This is the second of a two-part report. Read the first installment here

As the state continues to uncover wells in Fairfield that are contaminated with high levels of toxic ‘forever chemicals,’ renowned environmental activist Erin Brockovich and water expert Bob Bowcock are now offering their expertise to the community in order to rectify the situation.

Brockovich, who is well known for her role in the case against the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. of California in 1993 and was the subject of a movie starring Julia Roberts, became involved in the Fairfield case during the first week of January. A local resident simply emailed her nonprofit organization, the Erin Brockovich Foundation.

“It started because one community member didn’t feel that they were getting the answers,” Brockovich said in a recent interview on Zoom. “I got an email from a family that was concerned.” 

Renowned environmental activist Erin Brockovich speaks during a Zoom interview about cases of water contamination in Fairfield that have caught her attention. Zoom screenshot

Since then, Brockovich and Bowcock have been helping Fairfield-area residents mobilize and helping the state push the investigation along to remove these chemicals from the environment.

“The solution to this can’t always just be a lawsuit,” Brockovich said. “The solution has to be identification, community organization, the solution at some deep level has to be clean up. 

“Bob and I have worked together for 20 years, and we’ve learned the best way is to (make) contact with the people on the ground. Having community meetings, getting them organized and moving them in the right direction and working with local officials and state officials on how to treat the system and get people safe water.”

So far, the Department of Environmental Protection has identified 29 wells in Fairfield that are 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 residents Ashley Gooldrup and Troy Reny’s well show levels of PFOA at 4,220-parts-per-trillion and PFOS at 10,700-parts-per-trillion.

Brockovich said that though PFAS contamination is not unique to Maine, the levels the Department of Environmental Protection is uncovering are astronomical.

“These numbers in Maine are some of the highest we’ve ever seen,” Brockovich said. 

Brockovich and Bowcock also estimate that more than 100 wells are contaminated in Fairfield.

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.

POTENTIAL POLLUTERS

From Brockovich and Bowcock’s assessment, they believe the source of the contamination can be traced back to the Sappi Somerset Paper Mill in Skowhegan and the Huhtamaki facility in Waterville.

Bob Bowcock, a water expert with the Erin Brockovich Foundation, speaks during a Zoom interview. Zoom screenshot

Regarding Sappi, Bowcock said, “Let’s just cut to the chase here. I believe that the polluter in this instance is the local paper mill because they are a major source of the perfluorinated compounds. They use PFOA and PFOS in their processes. It’s a known fact, it’s a known fact around the country. This is not the first paper mill to do this.” 

Bowcock said the two sources of contamination at Sappi are the aeration ponds and the land application of sludge.

The sludge is basically all of the wastewater from the factory that’s cleaned up at night. The paper pulp and paper milling process is very complex. It’s not a clean process. There’s a mess all over the place,” Bowcock said. “That process where they clean everything up, flush out all the lines, clean out all the tanks on the processing floor and send all of that to a wastewater system,” which “then cleans all of that slime and sludge and dirt and gunk that gets clogged up in all of the equipment, treats it and then they’re putting it in aeration ponds.

“There’s two about 15-acre aeration ponds on the south side of that plant where bacteria will eat the organics that occur in that sludge and try to bring it down in concentration,” he continued. “Once it does, they have a sludge, which is basically all of the stuff that settles to the bottom, and they have a wastewater stream. Sadly, I think the waste water stream is down river. It’s basically been discharged under a primitive process that did not look for perfluourinated compounds, but that’s kind of how it develops.” 

Bowcock said Sappi uses PFAS in its production of heat-treated paper products.

“It (PFAS) are used in different types of binders, it’s used in heat-treated papers, certain products that they manufacture,” Bowcock said. “If you’ve picked up any food wrapper, they’ve been heat treated so the oils don’t go through them, (so) that they are a little cooler to the touch, so that you don’t get burned by the greasy french fries or the inside of a popcorn bag. So all of this heat treated paper is manufactured at these facilities, and then sold by the ton rolls so you can imagine how many tons of perflourinated chemicals they’ve used over the decades.”

The entrance to the Sappi mill in Skowhegan is seen March 9, 2016. A spokesperson for the mill disputes the suggestion that it has played a role in the pollution of wells in Fairfield. Morning Sentinel file photo

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

In an email to the Morning Sentinel, 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.”

Bowcock also points to the Huhtamaki factory in Waterville as a potential polluter.

“Because the historic recycled stock of paper had PFAS in it, it may contain unintentionally added PFAS, says it on their cut sheet today,” Bowcock said.

Like Sappi, Huhtamaki denies all allegations that the Waterville plant is contributing to the pollution in Fairfield.

