AUGUSTA — State environmental officials want the authority to order companies to clean up contamination from emerging “forever chemicals” or to be allowed to tap state funds for remediating contaminated sites on their own.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is preparing a proposal for the 2020 legislative session that officials said is needed to unbind the state’s hands when it comes to dealing with contamination from the class of chemicals known as PFAS.

Jerry Reid, commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Used for decades in firefighting foam and in countless water- or grease-resistant consumer products, some varieties of the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS have been linked to cancer, low birth weight and other changes in the body.

The DEP already has the authority to order “responsible parties” to clean up sites contaminated with a host of potential toxins such as mercury, lead or dioxin. But the department lacks that ability with PFAS because the federal government has not added the grouping to its list of potentially hazardous chemicals, and Maine’s policy mirrors the federal government’s.

The DEP proposal would broaden Maine’s list to include PFAS and future “pollutants and contaminants” that emerge as concerns. That could allow the department to follow the example of other states, such as New Hampshire, that have sought to hold PFAS manufacturers or companies that used the chemicals financially responsible.

“We want to have the ability to pursue the responsible parties that have financial means to perform remediation and have some culpability for the contamination itself,” DEP Commissioner Jerry Reid said in an interview last week. “But this is not just about being able to order cleanup. It is about us being able to utilize these (state) funds so we can do the remediation ourselves, and allow us to perform the work that needs to be done to protect the public health.”

The proposed legislation is one example of how Maine and other states are moving aggressively – in the absence of federal action – to address rising concerns about PFAS. Maine lawmakers, for instance, passed a bill this year to make Maine one of the first states to move to prohibit the use of PFAS in food packaging while the department is moving forward with a proposal to require companies to disclose when certain varieties of the chemicals are used in other products.

State data show that Maine’s most serious PFAS contamination sites are located at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone and at the Maine Air National Guard base in Bangor. Those sites are eligible for federal funds as part of the Defense Department’s intensive PFAS cleanup program, but test results compiled by the DEP show lesser amounts of water, soil or wildlife contamination in locations throughout Maine.

Military and airport firefighters have used – and are required to continue using – PFAS-based foam for decades because the chemical properties make it particularly effective at smothering the intense flames generated by burning jet fuel. But PFAS also creates nonstick surfaces on cookware, helps carpets or fabric repel stains, makes rain jackets waterproof and coats many types of grease-resistant food packaging.

A task force created by Gov. Janet Mills earlier this year is examining the extent of PFAS contamination in Maine and recommending next steps to address the issue. The task force will begin fine-tuning those recommendations later this month ahead of an anticipated December report to Mills and lawmakers.

The DEP is pursuing its legislative proposal separately, although the task force is expected to recommend replenishing the “uncontrolled site fund” used by the DEP to finance environmental cleanup projects. A proposed bond measure that included such funding failed to pass the Legislature this summer.

Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Portland-based Environmental Health Strategy Center, said he hopes the Legislature will take up another bond measure for PFAS and other environmental cleanup projects when lawmakers return to Augusta in January.

But Belliveau, who represents environmental interests on the PFAS task force, strongly supports the proposal to expand the DEP’s authority regarding PFAS contamination.

“It’s the only way to make polluters pay for site cleanup or to access state money for cleanup,” Belliveau said. “That’s the bottom line. We have leaking landfills and sludge-contaminated sites such as the Stone farm.”

Until earlier this year, much of the concern over PFAS hot spots in Maine concentrated on the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, where the Navy already has an aggressive contamination monitoring and treatment program. But that focus expanded to farms last winter when Belliveau’s group helped call attention to the plight of Fred and Laura Stone, an Arundel couple whose dairy herd, water supply and crop fields were found to have high levels of PFAS.

Fred Stone spread treated municipal sludge – also known as biosolids – as well as paper mill ash waste on his farm and others in the area for years as a way to boost nutrients on his crop fields. While it is still unclear where the PFAS came from, the contamination at Stoneridge Farm prompted the Mills administration to impose testing requirements on municipal wastewater treatment plants and to curtail the application of biosolids on some farms.

Reid and deputy DEP commissioner Melanie Loyzim did not provide specific examples of sites that could be eligible for state funds or where the department might seek to hold a “responsible party” accountable for cleanup costs. But Reid and Loyzim made clear that the agency’s proposed legislation does not seek to go after municipal treatment plants.

Reid acknowledged that the proposal could face opposition from industries, such as paper mills, that used the now-banned forms of PFAS or continue to utilize newer, less environmentally persistent versions of the chemicals.

“I don’t know what kind of reception it is going to get in the Legislature,” Reid said. “There will be a lot of concern about the definition of ‘responsible parties.’ ”

Patrick Strauch, executive director of the industry trade group the Maine Forest Products Council that includes all of the state’s paper mills, did not respond to a request for comment.

There is also a strong push at the federal level to add PFAS to the list of contaminants eligible for inclusion in the Superfund program that provides federal money to clean up polluted sites.

One such Superfund provision was included in a version of the defense spending bills that passed both chambers of Congress. House and Senate negotiators – including Maine’s Sen. Angus King and District 2 Rep. Jared Golden – are now attempting to reconcile differences between the two versions.

It is unclear whether the final defense bill will include the provision to allow PFAS sites to qualify for Superfund money, although the initiative has enjoyed strong bipartisan backing to date.

Such a change at the federal level could help address some of the regulatory issues issues that prompted the DEP’s proposed legislation. But Belliveau said the initiative is needed either way.

“We also need the state authority,” he said. “There are so many PFAS-contaminated sites in Maine, as we are learning from the task force. So the state really has its hands full and the federal (Superfund) program would not be able to address them all.”

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