A legislative committee voted Friday to endorse stricter health standards for PFAS in drinking water and to require that schools, day care centers and community water systems test their wells for the “forever chemicals.”

If approved by the full Legislature, the proposal would add Maine to the growing list of states that have adopted stringent contamination limits on PFAS in the absence of a federal standard. The bill would set an interim limit of 20 parts per trillion in drinking water for specific types of PFAS – compared to a federal advisory level of 70 parts per trillion – while giving the Maine Department of Health and Human Services time to develop an official maximum contaminant level.

The soil and grass at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel is contaminated with PFAS chemicals as are the cows and their milk, a result from sewage sludge spread on the farm fields between 1983 and 2004. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“I think this is one of those (instances) where we demonstrated that working together and collaboratively can move the needle and make a difference for folks we are trying to take care of and help protect,” said Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, co-chair of the Health and Human Services Committee and a retired physician.

One of about a dozen PFAS-related measures pending with the Legislature, the bill comes at a time when a state investigation into a contamination hotspot in central Maine has expanded to other towns. Maine Gov. Janet Mills and the state’s congressional delegation, meanwhile, are pressing for more federal resources to help states cover the mounting costs of dealing with PFAS pollution.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a family of chemicals that have been widely used for decades in such common products as nonstick cookware, grease-resistant food packaging, water- or stain-repellant textiles and firefighting foam. Critics have dubbed the thousands of varieties of PFAS as “forever chemicals” because they do not readily break down in the body or the environment.

Medical studies have linked some varieties of PFAS to a host of health problems, including cancer, kidney disease, low birth weight, immune suppression and changes to fertility and reproductivity.

Three bills were introduced this legislative session seeking to set a contamination limit on PFAS in drinking water because many experts regard the 70 parts per trillion health advisory level from the federal government as too lenient to protect public health.

The question facing lawmakers was whether to have the Legislature impose the new limit, as proposed in two of the bills, or to set a temporary or interim standard while the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention within DHHS conducts research and a rulemaking process for the official standard.

With their 9-0 vote on Friday, members of the Health and Human Services Committee opted for the interim limit of 20 parts per trillion, which is the same as in Massachusetts and Vermont. The bill, L.D. 129, will now go to the full House and Senate for consideration.

But the committee also sided with environmental and health advocates who wanted the 20 parts per trillion limit – the equivalent of one drop of impurity in 500,000 barrels of water – to apply to the cumulative totals of six types of PFAS. DHHS officials had pushed for a cumulative limit of 70 parts per trillion for the sum of five, or potentially, six varieties of the chemical while capping the most concerning types, PFOS and PFOA, at 20 parts per trillion combined.

“What’s really most important to the department is that we have a rulemaking process that doesn’t have any preconditions,” state toxicologist Dr. Andrew Smith of the Maine CDC told the committee on Friday. “We can let the science take us where the science takes us. This is an area of rapidly emerging science.”

Under the current version of the bill, all water utilities as well as hundreds of community water systems, including many schools and child care facilities, will have to begin testing for PFAS by Dec. 31, 2022. Wells that contain PFAS levels above 20 parts per trillion would have to take steps to remedy the situation, including potentially installing treatment technology. State officials have said they hope to make available state or federal funds to help cover those costs, which topped $1.5 million for one southern Maine water utility.

Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of the environmental health advocacy organization Defend Our Health, said the organization was “thrilled” with the strong committee vote. Defend Our Health and other groups have pointed out that by using the current federal advisory level of 70 parts per trillion water would be considered safe to drink in Maine but toxic in Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire.

MacRoy said the bill won’t remedy the harm caused by discovered PFAS contamination in Brunswick, Arundel, Fairfield, Unity, Presque Isle and other communities.

“But it is a critical starting point that will result in many more water supplies being tested as well as action to address contamination identified,” he said. “We urge the full Legislature to heed the committee’s recommendation and we look forward to working with the Mills administration to both see this implemented and to continue to address the harm of PFAS throughout Maine.”

Environmental regulators have been monitoring several PFAS hotspots in Maine for years, most notably on the former Brunswick Naval Air Station and around other airports where foam containing the chemicals was used in firefighting. But the 2016 discovery of extremely high levels of PFAS in milk, water and soils on an Arundel dairy farm drew national attention because the contamination was linked to treated sludge or paper mill waste that was legally applied to fields as fertilizer.

Last summer, state testing of milk led to the discovery of some of the highest levels of PFAS ever recorded. Milk from a farm in Fairfield had 32,000 parts per trillion, or 150 times higher than the state’s allowable level in milk. Subsequent investigations have found more than 60 contaminated private wells in the area, with some containing more than 350 times as much PFAS as the federal drinking water advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.

In a memo submitted to the committee Wednesday, DHHS estimated that 131 of the 251 wells tested in the Fairfield area would be in line for water treatment if the state adopted a maximum contaminant level of 20 parts per trillion for the six types of PFAS.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate voted 89-2 to pass a drinking water and wastewater infrastructure bill that contains language granting states additional flexibility to tap federal funds to assist more households dealing with private wells contaminated with PFAS or other pollutants. The amendment was co-sponsored by Maine Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent.

“Communities across Maine are struggling with the impacts of PFAS and other harmful contaminants in our nation’s water systems, which put our citizens’ health at risk, degrade our environment, and poison important farmland,” King said in a statement. “In order to properly respond to these challenges, we must expand the federal resources available to local leaders. This bipartisan amendment will provide added flexibility for states and localities as they work to respond to the threats of these pollutants, strengthening an already important piece of legislation that will make key investments in water infrastructure across Maine.”

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