Health and environmental advocates say the discovery of record-high levels of a “forever chemical” on a Maine dairy farm highlights the need for legal changes to ensure property owners can hold polluters accountable.

Last week, state agriculture officials revealed that milk from a Central Maine dairy farm contained up to 150 times more of a highly persistent chemical than the state allows. Although no longer produced in the U.S. because of its toxicity, the industrial compound PFOS as well as its chemical cousins in the PFAS family are showing up in drinking water supplies, sludge and now on farms across the country.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry identified the farm on Monday as Tozier Family Farm in Fairfield in response to a public information request from the Portland Press Herald. State officials said the farm is no longer selling milk or beef, and the public was never at risk because the small farm’s output was diluted with milk from many others during the processing and bottling stage.

Earlier Monday, the owner of another Maine dairy farm that has become a PFAS hotspot joined health and environmental advocates to urge lawmakers to pass a bill that aims to ensure property owners have legal recourse against parties responsible for such pollution. A legislative committee will hold a public hearing on the bill Tuesday.

“It’s always been my goal, I guess, to try to make sure that no other farm in our area – southern Maine,  Maine or even New England – have gone through the type of meat grinder that my wife and I have gone through over the last two to three years,” said Fred Stone, owner of Stoneridge Farm in Arundel. “It’s been a horrible situation.”

Stone contends that PFAS showed up in his farm’s soils and drinking water because of the municipal sludge that he used as fertilizer for years on his hayfields through the state-licensed program. Stoneridge Farm is now “virtually worthless” because of the contamination, which showed up in Stone’s milk at levels 20 times lower than the milk in Fairfield.

The bill, L.D. 2160, would specify that landowners, businesses or even municipalities have six years to file a civil lawsuit after the discovery of PFAS contamination.

Bill supporters contend that under current law, polluters could argue that the six-year window begins when the contamination happens, not when it is discovered. That is particularly problematic when dealing with PFAS, which can linger in the environment for decades – or longer – before being discovered.

A majority of members on a PFAS Task Force created by Gov. Janet Mills last year endorsed such a change in a report issued earlier this year.

Sponsor Rep. Henry Ingwersen, D-Arundel, said 37 other states have similar statutes of limitation available to landowners or municipalities dealing with environmental damage caused without their knowledge. Ingwersen said his bill is “really about environmental justice and fairness.”

“Maine farmers and businesses are already working overtime to put food on the table and keep their farms going,” Ingwersen said during a virtual news conference. “And they should not be the ones to pay for damage to their livelihoods and health because of PFAS. They should be able to seek justice from those responsible, from those that knew this was toxic, and from those that knew this was a ‘forever chemical’ and yet chose to keep it from us.”

The term PFAS refers generally to a broad category of synthetic chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, that were developed in the 1940s and are now widely used in products found throughout modern society. Different varieties of PFAS create the non-stick surfaces in cookware, allow carpets or clothing to repel water and stains, and are used in firefighting foam found at airports and on military bases around the world.

But the strong chemical bonds in the substances mean they do not break down easily in the environment or the body, hence the nickname “forever chemicals.” While manufacturers assert that newer varieties of PFAS are safe, the chemicals are coming under increasing health scrutiny.

The type of PFAS found on both the Fairfield dairy farm and at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel is known as PFOS, which is short for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. No longer manufactured in the U.S., PFOS has been linked to cancer, low birth weight in infants, high cholesterol, immune suppression and changes to fertility and reproductivity.

Many of the highest-profile PFAS contamination cases have been near military bases or industrial facilities that used the chemicals in manufacturing. There is growing concern about the chemicals in food, however, because of PFAS in packaging or potentially on farms.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry began looking for another potential contamination site after tests of samples of milk purchased from stores revealed a batch with elevated PFOS levels. They then used the dairy processor’s records to trace back that milk to individual farms.

The department considers any milk with PFOS levels of 210 parts per trillion or higher to be “adulterated” and prohibits its commercial sale. Samples collected from Tozier Family Farm tested at 12,700, 14,900 and 32,200 parts per trillion – 60 to 153 times higher than the state’s 210 parts per trillion cut-off level.

The farm’s owner declined to comment Monday when reached by phone. But state agriculture officials are working closely with the farm to try to determine the potential source of the contamination and determine next steps.

One potential source being investigated is treated sludge that was apparently applied to the farm’s fields as fertilizer through the state-licensed “reuse” program. The state has issued hundreds of licenses for land application of “biosolids” around the state in recent decades, as have many other states.

State agriculture officials said last week that Maine’s milk supply remains safe thanks, in part, to the periodic testing and rigorous record-keeping that led them to the latest PFAS hotspot. The most recent round of testing of retail milk samples – the second since 2019 – found PFAS levels were below the reporting level in 19 of the 20 samples.

“Our testing approach allows us to identify and investigate potential issues of concern before they can become a problem, so we can ensure that retail milk in Maine is safe,” Amanda Beal, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said in a statement on Friday. “At the same time, the State is committed to helping farmers who may be impacted by PFAS contamination to find a viable path forward to continue farming and producing products that are safe for people to consume.”

But Dr. Lani Graham, a physician and former state health director who served on the PFAS Task Force, said that “the extent of PFAS contamination in Maine remains largely unknown” because few private drinking water supplies or farms have been tested.

Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of the Maine-based Environmental Health Strategy Center, said the new case in Central Maine shows that the state needs a much more aggressive testing regimen for farm products and the farms where sludge was spread. Additionally, he reiterated his group’s call for an end to policies that continue to allow sludge containing PFAS to be spread on farm fields.

Julie-Marie Bickford, executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association, said in an interview on Monday that most fertilizer spread on dairy farms comes from their own animals. But the practice of utilizing treated municipal sludge on farms “is out or on its way out” because of the evolving PFAS situation.

“This is an issue that cuts against everything dairy farms are about,” Bickford said. “Dairy farms are about producing good, healthy food . . . so this is particularly painful.”

Bickford also credited the state agricultural officials for working closely with the industry and pointed out that this most recent contamination was revealed as a result of testing and rigorous record-keeping.

“It’s because we went looking,” Bickford said. “We were trying to be proactive and trying to be responsible.”

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