Catherine Harrington stands in her yard on Howe Road in Fairfield in January, near fields where sludge was kept and spread for years. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Thirty years ago, Bruce Harrington was so concerned about the sludge being spread as fertilizer on a farm near his family’s Fairfield home that he confronted the drivers of the trucks literally “drooling” with the foul-smelling waste.

An argument ensued. But Harrington eventually agreed to step aside after police who responded explained that the waste had been treated and “there wasn’t any harm that was going to come to anybody.”

On Wednesday, Harrington and his wife fought back tears as they shared their fears that the family’s drinking water, gardens and fruit trees, and even the pool used by their children and grandchildren, were poisoned for years by “forever chemicals” that tested 350 times higher than state and federal safety limits.

The couple urged lawmakers to ensure that homeowners have legal recourse against the companies responsible for that pollution.

“Our power has been taken away – our house and our retirement, everything has been taken away and there’s nothing that we did,” Catherine Harrington said. “So we need this time so we can get some sort of recourse from this. Otherwise, it’s like, where is the fairness in it?”

The Harringtons were among more than a dozen people testifying in support of two bills that would give Maine property owners six years from the discovery of pollution to file lawsuits. While PFAS hotspots have cropped up around Maine in recent years, the growing cluster of contaminated wells near a Fairfield dairy farm is raising additional concerns about how many other farm fields around the state received PFAS-contaminated sludge.

“We don’t know what the future holds,” said Harry Irving, who raised three daughters as well as chickens and produce on a Fairfield property whose water tested more than 270 times above the federal limit. “I urge the committee go forward with this legislation. It is very much needed so I can protect my family and so that other citizens of Maine can be protected from these chemicals that are ‘forever.'”

The bills aim to prevent “responsible parties” – potentially including chemical manufacturers and, in Maine, the paper mills that used PFAS – from claiming the state’s statute of limitations only extends six years after the pollution actually occurs, regardless of when it is uncovered.

Maine would join more than three dozen states with such a discovery rule.

“It’s the only fair thing to do,” said Susan Faunce, an attorney with Berman & Simmons who represents two dairy farms shut down because of past use of sludge unknowingly contaminated with PFAS. “The manufacturers of these chemicals knew the dangers of these chemicals. They kept those dangers a secret.”

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, encompass thousands of compounds used in everything from nonstick cookware and grease-resistant food packaging to waterproof clothing, stain-resistant carpeting and firefighting foam. But the strong chemical bonds that help them create water- or grease-resistant products also prevents PFAS from readily breaking down in the environment or body, hence the “forever chemicals” nickname.

Some types of PFAS have been linked to cancer, low birth weight, high cholesterol, kidney problems, immune suppression and changes to fertility and reproductivity. The two most-studied compounds, PFOS and PFOA, are no longer used in U.S. manufacturing but they are being found in groundwater, sludge, soils and landfill leachate nationwide. Health and environmental groups also warn that lesser-studied, newer variants could be equally problematic.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee endorsed a similar statute-of-limitations bill last year but the measure died on the vine because the full Legislature never reconvened amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the issue has gained urgency as state testing has revealed that at least 45 wells in Fairfield have PFAS levels above the federal health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.

For the first time on Wednesday, the owners of the Fairfield dairy farm believed to be the epicenter of what is now the state’s largest PFAS cluster spoke out publicly.

Marilyn Tozier told lawmakers that the 10th-generation family farm’s sales of milk and beef shut down since last year when state regulators notified them that the farm’s water and milk had dangerously high levels of PFAS. Contaminated sludge is believed to be the source.

“At the time the sludge was spread, we had no idea what PFAS was and certainly did not know about the dangers of the chemicals,” Tozier said. “Farmers across the state were sought out to participate in the sludge program, which offered it as free fertilizer that was good for the land and would help all those involved.”

Tozier said her family has not received any financial support from the state or federal governments. She urged lawmakers to support the bills.

“We need this bill,” she said. “Please help with our desperate situation.”

Treated sludge from wastewater treatment plants as well as waste from some paper mills has been routinely used as a fertilizer for decades in Maine and across the country. Farmers obtain free, nitrogen-rich fertilizer that has been treated to remove dangerous pathogens while municipalities avoided the significant cost of landfilling the sludge.

It wasn’t until 2019, following the discovery of contamination at Stoneridge dairy farm in the York County town of Arundel, that the state began requiring wastewater treatment plants and commercial composting operators to begin testing for PFAS. Some other states have since followed suit.

But other states have moved faster than Maine in setting stricter drinking water standards than the federal 70 parts per trillion advisory level, which critics contend fails to protect health and to account for risks posed by newer versions of PFAS.

Lawmakers are considering a suite of bills to tighten those limits in Maine and implement a host of other recommendations from a PFAS Task Force created by Gov. Janet Mills in 2019. The bills discussed on Wednesday, L.D. 363 and L.D. 627, are outgrowths of those recommendations.

There are at least two lawsuits pending in Maine against several manufacturers of PFAS, as well as against paper companies that may have used the chemicals in their mills. The latest lawsuit was filed this month by Nathan Saunders of Fairfield, who alleges in the class-action lawsuit that Sappi North America’s Somerset Mill in Skowhegan was the source of the contamination. Sappi has strongly disputed the lawsuit.

Saunders testified Wednesday that he suspects his wife’s kidney failure in 2010 is linked to PFAS – measured at nearly 13,000 parts per trillion – in the well water they’ve used for 33 years.

During testimony last year and on Wednesday, representatives for the water and wastewater utilities raised concerns about the legislation opening them up to liabilities. But Faunce said Maine’s tort law should shield municipalities and quasi-municipalities.

The bills drew support from the Maine Dairy Industry Association, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Defend Our Health, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. No one spoke in opposition.


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