Maine lawmakers have passed a set of bills aimed at addressing the growing problems posed by “forever chemicals” that have shut down several farms and contaminated dozens of private wells across the state.
Although several of the bills await funding decisions or Gov. Janet Mills’ signature, Democratic and Republican legislators have made it clear this legislative session that Maine should move aggressively on PFAS pollution rather than wait for federal action. Bills passed with broad, often-unanimous support and would set among the nation’s strictest limits on PFAS pollution in drinking water, prohibit the uncontrolled testing of PFAS-laced firefighting foam, and provide millions of dollars to detect and clean up contamination.
Dubbed “forever chemicals” because their persistence in the environment and bodies, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been used for decades in a vast array of consumer goods, including nonstick cookware, water- or stain-repellant fabrics and grease-resistant food packaging. Some compounds have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer, kidney malfunction and immune system suppression.
On Monday, Mills signed a bill that would establish a limit of 20 parts per trillion for six types of PFAS in drinking water. Although not as stringent as standards adopted or under consideration in a few other states, the 20 parts per trillion level for the six compounds is significantly lower than the federal government’s current “advisory level” 70 parts per trillion for two compounds.
The bill, L.D. 129, also would require all public water utilities as well as schools and daycare facilities using private wells to begin testing for PFAS by the end of next year and to take steps to remediate any elevated levels.
For years, PFAS contamination was largely regarded as primarily affecting areas around military bases and airports where firefighting foams were tested or used to battle the intense blazes creating by burning fuel. But more recently, Maine has garnered national attention over the potential for PFAS contamination in agricultural fertilizer containing sludge or paper mill waste.
Last year, state regulators found PFAS levels more than 150 times higher than the state’s milk standard on a Fairfield dairy farm that also spread sludge as fertilizer for years. Since then, more than 60 private wells in Fairfield, Benton, Unity and Oakland – all located near fields that received biosolids – have since been shown to have unsafe levels of PFAS.
Many of those homeowners, some of whom have been drinking water containing 300 to 400 times as much PFAS as the federal health advisory level, pleaded with lawmakers this year to tighten Maine’s standards and give homeowners more time to sue responsible parties. Another bill that passed the Legislature and is on Mills’ desk, L.D. 363, would extend the statute of limitations to six years after the discovery of contamination.
Mills has made PFAS a high priority of her administration, beginning with the creation of a task force whose recommendations served as the basis for many of the bills approved by lawmakers this year. The governor also recommended spending $40 million in the current budget to assist farmers impacted by PFAS, to clean up contaminated sites and to provide affected homeowners with safe drinking water.
The Legislature’s, Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will ultimately decide how to divvy up the nearly $1 billion in additional money expected to flow into state coffers this budget cycle. Several PFAS-related bills are now on the “appropriations table” awaiting funding decisions.
One such measure, L.D. 1600, would require the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to test soil and groundwater at every site that received sludge or septic waste prior to 2019. The bill also would create a Land Application Contaminant Monitoring Fund to cover those testing and monitoring costs but carries an estimated price tag of $3.6 million annually.