HALLOWELL — Chemicals raising health concerns nationwide were present in the majority of sludge tested by Maine wastewater treatment plants at levels high enough to merit additional scrutiny from state environmental regulators, according to initial results.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has received results from only about 40 percent of the treatment plants or sludge composting facilities subject to the new testing requirements for three types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. While the early returns are not necessarily surprising, they illustrate the pervasiveness of these “forever chemicals” commonly known as PFAS, as well as the challenge ahead for the state and municipal treatment facilities that provide the sludge to farmers for use as fertilizer.

“We’re reviewing the data as it comes in from each site, making decisions regarding appropriate actions at the individual facilities,” David Burns, director of the DEP’s Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management, told members of a PFAS task force on Wednesday. “At this time, I just want to point out for the task force members, it’s too early to draw conclusions since we don’t have the entire data set available to us yet.”

The sludge testing program was one of multiple topics covered Wednesday during the first meeting of the task force created by Gov. Janet Mills to study PFAS contamination in Maine.

Used for decades in everything from nonstick cookware to firefighting foam, PFAS are long-lasting chemicals linked to cancer, thyroid disruption and reproductive and immunological changes in lab animals.

Task force leader Dr. Meredith Tipton said the group’s key task is to identify the most serious threats to health and the environment from PFAS contamination. In addition to several military or industrial sites in Maine, a heavily contaminated dairy farm in Arundel is raising concerns about more widespread contamination on agricultural fields that were unknowingly fertilized with sludge laced with PFAS.

“We need to decide how best to focus the state’s very limited resources, as we all know, on moving forward,” Tipton said. “What are we going to do? What can we do?”

Last month, the Maine DEP began requiring sewage treatment plants to test for three specific varieties of the chemicals – PFOS, PFOA and PFBS – before the treated sludge could be applied to farms as fertilizer or distributed as compost.

Burns and other DEP officials did not share specific results with the task force on Wednesday.

But initial results provided to the Portland Press Herald show that 18 of 22 samples from treatment plants exceeded the screening concentration of 5.2 parts per billion for PFOS. Additionally, 10 of the 22 plants had samples testing above the 2.5 parts per billion screening concentration for PFOA.

At a press conference in March at his Arundel dairy farm, Fred Stone talked about chemical contamination in his fields and his cows caused by sludge he had spread on the fields to help the soils. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

For compost, 16 of 18 samples exceeded the PFOA screening concentrations and eight of the 18 exceeded it for PFOS. But neither of the testing samples submitted by two paper mills exceeded the department’s screening concentrations.

Exceeding a screening concentration does not necessarily mean a facility will be unable to apply treated sludge as fertilizer. That’s because screening levels are intended to flag contaminant levels in need of further evaluation of the risks for each particular site, Burns said.

If samples exceed the “screening concentrations” set by DEP, the facility must work with the department to conduct additional analysis to determine whether the materials are safe to apply to land or distribute as compost.

PFAS contamination has emerged as a major environmental concern across the country in recent years.

The highest-profile PFAS contamination cases have often occurred near industrial sites or military airfields because of the chemical’s use in firefighting foam. But PFAS linger in the environment and the human body for decades, becoming so pervasive that the chemicals show up in the blood of humans and animals around the world.

While PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the United States, other varieties still help make frying pans nonstick, carpeting stain-resistant, jackets shed water and food packaging repel grease.

While PFAS are under increasing scrutiny at the federal level, states are moving fastest to regulate and monitor the chemicals. Some states have adopted drinking water safety thresholds below the federal government’s 70 parts per trillion “advisory level.”

Maine is pushing ahead with its own testing and regulatory programs, although not as quickly as some health and environmental groups would prefer.

More than two years after PFAS contamination was first discovered on the Arundel dairy farm of Fred Stone, the Maine Department of Agriculture is just beginning to conduct tests on milk on other farms. At this point, those efforts will focus only on farms that have applied sludge from treatment plants now participating in the sludge testing program – not on farms that have utilized sludge in the past.

The Maine Drinking Water Program conducted tests of 17 public drinking water supplies in 2017. This year, the program plans to test up to 80 drinking water supplies.

“We have chosen to take a proactive approach,” said David Braley, senior geologist with the Drinking Water Program within the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “We are not waiting for EPA to act. We are trying to identify systems that may have been impacted already. Fortunately, very few have been impacted.”

But it was also clear on Wednesday that tackling PFAS contamination will take a financial investment. Staff from the DEP, the Maine CDC and other state agencies told the task force that they do not have the staff or financial resources needed to conduct all of the necessary studies, tests and regulatory oversight.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether Maine’s wastewater treatment facilities will be able to provide sludge to farmers this year or will have to landfill the waste at a cost to local ratepayers.

Leonard Blanchette, general manager of the Brunswick Sewer District, told the task force that facilities such as his are “dealing with the aftermath” of the widespread usage of PFAS.

“And how does it get to us?” Blanchette said. “From all of us, through everything we do and all of the clothing we wear, and all of the chemicals that are in the clothing … end up in the water and end up with us.”

Scott Firmin, director of wastewater services for the Portland Water District, said in an interview Tuesday that “the concern is way out ahead of the science” because so little is known about the health impacts of PFAS and how the chemicals turn up in wastewater. Firmin, whose plant reported testing results above the screening concentrations, said prohibiting facilities from land-applying sludge won’t stop the waste from flowing to his facility.

“If tomorrow everyone wanted all of this stuff to go to a landfill, there may or may not be enough trash to mix it in with and there may or may not be enough capacity,” Firmin said. “Over the long-term, there is definitely not enough capacity.”

The task force plans to meet through November before preparing a report on recommendations.

 

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