Fred Stone pets one of his calves in the milking parlor on his Arundel dairy farm on Saturday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

An Arundel dairy farmer who raised the alarm about “forever chemicals” in fertilizer has been denied assistance from a federal safety-net program for farmers unable to sell contaminated milk.

Fred Stone said he’s angry that he was rejected for assistance he said is needed for his farm’s survival – especially after being assured he qualified – and that the federal program is requiring him to bear the nearly $600-per-sample cost for milk testing.

But federal representatives said they are obliged to follow the rules set by Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a program that is rarely used in Maine but could become more commonplace nationwide as PFAS contamination hot spots are discovered.

“I hope we don’t get any, but if we do we will process them the same way,” said David Lavway, Maine executive director for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

Stone said he is facing a “financial nightmare” stemming from the November 2016 discovery of contamination in a municipal water well located on his family’s century-old York County farm. Subsequent tests showed Stoneridge Farm’s soils, drinking water and milk were contaminated with per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, likely hidden in the municipal sludge or paper mill waste he was encouraged to use as fertilizer on his fields.

The contamination at Stoneridge Farm spurred additional scrutiny of the potential for farmers to inadvertently contaminate their fields – and potentially their farm products – with PFAS in “biosolids” used as fertilizer. Stone, who believes he and his family’s health have been impacted by the contamination, has also filed suit against the wastewater treatment plant, a paper mill and PFAS manufacturers.

Chemicals in the PFAS family have been widely used for decades in nonstick cookware and food packaging, water- or stain-resistant fabrics such as Scotchgard and GORE-TEX, and in firefighting foam. But a growing body of health studies have linked some of the compounds – particularly two varieties known as PFOS and PFOA – to cancer, thyroid diseases, low birth weight and other health concerns.

Stone had some initial success reducing PFAS levels in his milk after installing a high-tech water filtration system and purchasing feed grown on out-of-state fields that were never fertilized with sludge. But he finally lost his contract with Oakhurst Dairy last January when levels spiked again.

Forced to dump all of the milk from his herd of 50 to 100 cows daily, Stone applied for compensation through a 40-year-old federal program created to help dairy farmers recoup losses from contamination.

He received money from the Dairy Indemnity Payment Program for last January and February but received notification last month that he was denied assistance for March through October. Stone estimates the payments of $150 to $175 per day add up to around $45,000.

“We were planning on that to maintain the water (filtration) system and purchase clean feed,” Stone said last week. “I’m very, very upset with the way we are being treated.”

In his denial letter, Lavway pointed out that a March test showed PFOS levels below the state’s maximum limit of 210 parts per trillion, meaning the milk was eligible to be marketed commercially. Additionally, Lavway wrote, Stone failed to provide the additional monthly tests necessary to show that his milk could not legally be sold.

“The only test we received was that test and that test showed he was eligible to market it,” Lavway said in an interview. “And since he hasn’t provided any other tests since then, we wouldn’t be able to provide him with any assistance for those months.”

But Stone said he was never told, in his repeated conversations with local Farm Service Agency staff, that he needed to conduct additional tests to qualify. He also questioned how the USDA expects him to pay up to $600 per test at a time when his lack of milk income means he doesn’t have money to buy feed for his cows or pay other expenses.

Additionally, Stone suggested that it is unrealistic for state or federal agencies to expect him to be able to sell milk that is just shy of the state’s 210 parts per trillion cutoff.

“I’ll tell you right now, it does’t matter what the number is: Oakhurst is not going to buy my milk if it’s contaminated,” Stone said. “I can’t sell my milk if it’s contaminated, I can’t sell my cows if they are contaminated. … It doesn’t matter what the number is. All that matters is if it’s not zero, you’re not going to be able to sell your produce.”

Lavway said his office is charged with implementing the programs as directed by Washington, D.C.

“We make the decision that milk is eligible to be marketed,” Lavway said. “From that point on, we don’t have any control over whether anybody will buy the milk.”

A spokesperson for Oakhurst’s corporate parent, Dairy Farmers of America, did not respond to questions about whether the company has begun monitoring for PFAS. But in a statement, Oakhurst President John Bennett said the company takes seriously its responsibility “to produce safe, high-quality milk in compliance with all federal, state and local regulations.”

“The inconsistencies in approach related to PFAS across the nation creates challenges, but we are working proactively with federal, state and local agencies to understand and obtain clear and consistent guidance,” Bennett said. “We join the broader food and consumer goods industry in encouraging federal regulators to establish clear and consistent guidelines around PFAS in consumer products.”

While the federal government has not set a health standard for the chemicals in milk, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends treatment of any drinking water with a combined PFOS and PFOA level of 70 parts per trillion. Several other states have adopted or are poised to adopt even stricter standards for drinking water.

Stoneridge Farm was one of dozens of locations around the state where treated municipal sludge – or, in more limited circumstances, paper mill waste – was spread on farm fields as fertilizer. This “beneficial reuse” strategy is employed across the country as a way to help farmers add nutrients to their fields at low costs while helping municipalities avoid the expense of landfilling sludge.

Wastewater treatment facilities have been required to test for dozens of chemicals and toxins as part of their licensing. But it was not until last spring that Maine began requiring treatment plants to also test for PFAS in response to concerns raised at Stone’s farm.

Nancy McBrady, director of the Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, pointed out that her agency tested more than two dozen samples of bottled milk from around the state last year for PFAS. All samples tested below 50 parts per trillion, well below the state’s “action level” of 210 parts per trillion.

“We were relieved to see those results and, at present, we have high confidence in the state of Maine milk,” McBrady said.

Stone’s experience raises questions about the efficacy of federal or state agricultural relief programs at a time when PFAS hot spots are popping up near military bases, industrial facilities and other sites.

McBrady said the Dairy Indemnity Payment Program could serve as a model or a basis for examining additional ways that federal agencies can assist farmers affected by PFAS contamination. While Stone is the only Maine dairy farmer in more than a decade to seek compensation through the program for PFAS – or any other contaminant – other farmers could discover PFAS problems down the line.

“I think it’s a good starting point, but it is quite specific,” McBrady said. She also said that Stone’s financial situation, in which he is struggling to afford to pay for testing as well as buying clean feed, suggests that states and Congress should look at ways to help farmers bear some of those costs.

The Mills administration plans to continue working with members of Maine’s congressional delegation on federal policies to address PFAS.

For his part, Stone said he has been disappointed with the response he has received so far from the offices of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, and Republican Sen. Susan Collins on his application for compensation. He also questions why other farmers would voluntarily disclose contamination on their farms, as he did, after seeing the financial and bureaucratic challenges his family has faced.

“We did the right thing” by notifying the state and Oakhurst about the PFAS contamination, Stone said. “I make no apologies and if I had to, I’d do it all over again. But I will tell you right now, it has come at one hell of a price.”


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