Whether or not it believes it can afford to do it, the state of Maine has a duty to mitigate PFAS in the drinking water of the households affected by sludge contamination.

If the state can’t solve the problem right away (which it can’t), it can certainly start taking meaningful steps in that direction.

As the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram reported last week, hundreds of Maine homes are “stranded in PFAS limbo.” These homes find themselves in a stress-inducing bind; by federal standards, their well water is too contaminated with the hazardous per- and polyfluorinated substances, or “forever chemicals,” to drink.

By state standards, however, it is not contaminated enough to qualify for help.

When we talk about these “hundreds” of homes – roughly 500 – we are talking only about the homes where the private wells have been tested by the state. However, how many more are contaminated by PFAS is anybody’s guess.

As multiple studies have borne out, you do not need to be situated near a sludge-afflicted farm, or any other known source, to be at risk. As this editorial board noted back in August 2022: “PFAS are now in our wells, our deer, our milk, our eggs and our fish. They rain down in parts of the world that have never otherwise encountered them.”


In recent years, this board has been mostly encouraged by the state-level efforts to mitigate and address PFAS. Few other states have taken appreciable action. In that 2022 editorial, we noted that the Maine state “interim” safety standard was a stringent 20 parts per trillion. Some standards were more stringent still; at the time, New Jersey’s was 13 parts per trillion.

“Safety thresholds keep dropping,” the board wrote. “We now know that a fraction of a part per trillion of one type of PFAS – so low it cannot be measured by lab detection methods – is enough to jeopardize health.”

A year later, we warmly welcomed the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed national drinking water standards for water providers, which identified a 4 parts per trillion threshold for two targeted types of PFAS in water and 10 parts per trillion for three others – the minimum amounts detectable in testing.

That gap between the federal standard and the state standard – and what that results in for rightly worried Mainers – needs to be closed. And the state plans to do that.

As it stands, though, it has no plans to stop using 20 parts per trillion as the threshold for financial assistance to private citizens. That’s not based on the science, or the research, of which we have more and better by the day. No, it’s based on the budget.

This has to change, and fast.


Maine has invested about $100 million in its response to PFAS in the past two years. State assistance to people affected – to the tune of $15 million to help 484 Maine landowners contending with sludge-contaminated water – has involved providing bottled water to drink; covering payments for new connections to alternative water sources; and the installation and maintenance of often-costly water filtration systems.

Although that may seem like a lot of money, the reality is that far, far more is going to have to be poured into this crisis. It’s not as if we didn’t see this coming, and it’s not as if Maine doesn’t have a rainy day fund at capacity, or a budget surplus (we have both). The EPA can also be expected to release billions of dollars to states for the purpose of PFAS mitigation in the coming years.

There’s no good reason not to apply the same urgent logic to private landowners whose water is polluted – whether by state standards or by federal standards – as we applied to the establishment, in 2022, of the $60 million emergency fund to help farmers whose livelihoods were wrecked by PFAS.

It goes without saying that the ills of these extremely stubborn substances far exceed harm to professions and profits. Their presence poses a substantial risk to public health and safety, stretching way beyond the agricultural sector and into Mainers’ bloodstreams. The chemicals do not discriminate – playing a part in birth defects, cancers and cardiac events – why should we?

The EPA standards, paired with the high incidence PFAS contamination all over Maine, should inform reform of the state-level plan. The information we have about these noxious chemicals has changed in recent times – it has improved. The state’s response must change and improve with it.

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