Fred Stone holds one of his cows at his Arundel dairy farm, which was found to be contaminated by PFAS chemicals in 2016. Stone wants the statute of limitations clarified for filing lawsuits linked to PFAS contamination. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

AUGUSTA — Attorneys for an Arundel couple whose dairy farm was reportedly contaminated by fertilizer laced with toxic chemicals want Mainers to have more time to file lawsuits when pollution from “forever chemicals” is found on their property.

Fred and Laura Stone first learned about contamination on their York County dairy farm in 2016 after the chemical class known as PFAS turned up in a municipal water well on their property. The Stones have since sued PFAS manufacturers, the local sewer district and other parties, claiming their family’s century-old dairy farm has been ruined by chemicals in the treated sludge or paper mill ash that they legally spread on their crop fields.

Attorney Susan Faunce said that under some interpretations of Maine law, the clock to take legal action against a company begins when the contamination occurs, not when it is discovered. On Tuesday, Faunce asked members of a state task force preparing a set of recommendations on PFAS to support clarifying the “statute of limitations” in Maine to ensure that individuals or businesses have six years from the discovery of PFAS on a property to file a lawsuit.

“The challenge is that a lot of people who may be in a similar situation as the Stones haven’t discovered that their property has been harmed, or that they may have suffered some diminution in the valuation of their property, until now,” Faunce told members of the task force examining PFAS contamination in Maine. “But they may have had these chemicals placed on their land 20 to 30 years ago.”

Although a concern near military bases for several years, contamination from the per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances referred to as PFAS has emerged as a statewide issue as tests show the chemicals turning up in municipal sludge, fish and some water supplies.

PFAS have been in widespread use for decades in non-stick cookware, water- and stain-resistant fabrics, grease-resistant food packaging and the firefighting foam commonly used at airports and on military bases. But some types of PFAS – dubbed “forever chemicals” because they linger in the environment and the body for long periods of time – have been linked to low birth weight, high cholesterol, thyroid disease and certain types of cancer.

Mills created the task force last spring, partly in response to the situation at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel, which was forced to stop selling milk in 2017 because high levels of PFAS were found in the farm’s soil, water supply and cows. Fred Stone spread treated municipal sludge, also known as biosolids, on his farm and others in the area for years as a fertilizer but also used waste from a local paper mill that may have used PFAS as a coating on products.

Most members of the PFAS task force seemed receptive to recommending that legislators examine the issue next year.

“I, for one, would be all for that recommendation,” said Norm Labbe, the former superintendent of the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District that first discovered the PFAS in a well on Stoneridge Farm. “I was under the impression that it was nailed down, but it’s not and we need to do that.”

It appeared unlikely Tuesday that the recommendation will receive unanimous support in the final report, however.

“I can’t support this without a lot more thorough review,” said Charles Kraske, senior environmental engineer at Verso Paper, who represents the state’s pulp and paper mills on the task force.

Faunce said the legal team working on the Stone case are confident that their legal arguments will withstand any challenge to the statute of limitations. But she said the problem centers on language in Maine’s law that starts the six-year clock ticking when contamination is “discovered or should have been discovered.” And it’s the latter phrase, Faunce said, that means the issue could be “open to interpretation” and  allow manufacturers to argue the window for legal action closed long ago for individuals whose land was contaminated unbeknownst to them decades ago.

“That allows individuals, business owners, municipalities – those people who have been affected by these chemicals – to have access to the courts to hold the manufacturers accountable for the damage that these people are living under on a day-to-day basis,” said Faunce, an attorney with the firm Berman & Simmons.

The proposed change to the statute of limitations is likely to appear in the final list of recommendations that the task force is expected to submit to Mills and state lawmakers next month. Task force members spent the vast majority of Tuesday’s meeting attempting to fine-tune the language of other recommendations and, in some cases, highlighting areas where there simply won’t be unanimous agreement from the diverse interests represented in the group.

Proposed PFAS recommendations that had broad support include:

• Require testing for PFAS by all 378 “community water systems” in Maine that serve a year-round population as well as nearly 200 schools and daycare facilities on their own water supplies.

• Continue to require regular testing of treated sludge and other “residual” wastes before they are applied to land as fertilizer.

• Better educate the public as well as potentially exposed professions – including farmers, firefighters and health care providers – about PFAS concerns.

• Support additional state funding as well as a bond measure to help pay for PFAS sampling, remediation and treatment.

• Urge swift action at the federal level to establish “maximum contaminant levels” for PFAS in drinking water and to require manufactures to reduce usage of the chemicals.

The task force is accepting public comments on the recommendations through Dec. 6. The group’s final meeting is scheduled for Dec. 18.

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