem of PFAS contamination on agricultural lands is not specific to Maine,” said Sarah Alexander, executive director with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “We just happen to be the first state that's looking for it."

Alexander said the delegation's proposal mirrors those initiatives already underway in Maine in response to the growing number of PFAS hotspots linked to contaminated sludge.

"Maine really is leading on this across the nation,” she said. “We get asked all of the time from organizations in other states about the work that is happening here and what they should be looking at in their own states."

Concerns about PFAS on agricultural land in Maine first surfaced about five years ago when an Arundel farmer, Fred Stone, was alerted to high levels of the chemicals in a well located on his dairy farm. The multi-generation farm was eventually forced to stop selling milk because of high levels of PFAS in their cows, and Stone has become a vocal advocate in Maine and nationally for more aggressive government response to the issue.

Several additional farms in Maine have since been forced to shut down or suspend operations because of contamination. In most cases, sludge from municipal wastewater treatment plants that served industrial users – such as paper mills that used PFAS in their production – was spread as fertilizer under the state-licensed “biosolids” program.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, called the delegation’s bill “an important step forward in mobilizing whole-of-government action on the PFAS crisis.” Pingree serves on the House Agriculture Committee and both she and Collins have seats on the appropriations committees that control the government purse strings.

“The more we learn about forever chemicals, the more urgent addressing widespread contamination across the nation becomes,” Pingree said in a statement. “Our farmers’ livelihoods are in jeopardy, and we must do everything we can to support them through this crisis.”