Jackie Sartoris

Jackie Sartoris

Each winter, we ski on crosscountry trails minutes from our house. The trails are lovely, affording glimpses of marsh and coast, showcasing why, almost 25 years ago, we stayed in Brunswick to raise a family. To the naked eye, this is storybook Maine, but the former Brunswick Naval Air Station has a history of pollution, including lead from munitions dumps and other toxics.

While the Navy cleaned up parts of the land prior to closure, portions may be forever limited. That’s a problem, because in Maine, we draw our living from our land’s natural resources and our state’s natural beauty. Despite the former Base’s impressive growth, toxics are a constant concern. You can’t drill wells for drinking water when that water is contaminated. You can’t break ground where the soil is off-limits. You can’t play on some of the old ball fields because the Navy won’t take remediation actions needed to prevent our kids from coming into contact with dangerous chemicals.

Yet so far Brunswick has been lucky: it could be a lot worse.

Recent tests show that private wells in the area surrounding the former Base are below EPA’s health advisory for toxics called perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) used to repel oil and water on consumer goods including furniture, food packaging, and non-stick surfaces on cookware. So widespread are PFCs that they are in the drinking water of millions of Americans, particularly a type called PFOA. PFOA’s impersonal acronym belies its dangers. It is linked to cancer and can harm the developing brains of children. Used in firefighting foams and spread in hundreds of drills simulating aircraft fires, high levels of PFOA contaminate military sites like Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and others throughout the country. Testing on and around our former Base continues, and so far, there is limited concern due to PFOA, although that former ball field and other acreage remain closed due to its presence. But what if the tests in Brunswick had showed widespread toxicity? And what if, as was the case for PFCs, research eventually tells us that other substance used at the former Base or in our homes poses an unacceptable risk?

Carcinogens like PFOA once faced little federal scrutiny thanks to a broken law. For decades, the nation’s primary chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was so weak that regulators couldn’t even use it to ban asbestos—one of the most infamous carcinogens in our history. That’s why states like Maine led the charge to protect families, and in August, became the first state in the nation to ban toxic flame retardant chemicals in furniture – a major step in the right direction. Finally, last year, Congress passed a bipartisan law updating the TSCA. Under the new law, EPA finally has the authority to regulate or even ban toxics.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration nominated Michael Dourson to head the EPA office in charge of regulating toxic chemicals like PFCs. Dourson has made a career out of defending such chemicals, spinning up reports that downplay their dangers on behalf of the chemical and tobacco industries, who profit from lax regulation. In this role, he routinely claimed that toxic chemicals were “safe,” even at levels hundreds or even thousands of times higher than what EPA or other independent scientists (who weren’t paid by the chemical industry) recommend. When Maine was considering the ban on flame retardants, an industry group, the North American Flame Retardant Alliance (NAFRA) actively opposed Maine’s ban and other restrictions on their products. NAFRA represents the chemical industry, and hired Dourson to support their products in the past. With Dourson in charge of the review process for chemicals like PFCs, it’s hard to imagine EPA not acting as a rubber stamp for industry, neglecting the dangers of toxic chemicals, and putting families at risk.

Because scientific research about the harms of chemical substances is constantly underway, EPA must be vigilant and assess potential toxics fairly, and protect us by establishing limits when warranted. We shouldn’t have to place our trust in an industry apologist like Dourson, given his problematic history of allegiance to chemical manufacturers.

There is good news: a bipartisan coalition of Senators are speaking out against Dourson. North Carolina’s Senators, concerned with the toxic chemical polluting Camp Lejeune—a chemical Dourson defended—are voicing their strong opposition to Dourson, believing he can’t be trusted to protect their constituents from toxic chemicals, like those being monitored here in Brunswick.

We need Sen. Susan Collins to do the same. The history of our former Base is so important to the Brunswick area. Let’s make sure we learn from it, by protecting our future.

Jackie Sartoris is a former Brunswick Town Councilor.

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