AUGUSTA — A state task force is considering recommending that all public water systems be required to test for PFAS contamination and that fire departments report any usage of the so-called “forever chemicals” to state environmental regulators.

Those are just two of dozens of draft recommendations discussed Tuesday by a group charged with helping guide Maine’s response to a class of chemicals that are popping up in drinking water, municipal sludge and food products around the country. Collectively referred to as PFAS, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances are being linked to health problems after decades of use in firefighting foam and countless consumer products.

Members of Maine’s PFAS Task Force plan to present Gov. Janet Mills and state lawmakers with a detailed report and recommendations in December. Proposals that appeared to enjoy broad support from the diverse stakeholder group on Tuesday include:

• Expanding statewide testing of both public and private drinking water sources, eventually requiring all “community water systems” serving 25 or more people to monitor for PFAS.

• Initially targeting limited resources to test higher-risk areas close to manufacturing sites, landfills, places where firefighting foam was discharged or stored, and farm fields where PFAS-containing sludge was spread as fertilizer.

• Requiring fire departments to report whenever they use PFAS-containing foam during training or to suppress fires.

• Expanding public education about the chemicals.

• Pushing for more aggressive and faster federal action, including the establishment of enforceable contamination limits in drinking water.

Sludge is dumped into a truck at the wastewater treatment plant in Portland in April. “Forever chemicals” are being found in municipal sludge around the country. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff photographer

But some thornier issues – such as policies surrounding the use of treated sludge as fertilizer or whether water utilities must inform consumers about any PFAS detection – are likely to divide members as they finalize the group’s final report.

“You have a lot of different expertise and perspectives and I don’t want you all to expect that you need to achieve consensus,” Melanie Loyzim, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, told task force members. “You are going to have differences of opinions, and to the extent that we can, we want to try to reflect that in the report.”

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl have been in widespread use for decades in non-stick cookware, water- and stain-resistant fabrics, grease-resistant food packaging and foams used to douse intense fuel fires. But the complex chemical structures in PFAS that keeps food from sticking to a Teflon frying pan or water from penetrating a Gore-Tex ski jacket mean the substances stick around in the environment and the body for long periods of time.

PFAS contamination has emerged as a hot topic nationwide as more studies link varieties of the chemicals to low birth weight, high cholesterol, thyroid disease and certain types of cancer. And while much of the attention has focused on military bases where PFAS-containing foam was used in firefighting, there is growing concern in Maine about contamination on farms that used sludge from treatment plants or paper mills as fertilizer, or near landfills and industrial sites.

On Tuesday, members of the task force created by Mills in March received updates on current efforts to detect the chemicals in drinking water as well as the prevalence of PFAS-containing firefighting foam around the state.

Mike Abbott, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Drinking Water Program, said nine of 19 public water systems tested so far this year had detectable levels of two phased-out forms of the chemical, PFOA and PFOS. But none of those were above the combined 70 parts per trillion “health advisory” standard currently used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But Abbott noted that more than a dozen public water systems declined to participate in the free, voluntary testing program.

“We did not experience that in previous rounds,” Abbott said.

DEP officials also provided an update on well testing around agricultural fields where the Presque Isle Utilities District spread treated municipal sludge in the past. Presque Isle is one of the wastewater treatment facilities that has been unable to spread treated sludge this year because soil from the fields that was tested had elevated levels of PFAS.

Of the eight residential wells tested, two had no detectable PFAS while six had levels ranging from 5 parts per trillion to 61 parts per trillion. While those were all still below the EPA’s controversial 70 parts per trillion advisory level, David Burns with the DEP’s Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management said Presque Isle was asked to conduct additional tests and the department “is actively reviewing those results and considering any steps.”

On the issue of firefighting foam, the 60 fire departments responding to a Maine Emergency Management Agency survey reported having 9,730 gallons of PFAS-containing foam on hand, while industries reported an additional 6,100 gallons.

But only one-fifth of the 300-plus fire departments in the state responded to the voluntary survey.

As a result, the sub-group working on the firefighting foam is recommending that state lawmakers give Maine Emergency Management Agency or the DEP the authority to require departments to report how much PFAS-containing foam they have in storage and whenever it is used. That information then could be used if Maine follows the lead of other states that have launched buy-back or take-back programs for firefighting foam containing PFAS.

“We’re not done and we want to engage and collect the data,” said Faith Staples, technological hazards program manager at MEMA. “Even though we haven’t had as many collections and responses from fire departments and industry, we want to keep it going and keep pushing out that survey … and feel it is very important especially if, down the road, there is a take-back program that is utilized.”

The PFAS task force is expected to meet next on Nov. 26 to continue finalizing the recommendations.

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