A state task force is recommending that nearly 400 community water systems in Maine be required to test for an emerging class of “forever chemicals” and that manufacturers disclose when PFAS is intentionally used in consumer products.

Members of the Maine PFAS Task Force also recommended continuing to test municipal sludge before it can be used as fertilizer as well as “prioritized” monitoring for PFAS near airports and other facilities where the chemicals have been used. But members split over a proposal to allow the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to order cleanup of contaminated sites.

The group also divided over whether Maine should follow the lead of other states – including New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont – that are setting their own health standards for PFAS in drinking water. Instead, state health officials endorsed using a 70 parts per trillion federal “health advisory level” that critics contend is outdated and inadequate to protect public health.

“It’s basically a wish-list, to some degree, understanding that we have limited resources and we can’t do everything,” said Jeff McBurnie, director of permitting and regulatory affairs at Casella Organics, which operates one of New England’s largest composting facilities in Unity.

McBurnie said the 30 to 40 specific recommendations, although not exhaustive, provide a road map for legislative action while endorsing some of the initiatives already underway at the Maine DEP.

“I think we did a pretty good job at reaching consensus,” McBurnie said.

Gov. Janet Mills created the PFAS task force last March in response to growing concerns in Maine and nationwide about a class of chemicals – per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS – that have been used for decades. The chemicals are widely found in modern consumer products, creating nonstick surfaces on cookware, making fabrics water- or stain-repellent, coating some food packaging and helping smother the intense flames of petroleum fires.

But some types of PFAS have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, low infant birth weight and higher cholesterol levels in adults. And as the long-lasting chemicals begin popping up in farm fields, drinking water supplies and food supplies, state and federal regulators are looking to strengthen regulatory oversight of the “forever chemicals.”

After seven months of work, task force members finalized a list of recommendations last week that will be sent to Mills and lawmakers ahead of the 2020 legislative session. Some of the notable recommendations include:

Requiring all 378 community water systems statewide that serve 25 or more people to test for PFAS.
Passing legislation requiring manufacturers to report the use of PFAS in consumer products and use safer alternatives when available.
Mandating that fire departments or industrial facilities report to the state whenever firefighting foams containing PFAS are used and create a take-back/replacement program for existing stores of PFAS-laced foam.
Continuing to require that wastewater treatment plants regularly test sludge for PFAS if the waste is intended to be used as fertilizer after treatment.
Introducing a bond bill to raise money for the cost for PFAS sampling, analysis, remediation and drinking water treatment.

“These recommendations reflect a commitment to determine where PFAS contaminants exist in Maine due to current and historic activities, and to put in place strategic responses to protect people from exposure,” reads the report presented to task force members last week.

“Through our deliberations and review of data, we concluded that there are risks of exposure to PFAS in Maine that require our attention,” the report continues. “We believe that these recommendations exemplify the sincerity of our work and the seriousness of this issue.”

The task force was composed of a diverse set of stakeholders representing the public health sector, environmental interests, drinking water and wastewater utilities, the paper industry and government agencies. That diversity meant members didn’t always agree.

For instance, members disagree on what level of PFAS in drinking water should trigger mandatory treatment or that the supplier provide customers with an alternative water source. While some task force members supported using the federal government’s threshold of 70 parts per trillion for two types of the chemical, PFOS and PFOA, others want Maine to follow the example of other states setting more stringent levels.

Vermont, for example, has set a maximum of 20 parts per trillion for the sum of five common forms of the chemical class, while Massachusetts is considering a threshold of 20 parts per trillion for six of the compounds.

Task force member Mike Belliveau, who is executive director of the Portland-based Environmental Health Strategy Center, said the recommendations “are strong on prevention and cleanup, and weak on drinking water/health protection.”

Belliveau praised the unanimous or near-unanimous endorsement of legislation to phase out PFAS in consumer products and firefighting foam and to give the DEP authority to hold companies financially accountable for contamination.

“We are very disappointed in the lack of leadership on health protection,” Belliveau said. “Maine is now an outlier among all of the New England and northeastern states on drinking water standards. We rely on the Trump-EPA standard of 70 parts per trillion for two of the compounds.”

Members also disagreed on whether the DEP should require permits for wastewater discharges or air emissions containing PFAS, similar to the regulatory licenses for dozens of other pollutants. While supporters viewed such a requirement as a logical extension of existing environmental regulations, opponents said the science is still developing on PFAS toxicity and analytical testing of the various chemical compounds.

McBurnie, with Casella Organics, which utilizes municipal sludge to make compost, said his industry recognizes that regular testing is necessary. But he supports the broader goal endorsed by the task force of gradually removing PFAS from consumer products, which over the long term will reduce the chemicals’ presence in the waste stream.

Maine is among a handful of states that have moved aggressively to expand testing and monitoring for PFAS — particularly on potential contamination in sludge used as fertilizer — but has yet to adopt state-level standards for the chemicals in drinking water.

New Hampshire has among the nation’s most stringent limits — 12 parts per trillion for PFOA and 15 parts per trillion for PFOS — and has begun requiring all water utilities, wastewater treatment plants and landfills to regularly test for the chemicals. Michigan is considering even stricter limits of eight parts per trillion for PFOA and 16 parts per trillion for PFOS.

Federal agencies are also updating regulations and guidelines, although not as quickly or aggressively as states.

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended using 40 parts per trillion as the “screening level” for PFOS and PFOA to determine whether “levels of contamination may warrant further investigation.” But the EPA is continuing to recommend no more than 70 parts per trillion for the two chemicals in drinking water.

The EPA is also exploring adding PFAS to the list of chemicals on the “Toxics Release Inventory,” which would require private companies or public entities to disclose any emissions or discharges. Additionally, the federal defense budget bill passed by Congress this month requires the military to begin phasing out use of firefighting foam containing PFAS.

In Maine, the Mills administration is expected to propose several bills for the 2020 legislative session based on the PFAS task force’s recommendations.

The DEP has already proposed legislation that would allow it to order responsible parties to clean up PFAS contamination or require them to pay for remediating polluted sites. Such language is needed because Congress has so far failed to pass legislation enabling PFAS-contaminated sites to qualify for the federal Superfund program.

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