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More than 50 Maine farms impacted by PFAS, but state officials see ‘glimmer of hope’

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.

Maine agricultural officials said Wednesday that they are working with more than 50 farms around the state that have been found to be contaminated with the "forever chemicals" known as PFAS.

But while research into PFAS mitigation is ongoing, both in Maine and across the country, state officials said they are optimistic about initial success in reducing pollution levels in some livestock or farm products.

"I don’t believe that we would view anybody as a lost cause as of yet, but we also want to be sensitive to the farmers’ perspective,” Nancy McBrady, deputy commissioner with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, told lawmakers Wednesday during a briefing on PFAS issues. “It's exhausting and if farms want out, we support that. I do want to offer a glimmer of hope. I do believe that science will figure out a way to revitalize farms and impacted soils and water in the future. We're not there yet."

State environmental and agricultural agencies are in the middle of testing more than 1,000 sites around the state that are considered high risk for PFAS pollution because they were licensed to spread potentially contaminated sludge. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been used for decades in manufacturing, including in some coated papers and other products made in Maine. But a growing body of scientific research has linked some types of PFAS to health problems, including cancer, kidney malfunction and low birth weight.

So far, contamination has been found on 56 farms and 23% of the more than 1,500 groundwater samples that have been collected — both from agricultural sites and residential wells — have tested above Maine’s interim standard of 20 parts per trillion for the cumulative total of six types of PFAS.

Speaking to the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, McBrady stressed that this is “definitely not a Maine issue” — because treated sludge, or biosolids, were legally applied as fertilizers across the country — but that Maine is ahead of most states in looking for contaminated sites. She said they are making progress in seeing levels of PFAS drop significantly in some beef livestock and dairy after clean water or feed was brought in. And research being conducted in Maine and elsewhere is finding that PFAS do not accumulate in certain types of crops, offering potential alternatives to farmers.

“We have seen farms go from close to 1,000 parts per trillion of PFOS to 40 with milk, which is remarkable,” McBrady said. “But it is an incredible slog and very hard, very stressful for the farms involved. We don’t know much about other species, unfortunately. Pigs might actually take a really long time to [reach safe levels] so what does that mean? How do we crack that nut? Water filtration can help remove PFAS chemicals to safer levels but soils . . . we don’t have a solution for that right now.”

The Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry has spent about $2 million through January on lab testing for farmers, income replacement and other support services for farms. That figure is expected to grow as the investigations continue, however. The Legislature budgeted tens of millions of dollars to PFAS response — including potential income replacement for impacted farms — at McBrady’s agency as well as the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Susanne Miller, director of the DEP’s Bureau of Remediation & Waste Management, said one concern has been a lack of PFAS lab testing in Maine. Using $3.2 million provided by the Legislature last year, the DEP has awarded contracts to two labs to set up operations in Maine. Miller said the DEP has installed more than 300 residential drinking water filtration systems in homes found to have PFAS above the state standard.

Miller also said she expects to see additional impacted farms identified above the 56 identified so far.

“I don’t know how many that will be, but I anticipate that there will be some more,” Miller said.