Contaminated soil has been discovered at Libbytown Community Garden, including arsenic and benzo(a)pyrene, at levels exceeding safety standards. The city will begin installing raised beds next week, with new soil and landscape fabric, according to city spokesperson Jessica Grondin. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The Libbytown community garden in Portland will be closed for the remainder of the month after testing revealed its soil is contaminated.

The city found higher than usual levels of benzo(a)pyrene, or BaP, and arsenic in the soil during new testing. That type of contamination can come from industrial pollution, though a spokesperson for the city said they do not know yet exactly what caused it.

The garden at the corner of Douglass and St. James streets remained accessible to the public Friday morning, though new signs had been put up saying plants must be grown in raised beds.

A new rule added to the site at Libbytown Community Garden says plants must be placed in raised beds with landscape fabric because of detected soil contamination. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Carmen Poff, 58, said she was ready to start planting for the season at the Libbytown community garden when she received an email last week informing her of the contamination. She had spent two years on a waitlist to get a plot at the garden before growing vegetables and berries there last summer.

Poff said she fed her grandkids homegrown strawberries from her garden and gifted her daughter plants she’d grown there. She fears she may have exposed her family to dangerous chemicals.

“I spent Friday night sick to my stomach Googling benzo(a)pyrene trying to understand what this means,” said Poff.


She said she sent frantic emails to the city and to Cultivating Community, the nonprofit that operates the garden, but they didn’t address the health concerns she had.

“They did not answer those questions at all, it still hasn’t been addressed,” she said.

The garden underwent comprehensive soil testing last month after the city found similar results when testing soil in preparation for replacement of the nearby Kiwanis Community Pool. When they realized the soil there was contaminated, they decided to also test the surrounding area, said the city spokesperson, Jessica Grondin.

Growers at the Libbytown Community Garden were told to stop planting last week because of contaminants found in the soil. Some had already planted in their plots, like these snap peas that are beginning to sprout. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

BaP levels at the garden were measured at 5.5 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg), above the recommended remediation level of 4.5 mg/kg for parks, according to a memo from TRC Companies, the company hired to perform the testing.

The arsenic levels were measured at rates between 9.96 mg/kg and 13.8 mg/kg – remediation is recommended for rates over 9.3 mg/kg.  

TRC recommended that “the current use of in-ground gardening beds be discontinued immediately, and if future gardening activities are to occur, raised beds should be constructed.”


The company did not respond to repeated questions about the results and if the contamination poses health risks for gardeners.

The memo also noted that the fruit trees and berry bushes nearby should either be removed or made inaccessible to the public “to eliminate public access to potentially contaminated fruit.” Grondin said the city is still working with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to decide if the trees should remain.

In an emailed statement, Maine CDC spokesperson Lindsay Hammes confirmed that the toxicology team is working with the city to determine how to best address the concerns that fruit trees near the garden may be contaminated. She said those discussions are underway.

The city plans to cover the existing garden beds and install raised beds. The garden will reopen when that work is complete, sometime before June 1 when Cultivating Community is planning to host a reopening event.

Growers at the Libbytown Community Garden were told to stop planting last week because of contaminants found in the soil. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

When the garden does reopen, Poff says, she probably won’t continue gardening there – she isn’t convinced that raised beds would make the garden safe again.

“This has really eroded my trust,”she said.


She said she is frustrated that this testing wasn’t conducted before the city installed the garden nearly a decade ago.

“The city of Portland knew the history when they created that park and they should have done much more extensive testing if they know people were going to grow food,” she said.

Poff said she plans to join a CSA or perhaps grow some vegetables in pots on her patio this summer.

“I just don’t want to be exposing myself and my family to cancer-causing chemicals,” she said. “That’s like the opposite of why I got involved with gardening.”

Grondin said the city is also testing all the other community gardens so it has current, comprehensive data on all of them, with those at Boyd Street, Casco Bay, Payson Park and North Street highest on the priority list because of their historical land use.

Ultimately, every garden will eventually be tested, “out of an abundance of caution,” she said. The city is urging gardeners at those sites to hold off on planting until the test results come back.

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