AUGUSTA — Members of a legislative committee voted Wednesday to give state environmental regulators greater authority to clean up the emerging pollutants known as PFAS, as well as illegal meth manufacturing sites.

But lawmakers split over whether the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s authority should extend to future chemicals that are causing health concerns but have yet to be added to the federal government’s list of hazardous substances.

Wastewater treatment plant sludge can be a source of PFAS chemicals. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The DEP already has the authority to order “responsible parties” to clean up sites contaminated with a host of potential toxic substances such as mercury, lead or dioxin. But DEP officials believe they lack that explicit authority when it comes to PFAS contamination because the chemicals are not yet on the list of substances eligible for federal Superfund cleanup.

The bill is the first of numerous measures crafted in response to growing concerns over PFAS contamination. Gov. Janet Mills is expected to propose a much-larger bill – based on recommendations from a PFAS task force – that will propose mandatory testing by public drinking water utilities as well as reporting whenever fire departments use foam containing the chemicals.

Known collectively as PFAS, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances have been widely used for decades in nonstick cookware, stain- and water-repellent fabric coatings, grease-resistant food packaging and firefighting foam. There are thousands of types of PFAS – often called “forever chemicals” because their complex structure prevents them from readily breaking down – but scientific research has linked two types, PFOS and PFOA, to cancer, low birth weight, high cholesterol and other changes in the body.

PFAS contamination has emerged as a major public health concern nationwide in recent years. In Maine, the chemicals have been found in groundwater near airports and former military bases, in rivers below industrial sites and on farm fields that were fertilized with sludge or paper mill waste polluted with PFAS.

On a 7-4 vote, members of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted Wednesday to endorse a bill, L.D. 1923, to change the definition of “hazardous substance” in the Uncontrolled Sites Law that allows the DEP to investigate contamination and act to address health risks from that pollution. Those actions can include ordering a company or other responsible party to perform the work, to pay for it or to allow the department to tap into state funds for such cleanup projects.

“It expands the chemicals for which action can be taken,” David Wright, with the DEP’s Division of Remediation, told lawmakers. “The policy question is: If Chemical A is listed (by the federal government) and poses a risk, we can take action. But if Chemical B is not listed but still poses a risk, currently there is great question about whether we can take action to address public health until that compound is listed.”

Fred Stone, an Arundel dairy farmer, found that his land and cows are contaminated with the chemicals known as PFAS. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The bill is primarily aimed at allowing the DEP to clean up PFAS contamination as well as chemical hazards left behind by the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine, a street drug that has once again become prevalent in Maine. But it would also allow the department to add additional chemicals to the list of hazardous substances for which they can hold responsible parties financially accountable if a specific polluted site is determined to pose a public health threat.

However, that blanket authority concerned Republican members of the committee, who worried the DEP could hold parties liable for cleaning up pollution before the health risks have been established. Instead, Republican lawmakers endorsed a version that would specifically classify PFAS and meth-related residues as “hazardous substances” but require the department to seek authorization to add new chemicals in the future or await federal designation in the Superfund program.

“So we are going after the rabid fox before we know it is rabid?” Rep. Richard Campbell, R-Bucksport, asked Wright.

“I would actually flip that and I would say we are only going after rabid foxes,” Wright replied. “We are not listing all foxes and then waiting until we get to the site to determine if the fox is rabid or not. We are just saying if it is a rabid fox or a rabid skunk, we are going to take care of it even if the skunk wasn’t listed.”

Picking up on the fox metaphor, Rep. Ralph Tucker said you shouldn’t have to wait for a rabies diagnosis before taking on a fox “that is acting really weird.”

Tucker, D-Brunswick, said Maine regulators need the flexibility to respond quickly to chemicals that pose health threats rather than wait for the EPA to act or go through a time-consuming process of receiving legislative approval.

“I frankly trust our DEP more than I trust the EPA,” Tucker said.

Under the DEP’s latest proposal, wastewater treatment facilities would specifically be exempted from potential liability for contamination caused by treated sludge applied as fertilizer on farms. That is a significant exemption because contamination from spreading of so-called “biosolids” as fertilizer has emerged as a major concern since Fred and Laura Stone discovered extremely high levels of PFAS on their Arundel dairy farm.

The Stones subsequently lost their contract to sell milk and are now suing PFAS manufacturers as well as a local wastewater treatment plant and a paper mill that provided the sludge to them.

The Maine Forest Products Council, an industry group, had proposed shielding paper mills from financial liability under the bill. Patrick Strauch, executive director of the council, said that would mirror the way the federal government handles chemicals that pose a health risk but are not yet listed in the Superfund program.

The way the bill is written, Strauch said, would allow the department to designate a chemical as a “hazardous substance” without giving the industry a chance to participate in that decision. In turn, that could result in companies being saddled with a “lifetime liability” for contamination from a chemical that was used legally.

“Keep in mind, the contamination that’s occurred from our members might come from using a process that was permitted by the DEP,” Strauch said.

 

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