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Mills and LePage sound off on PFAS at agricultural forum

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.

Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage both vowed Tuesday to continue helping Maine farmers impacted by PFAS pollution, which has emerged as a top concern in Maine’s agricultural community.

The two longtime political rivals spoke separately to a small group on Tuesday as part of a gubernatorial forum organized by the Agricultural Council of Maine. Mills, a Democrat seeking a second term as governor, told the farmers and agricultural leaders that Maine is tackling the issue of PFAS head-on as it identifies and then tests potentially contaminated sites throughout the state.

"Other states may try to hide it, shove it under the rug but they can't for long,” Mills said. “We are putting it out there in the open. We are testing as many sites as possible and then addressing those sites as quickly as possible."

Over the past two years, the Mills administration has worked with state lawmakers to set aside more than $100 million to deal with the growing PFAS problem in Maine. Much of that money is geared toward testing more than 700 sites that may have been contaminated when sludge was applied to farm fields as fertilizer as part of a state-licensed program. Mills said that, to date, about 340 farms have found to have PFAS contamination above state screening levels but only three have been shut down.

Mills said her administration has already started compensating farmers for lost crops or livestock, and has been installing filtration systems on water supplies. The state is also exploring setting up a PFAS testing lab in the state to ensure that farmers can receive results faster.

"I have no doubt that our efforts and our advocacy here in Maine are leading the way in DC and across the country,” Mills said.

PFAS are a class of chemicals that have been used for decades as coatings in household goods, including in some paper products made in Maine. But some of the chemicals have been linked to serious health problems, including higher cancer rates, kidney malfunction and low birth weight.

In his comments, LePage also said the state has a responsibility because the sludge-spreading program was licensed for decades by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

"They approved the spreading. They own it and they've got to fix it,” LePage said. “And I think that's an investment that we have to make, and we have to make it quick. When she got the $14 billion from the federal government, some of that money should have gone immediately to PFAS and we should be working on it now to clean it up."

LePage was apparently referring to the massive amount of federal stimulus money that Maine and other states received during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, Jim Britt, noted that most of the funding that Maine received through the federal American Rescue Plan stimulus bill passed by Congress had to be used for pandemic-related issues. The Mills administration and the Legislature have earmarked record amounts of money for PFAS response, however.

Between the supplemental budget proposed by Mills and passed by the Legislature this spring as well as the biennial budget passed last year, the state set aside more than $100 million for PFAS testing, remediation, compensation for farmers and other initiatives related to the chemicals. Most of that money came from the more than $1 billion budget surplus that Maine expected to accrue in part because of the stimulus money that has flowed into the state.

Independent candidate Sam Hunkler, a doctor from Beals, also addressed the Agricultural Council of Maine. Hunkler said that PFAS contamination “is a huge problem” that will “take a concerted effort by many departments.”

Hunkler said he was sickened by the fact that PFAS – a class of chemical with thousands of varieties – are so ubiquitous in consumer products. Hunkler said would like to know which products contain the chemicals, adding “I don’t know why the Department of Environmental Protection or whoever doesn’t come out with that.”

In actuality, the Legislature passed a bill that will require manufacturers to begin reporting to Maine DEP any products sold in the state in which PFAS has been “intentionally added.” The new law is the first step toward a first-in-the-nation bas on PFAS in products starting in 2030. But this summer, a broad range of businesses and manufacturers urged the DEP to delay the new reporting requirements and slow down the rulemaking process, which they said has been too rushed and establishes a timeline that many manufacturers will be unable to meet.