“Huhtamaki is committed to protecting the environment wherever we have operations,” Wessley Hudelson, communications director for Huhtamaki North America, said in an email. “Our manufacturing processes and end-products comply with the applicable environmental and product safety laws and regulations.”

Brockovich and Bowcock said that their mission is not to take down corporations like Sappi and Huhtamaki.

“Corporate America and all these industries, every one of us appreciates what they’ve brought to the table and this isn’t to throw the baby out with the bath water,” Brockovich said. “We are here to help you. Your community, they appreciate the jobs you bring … we’re not asking you to go away, but we are asking you to meet us in the middle. Work with the community, work with the municipality, work with us, don’t work against us to clean this mess up so we can move forward more sustainably.

“Had you done it on the upfront, the environment could have been saved, people’s health could have been saved, your company would’ve saved billions of dollars. We are here and we do extend our hand. Work with us.”

SLUDGE CONCERNS

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.

The Department of Environmental Protection has sited the use of sludge as a likely reason for the Tozier Dairy Farm’s contamination.

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.

Sludge can come from municipal or industrial sources.

I’m going to say something pretty bold that I probably wouldn’t have said last year,” Bowcock said. “I think the land application of sludge in the United States should be subject of an emergency order by whatever branch of gov it takes to cease immediately. It’s got to stop.”

“This is the ultimate question that we’ve always asked: What really are we doing with our hazardous waste?” Brockovich said. “We just found another way to recycle it and create another problem.”

Cattle and barns are shown Oct. 27 at the Tozier Dairy Farm along Ohio Hill Road in Fairfield. An investigation into the farm’s water quality led to the discovery of “forever chemicals” in dozens of residential wells in Fairfield. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file Buy this Photo

Brockovich and Bowcock pointed to another case they worked on in Missouri where people were developing eye cancer and brain tumors from using sludge that was contaminated with chromium.

“We had a situation in Missouri where a leather tannery was actually producing sludge that was in the tens of thousands in the parts-per-million of chrome eight, chrome six,” Bowcock said. “And they tried to sell it as a product, but the farmers wouldn’t pay for it. They backed off and started just giving it to them.”

Bowcock said he’s identified 25 locations where Sappi and or the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District has applied sludge to the land.

EXPERT ADVICE

From their assessment, Brockovich and Bowcock believe that Department of Environmental Protection needs to directly identify all of the wells that are polluted; install dual vessel carbon filters to all homes that have contaminated wells; and install extraction wells to pull all the chemical plume away from the homes that have not been impacted. 

“Those that have already been identified as contaminated sources, get the right treatment equipment on, make sure their plumbing systems have been cleared out of all PFAS contamination, i.e. sludge in the hot water heaters,” Bowcock said. “Next start building confidence in the community … You have got to get those people clean water.”

Brockovich said DEP needs to get ahead of the problem in order to solve it.

“You need to get ahead of it. No situation is going to be perfect, but you know you have a problem. Own that and get busy trying to get ahead of it,” Brockovich said. “And getting all the information out, don’t withhold information, don’t delay information. And get a team together quickly, down on the ground and identify the magnitude of this plume so you know what you’re dealing with. That for me is what they (DEP) need to do.”

Brockovich and Bowcock noted that the state is on the right track in its investigation.

Madore, the DEP’s acting commissioner, said in an email Jan. 7 that the department “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.

Brockovich also said that the mismanagement from regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and chemical companies are to blame for the widespread pollution of PFAS.

It is time we look at this and be honest about it,” Brockovich said. 

Consumer advocate Erin Brockovich, who famously took on Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in the 1990s, stands with wildfire victims and speaks outside the state Capitol on Jan. 22, 2019, in Sacramento, California. Brockovich’s foundation has begun to look at water quality issues in Fairfield. AP photo

Brockovich wants to see changes made to states’ testing protocols when it comes to private wells.

“We have over 40 million Americans that are on well water; it’s a system off the grid,” Brockovich said. “I have to tell you every single case I’ve been involved in has the highest readings and the worst impact in well water. (It’s) off the grid and nobody seems to know what’s going on, and I think states need to change their testing programs on well water so we can catch these things a lot earlier.”

Brockovich offered words of encouragement for the residents who’ve been impacted by the contamination.

“There’s always hope. There’s going to be more hope now that it’s out in the open,” Brockovich said. “This is my biggest message and clearly what I’ve learned in every single community I’ve gone to: You don’t have to have any specific science degree or medical degree to understand that there’s a poison in your well water. Or by your own observation what’s happening to your dairy farm or your cattle, or your animals … get curious, ask questions, get involved, and don’t be afraid to talk to your neighbor. You’ve got this.”

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