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Bill dealing with PFAS in sludge receives initial approval

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.

A bill that would prohibit sludge from being spread on land in Maine took a step forward in the Legislature on Monday.

But the divided vote indicates mounting opposition to this latest bill focused on PFAS contamination.

As currently written, the bill would end the long-standing practice by farmers of using treated municipal sludge as fertilizer on their crop fields. It would also prevent the sale of compost in Maine that was produced with sludge. For decades, some farmers used sludge as a nutrient supplement to soils under a program that was licensed and promoted by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. But supporters of the bill, LD 1911, argued that banning land application of sludge is needed to prevent future contamination with the so-called "forever chemicals" known as PFAS.

The chemicals have been used for decades to create water- or grease-resistant coatings in countless household products as well as firefighting foams. But a growing number of studies have linked some PFAS to cancer, kidney malfunction, high cholesterol, low birth weight and other health problems.

State environmental regulators are in the process of testing hundreds of sites where sludge contaminated with PFAS may have been spread over several decades. Some farms have been shut down or suspended operations because of dangerously high levels of PFAS in the water or soils, likely linked to sludge that came from a wastewater treatment facility that served an industrial customer.

“We are not just cutting off the tail here . . . we are turning off the tap with this bill,” said bill sponsor Rep. William Pluecker, I-Warren. “We know we are poisoned. But when we know we are poisoned, does that mean we will take more poison into our systems to see how far we need to go before we are badly damaged? We are badly damaged as a state. Our farmers are badly damaged. It is time to stop putting this poison onto our fields and into our food system.”

But Monday's House debate showed the bipartisan support over addressing PFAS contamination is fracturing.

Wastewater treatment plants, the waste management company, Casella, and some farmers oppose the proposed ban on land application of sludge. And Republican Rep. Wayne Parry of Arundel was among those lawmakers who warned that the bill's current language could prohibit some farmers from selling their products even if sludge was never spread on their land.

"So we've really got to think about this and I would hope that we could pull this back somehow and fix that language,” Parry said. “Because if that language isn't fixed, we could have some real bad unintended consequences of this bill."

The House voted 81-52 to approve the bill. The Senate could take it up this week.