When Ashley Gooldrup and her fiancé, Troy Reny, bought their first home in Fairfield last January, they began imagining the life they would build there.

A big backyard wedding and a lush vegetable garden were just two of the things the young couple wanted to bring to their home at 25 Howe Road.

One year later, Gooldrup, 31, and Reny, 28, can’t drink or cook with their well water after a test by the Department of Environmental Protection found it to be contaminated with high levels of “forever chemicals.”

“I feel like our right to clean water has been ripped away from us,” Gooldrup said Thursday. “We should be planning a wedding and enjoying our first home, but now we have to deal with this. It’s scary.”

Gooldrup and Reny are now two of the more than 20 property owners in the area that have wells contaminated with levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFOA and PFOS — that are higher than the 70-parts-per-trillion limit allowed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Results from Gooldrup and Reny’s well show levels of PFOA at 4,220-parts-per-trillion and PFOS at 10,700-parts-per-trillion.

“We’re a very young couple, just starting out, just bought our first house and we had no idea about any of this,” Gooldrup said in a phone interview. “It’s so scary knowing the water that I’ve been bathing in, using for my hot tub, drinking, thinking it was OK. It’s just so frustrating, and I don’t feel like there’s any help or anyone to turn to for answers.”

Ashley Gooldrup and her fiancé, Troy Reny, bought a house on Howe Road in Fairfield last year. Now, their well has tested astronomically high for PFAS. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The town has set up a program to distribute bottled water to the property owners while the state works to install filters at the contaminated sites.

“The Department of Environmental Protection has assured me that they will continue to make water available to residents with effected wells until they can install the granular activated carbon filtration systems at each private home,” Town Manager Michelle Flewelling wrote in a Dec. 23 email.

The growing list of contaminated wells comes nearly a year after a test was conducted by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry in February that showed milk from Tozier Dairy Farm along Ohio Hill Road had levels of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid that were higher than the state-allowed limit of 210 parts per trillion.

Milk samples from the farm had levels of 12,700; 14,900; and 32,200 parts per trillion. The farm’s products have been pulled from shelves.

PFAS are a group of manmade chemicals introduced in the 1940s. They were used in consumer products such as carpeting, fabric, clothing, food packaging, and pots and pans. They were also used in firefighting foams used at airports, training facilities and military bases.

They are called “forever chemicals” because their bond is strong and they do not break down easily in the environment or in the body.

Studies have shown exposure can cause health issues, such as elevated cholesterol, thyroid disease, damage to the liver and kidneys, adverse effects on fertility and low birth weight. Other studies show links between PFAS and the elevated risk of certain cancers, according to the U.S. EPA and other sources.

Gooldrup and Reny have grappled with the decision to either stay in the home or try to sell it and move.

“It’s scary thinking about what if I live here the rest of my life, do I feel safe even showering in my own home?” Gooldrup said.

Catherine Harrington stands in her yard on the Howe Road in Fairfield on Wednesday. Harrington’s water contamination from forever chemicals is off the charts. She says that there are fields behind her home where sludge was kept and spread for years. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

 A CROSSROADS

Catherine Harrington, 63, who lives at 17 Howe Road, has also been advised not to drink or cook with her well water after DEP found it to have levels of PFOA at 278 parts-per-trillion and PFOS 641 parts-per-trillion.

Harrington has lived in her home with her husband, Bruce, for 37 years and has drank, cooked with and bathed in the water from the well the entire time.

“My grandchildren have been swimming in my pool the entire summer and the water is from my well,” Harrington said Wednesday. “I used the water to garden, for my jacuzzi bath.”

During the 1990s, Harrington said the field behind her home was used by the town to store sludge.

“We were told it was Waterville sewer system storing the sludge there,” Harrington said. “They’d leave the pile up for months and spread it. They would also grow corn in it.”

Sludge is treated wastewater solids that can come from municipal water districts or industrial sources.

It can be used instead of fertilizer and is said to have organic benefits.

The land application of sludge was first licensed by the state Department of Environmental Protection as early as 1978, according to David Madore, acting commissioner for the DEP.

In 2000, Harrington became disabled after she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition that causes pain all over the body, sleep problems, fatigue and emotional stress.

Now that Harrington knows her well is contaminated with PFAS, she’s concerned that her health issues might have been caused by consuming the chemicals.

“I got fibromyalgia 20 years ago, which is kind of when they were doing all of this stuff out back,” Harrington said. “And now I don’t know if this has something to do with it. I’ve had three dogs die of cancer as well.”

Like Gooldrup and Reny, the Harringtons are at a crossroads.

“This is supposed to be our retirement home. What’s our choice now?” Harrington said. “We have no idea what the value of the property is, and we don’t know if we will ever be able to sell it. Once they do put in the filtration systems, who is going to maintain those? I’m sure those filters won’t be cheap either. I have questions that we’re not seeming to get any answers to.”

“I’m sorry it sucks to say, but it doesn’t feel like anyone is listening,” Reny said. “And now we’re going to start turning rocks and making a ruckus over here.”

The state has identified 29 wells in Fairfield that are contaminated with PFAS, Madore said in an email Tuesday.

“We are planning additional sampling events over the next three to four weeks, beginning next week provided we are able to make arrangements with the homeowners this week,” Madore said.

Catherine Harrington’s property on the Howe Road is seen from the air Wednesday in Fairfield. Harrington’s water contamination from forever chemicals is off the charts. She says that there are fields behind her home where sludge was kept and spread for years. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

NATIONWIDE INTEREST

The investigation recently caught the attention of the Erin Brockovich Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by the consumer advocate and environmental activist well known for her role in the case against the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. of California in 1993.

The organization works to educate and encourage people in the fight for clean water.

Brockovich’s water expert, Bob Bowcock, has begun looking into the case and has made assessments that conflict with DEP.

Not only does Bowcock estimate that more than 100 wells are contaminated, but he believes that the source of the contamination is two local paper mills.

Bowcock also said that the problem could be fixed “within 72 hours.”

We can offer protection at your homes, once they (DEP) decide to pull the trigger and do this right, within 72 hours,” Bowcock said Wednesday. “It’s not hard. We’ve done this for thousands of homes around the country, so we can get you safety.”

Sappi, however, disputes the contention that the nearby Somerset mill may be the source of PFAS contamination in Fairfield.

In an email the Morning Sentinel received Saturday, Olga Karagiannis, Sappi’s manager of corporate communications, said, “Sappi is in compliance with all environmental regulations, and has no unlined ponds. Sappi has not participated in any sludge spreading programs in the area in Fairfield where drinking wells have been found to have high levels of PFAS compounds.”

Karagiannis further said that “Sappi is well known for its record of environmental stewardship at the Somerset mill.”

Madore said in an email Thursday, “DEP is in the midst of a large scale investigation in the greater Fairfield area and has committed a substantial amount of staff resources and funds to identify all impacted properties as quickly as possible. At this point in the investigation, we are focused on determining the locations and extent of PFAS contamination, as well as providing temporary bottled water and installing filter systems on impacted residential wells, in order to protect public health.

“We appreciate the interest of the Brockovich Foundation, and we will be contacting them to discuss their analysis and to better understand the conclusions reached as a result of their review.”

Madore said DEP has not seen any conclusive evidence that links the contamination to the local paper mills.

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