Harpswell’s Select Board members have sent a letter to two dozen legislators, state employees and a Navy cleanup team over their concerns about PFAS at Brunswick’s former naval air base and about the remediation efforts they fear could contaminate the town’s coastline.

The Select Board signed the letter last week written by Paul Ciesielski of Brunswick Area Citizens for a Safe Environment.

“We feel that a greater interest need be paid to community concerns over PFAS than at present, given what national and state governmental bodies have recently expressed,” the letter said.

Research has linked PFAS, a class of chemicals used in firefighting foams that the Navy long used at the Brunswick base, to significant health problems, including decreased fertility, developmental delays in children and cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The letter included multiple questions and requests, several related the Navy’s upcoming work to remove toxins from the base’s stormwater retention system at Picnic Pond and Mere Creek.

“Everything that happens around the Brunswick area drains down into our waters,” said Select Board member David Chipman. “We are a commercial fishing town. We’re really concerned about what happens in the flats and what happens in our marine environment.”


Toxins from the base, including arsenic and petroleum compounds, drain into nearby retention ponds designed to reduce stormwater runoff, Ciesielski said. Mere Creek carries the contaminants from the ponds to Harpswell Cove, which has shown elevated levels of PFAS in recent tests.

Testing in 2020 conducted by members of Brunswick Area Citizens for a Safe Environment revealed PFAS and a related compound called PFOS in ribbed mussels in Harpswell Cove. The samplers found PFAS at rates as high as 6.45 parts per billion, well above the 20 parts per trillion threshold the state considers elevated in community water systems.

The Navy will begin dredging to replace the ponds’ contaminated sediment on April 18, according to a 2019 plan and its 2021 update, but it hasn’t detailed how it will prevent PFAS-contaminated water from leaking into Harpswell during the operation.

“Given past experience with the Navy, it is unlikely that there will be sufficient time for Harpswell’s input to be considered and for assurances the plan prevents the PFAS contaminated waters in this pond and the stormwater retention system as a whole to wash down to Harpswell Cove,” the letter read.

Iver McLeod, who manages the Brunswick air station remediation project for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said he wasn’t concerned the Picnic Pond remediation project might contaminate Harspwell Cove, even though the Navy has not yet submitted its final work plan. He pointed out the project will be relatively simple and PFAS levels in the retention ponds are quite low.

“Dredging is a very common technique for dealing with contamination,” McLeod said. “I feel confident they will do what is necessary to prevent suspended sediment from going downstream.”


McLeod added dredging would not begin until the EPA and DEP first received and approved the Navy’s plan.

PFAS’ danger comes from its chemical structure, as well as the government’s inability to quickly update regulatory standards, according to David Page, a retired professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Bowdoin College and member of Brunswick Area Citizens for a Safe Environment.

“PFAS is a classic example of the general rule of thumb,” Page said. “Anything that makes our life easier will likely be bad for the environment.”

The chemicals’ extremely stable bonds make them well-suited to water- and heat-proofing materials, Page said. But those same properties prevent PFAS from breaking down naturally, which means the chemicals can build up in environments and organisms for decades.

“The overriding lesson to me is that we should not be using substances in everyday commerce that are not biodegradable or recyclable,” Page said. “Because if we do, we’re going to pay the piper down the line.”

While research continues to demonstrate the danger PFAS poses, regulations around the material have not caught up, according to Page.


The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, passed in 1980, guides how groups like the Navy must clean up sites contaminated by toxic materials, including Brunswick’s air base. Yet despite current efforts by legislators, including both Maine senators, to fast-track an update, PFAS is not currently on the law’s list of regulated hazardous substances.

“It’s essentially not a contaminant of concern,” Ciesielski said. “That’s kind of an incredible statement to make, isn’t it?”

Until the federal government adds PFAS to the list of substances governed by CERCLA, the Navy isn’t obligated to remediate the area’s PFAS contamination.

Yet for Harpswell’s leaders, that’s all the more reason to demand transparency and a seat at the table.

“Even though it’s not on the list doesn’t mean (the Navy) can’t answer some of our questions, right? That’s not really asking for a whole lot,” Ciesielski said.

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