Some landowners allowed the sludge to be spread on their property because they were assured it was a safe and effective fertilizer. Others just had the bad luck to live near someone who did.

Arundel dairy farmer Fred Stone holds his Brown Swiss Lida Rose in March 2019. Stone says his fields have been contaminated by sludge he had spread on the fields to help the soils. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Mainers in both categories had their properties contaminated by industrial chemicals linked to a variety of serious health problems. Now, they are seeing their farming operations shut down and their land plummet in value.

The application of the contaminated sludge, which came from wastewater treatment plants and paper mills, occurred over decades, but the landowners themselves are just now finding out about it. That shouldn’t keep them from getting what they deserve.

Two bills under consideration in the Legislature would give landowners six years from the discovery of the pollution itself to file lawsuits. Lawmakers should pass the bill so that any responsible parties – whether they are chemical manufacturers, paper mills or others – can’t claim that state law limits lawsuits to six years after the pollution occurred.

More than three dozen states already have such a rule. At least two lawsuits have already been filed in Maine related to contamination by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a category of chemicals used as coatings in a variety of consumer products.

PFAS don’t break down in the environment or body, making them especially harmful. Some have been linked to a number of health problems, including cancer, low birth weight, immune suppression and fertility issues. The two most-studied chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, have been banned. Many others are still in use, however, and many experts believe they will be found to be harmful, too.


The chemicals made their way from products into groundwater, as well as the treated sludge from wastewater plants and some paper mills. Using the sludge on farms was considered a win-win: Farmers got free fertilizer, while municipalities could get rid of it for nothing.

But the cost of that free sludge has proved to be very high. Bruce Harrington of Fairfield, where the biggest cluster of contaminated land has been found, told lawmakers this week that he raised concerns about the sludge 30 years ago, only to be told it was perfectly safe. Now the water he and his family use to drink, tend the garden and fill the pool has been found with levels of PFAS 350 times higher than the allowable federal limit – which itself is too high.

Contamination has shut down milk and beef sales on one family’s 10th-generation farm. Another man told lawmakers he blames his contaminated well, measured at about 185 times the allowable limit, for his wife’s kidney failure.

The list goes on and on. At least 45 wells in Fairfield alone have so far tested above the federal limit, with more in Arundel. As more testing occurs, more contamination will be found. More lives will be upended as they discover their homes and health have been put at risk for years.

They’ll be in that position through no fault of their own, and they deserve to be made whole.

The Legislature should give them the time they need to get a fair shake.

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