Fred Stone, an Arundel dairy farmer whose land and cows are contaminated with the chemicals known as PFAS, in January 2020. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

A legislative committee voted Wednesday to grant state environmental regulators the authority to order the cleanup of Maine sites contaminated with so-called “forever chemicals,” a problem that is growing in Maine and across the country.

Meanwhile, Maine Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins joined a half-dozen colleagues in petitioning the Biden administration to allow some of the $1.9 trillion in newly passed stimulus funds to be spent on PFAS contamination. The letter was, in part, responding to an appeal from Maine Gov. Janet Mills for more federal assistance in dealing with the chemicals.

“PFAS has been found in public drinking water systems and residential wells throughout the United States,” the senators wrote in their letter Tuesday to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. “Addressing this contamination requires significant investment and proactive efforts to remediate. Ensuring states, tribes and local governments have flexibility to use (American Rescue Plan) infrastructure funds to support their PFAS work will help combat this pervasive and ongoing public health threat that impacts so many Americans.”

Maine, like many states, is grappling with a steadily expanding list of sites contaminated with per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which are highly persistent chemicals increasingly linked to health concerns. PFAS have been used for decades to manufacture a host of common household goods, including some of the coated paper products made in Maine paper mills.

The state’s most severe and still-growing PFAS hotspot is located in the central Maine town of Fairfield, where tests have revealed 61 contaminated wells located near farm fields that were fertilized with treated sludge that apparently contained PFAS. The state’s investigation, which was triggered by elevated levels of PFAS in a sample of milk, has now expanded to Unity and Benton, where sludge from the same from wastewater treatment facility also was spread on farms.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is seeking to add PFAS to the list of hazardous substances in the state’s version of the federal Superfund law. The change would give the agency additional authority to investigate and mitigate contamination risks, as well as the power to require responsible parties to clean up pollution – or to pay for the work – just as the state currently can for mercury, waste oil or other hazardous substances.

On Wednesday, members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted 7-3 largely along party lines, with three members absent, to endorse the department’s bill, L.D. 780. A similar measure garnered majority support from the committee last year but died on the vine along with hundreds of other bills as the Legislature adjourned early because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are approximately 2,700 “uncontrolled” hazardous substances sites statewide, often involving legacy contamination from previous uses. David Burns, director of the DEP’s Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management, said the state has unilaterally issued cleanup orders in only six instances, and such orders can be appealed to the Maine Board of Environmental Protection or the courts.

“It shows that the process does, in my opinion, work and it’s not an abused process,” Burns said. “If you look at the unilateral orders issues, that’s less than or around 0.2 percent of the total sites.”

The bill provides “qualified exemptions” to wastewater treatment plants and water utilities to prevent them from being saddled with cleanup costs except in instances of blatant disregard of rules and regulations. But some committee members raised concerns about setting a precedent, as well as checks and balances.

Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, said he wanted to support the bill but sought unsuccessfully to delay the committee’s vote so he could have some of his questions answered. Bennett ultimately declined to vote either way on Wednesday morning, opting instead to withdraw from the virtual committee work session.

“The question for me is not regulation,” Bennett said. “The question is who has the power to regulate and whether we are doing it sensibly and under what basis.”

Supporters opted to push forward with the proposal, which was among the long list of recommendations that emerged from a PFAS Task Force created by Mills in 2019.

“The federal government isn’t coming any time soon to save us from this mess, so we need to have state-based, innovative solutions and the capacity to manage it on our own,” said Stacy Brenner, D-Scarborough, the committee co-chair. “This is a vehicle to do that.”

There are thousands of chemicals in the PFAS family used to create nonstick surfaces in cookware, water- or grease-resistant textiles or packaging and foams that can smother even the most intense fires. Critics have dubbed them “forever chemicals” because their strong chemical bonds prevent PFAS from readily breaking down in the environment or the body.

Some types of PFAS have been linked to cancer, low birth weight, high cholesterol, kidney problems, immune suppression and changes to fertility and reproductivity. While two of the oldest and most toxic chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, can no longer be used in U.S. manufacturing, health and environmental groups contend lesser-studied, newer variants could be equally troublesome for public health.

The Maine Legislature is considering roughly a dozen bills dealing with PFAS, including several that would set strict limits on PFAS in drinking water.

PFAS contamination also has emerged as a major environmental issue in Washington, D.C., in recent years. The Biden administration has stated that the chemicals are a top priority. And on Tuesday, legislation was introduced in the U.S. House to designate PFAS as hazardous substances at the federal level, to require regulators to set a national drinking water standard and to earmark $200 million annually for wastewater treatment.

In their letter to Yellen on Tuesday, the eight U.S. senators urged the Treasury Department to include PFAS projects in the upcoming guidelines for how states, tribes and local governments can spend American Rescue Plan money.

King, Maine’s junior senator, led the letter effort after Mills asked Maine’s congressional delegation for help securing federal support in tackling the growing PFAS problem. In fact, the senators’ appeal to Yellen borrows heavily from some of the language in Mills’ letter.

A Mills spokeswoman said Wednesday that the administration “would welcome the flexibility to use federal funding for PFAS remediation efforts.”

During a congressional committee hearing Wednesday, Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack what the department was doing to help dairy farmers affected by PFAS contamination. In addition to the Fairfield dairy farm at the center of that hotspot, an Arundel dairy farm was among the first in the country to call attention to potential PFAS contamination tied to use of sludge, or “biosolids,” as fertilizer.

Pingree said some farmers have qualified for short-term relief for the loss of sellable milk, but she suggested that the federal government needs to help with long-term assistance. While Maine “might be ahead of the curve” on PFAS in agriculture, Pingree said farmers in other states will likely find themselves in similarly “tragic situations.”

“PFAS is a forever chemical,” Pingree said. “It’s often in the land for a variety of reasons and can’t really be effectively remediated or removed, or at least we don’t know how to now. And for some farmers, it is a complete loss of their stock and all of their livelihoods.”

Vilsack responded that the department is exploring potential longer-term options “to better support our dairy farmers that are confronting this.”

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