Sludge is dumped into a truck at the wastewater treatment plant in Portland in April 2019. PFAS chemicals have turned up on Maine dairy farms that used sludge as fertilizer.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Mills administration wants to require schools and public utilities to test drinking water for several “forever chemicals” and has proposed tougher health standards for two particular compounds linked to health problems.

But environmental groups, public health advocates and families living with contaminated wells urged lawmakers on Tuesday to at least join its New England neighbors in adopting even more stringent limits on the chemicals.

“I’d like to see Maine set an example, not follow it,” said Lawrence Higgins, a Fairfield resident whose well is among more than two dozen in the area contaminated by PFAS believed to be in sludge that was used as farm fertilizer. “I like to be a leader and I feel Maine should be that way.”

Maine lawmakers will consider more than a half dozen bills this session dealing with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, after work on the issue was shelved last year amid the developing COVID-19 pandemic.

The chemicals have been used for decades as coatings in many consumer products – such as nonstick cookware, waterproof fabrics and grease-resistant food packaging – as well as in firefighting foam. But the chemical structure that makes PFAS so effective at repelling water or stains also prevents the chemicals from readily breaking down in the environment or the body, hence the nickname “forever chemicals.”

While the term PFAS applies to thousands of chemicals, a growing number have been linked to health problems such as cancer, low birth weight in infants, high cholesterol, immune suppression and changes to fertility and reproductivity. The chemicals have turned up at airports and former military bases in Maine and – of top concern to the agricultural community – on dairy farms in Arundel and Fairfield that used sludge from wastewater treatment plants as fertilizer.

There was broad agreement Tuesday on the need for additional steps to protect the public from two types of PFAS no longer used in manufacturing in the United States but still present in the environment. The question lawmakers will have to settle is how aggressive Maine should be on an issue where states, not federal regulators, are taking the lead.

“While there be some people who will say this measure goes too far and some who feel this measure does not go far enough, we want to underscore that this is an area of rapidly changing science,” said Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, sponsor of the Mills administration bill. “Recognizing this challenge, we still feel confident that there are number of avenues that we can come together in agreement on.”

The proposal from Gov. Janet Mills would require schools, daycares and community water systems serving at least 15 customers to begin testing drinking water for various types of PFAS by Dec. 31, 2022. The bill, L.D. 129, also would initially set a maximum contaminant level of 20 parts per trillion – compared to a federal advisory level of 70 parts per trillion – for the specific compounds PFOA and PFOS, while the Maine Department of Health and Human Services begins rule making to arrive at a final health standard.

But more than a dozen speakers said the administration’s proposal does not go far enough.

Although supportive of the testing requirements, they urged lawmakers to pass another bill, L.D. 164, that would create an upper limit of 20 parts per trillion for six types of PFAS. The proposal is modeled after similar standards that have been adopted in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont.

“Maine people have been confused and frightened to find their drinking water contaminated by PFAS at levels considered unacceptable in neighboring states,” said Dr. Lani Graham. A physician testifying on behalf of the Maine Medical Association, Graham also served on the state’s PFAS Task Force that examined the issues for much of 2019.

In another key difference with the Mills administration’s bill, the latter proposal would have the Legislature write the 20 parts per trillion cap into law without going through a rule-making process proposed by DHHS that would involve input from stakeholder groups. Interest groups likely to be impacted by tougher PFAS limits – including water utilities, paper mills that still use PFAS in coated products and the chemical industry – asked lawmakers to allow Maine DHHS to set limits after a full rule-making process.

“These are important decisions both economically and for the public health, so we want them to be based on the best science and do not want to use standards in other states without a thorough review,” said Bill Ferdinand, an attorney for the Maine Forest Products Council, an industry trade group that represents paper manufacturers.

Still others argued that Maine should not allow any traces of PFAS in drinking water.

State officials have detected at least 29 private wells in an area of Fairfield that tested above the current federal advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for drinking water. The contamination is believed to be linked to PFAS-contaminated sludge that was used for years as fertilizer on local crop fields. The issue came to light after follow-up testing of random samples of retail milk led to a Fairfield dairy farm whose milk tested up to 150 times higher than the 210 parts per trillion state limit for milk.

Penny Harkins, a Fairfield resident and business owner, said her well tested at above 7,000 parts per trillion. A lifelong resident of Fairfield, Harkins is now unable to drink her own water – or eat vegetables from her gardens – and said she and her neighbors “suffer from a ton of health issues.” She urged lawmakers to set the health limit at zero.

“I am begging you all: please, be a leader,” Harkins said. “There is no help for us right now except to get filters in, but there is help for others. I don’t want your grandchildren or my grandchildren exposed to this any longer. Let’s not waste time. Put out the fire now.”

But Dr. Andrew Smith, Maine’s state toxicologist and the manager of the environmental and occupational health program at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said regulators need to be “careful and thoughtful” when setting limits. As an example, Smith said setting a limit too low on PFAS in milk, for instance, will drive some dairy farms out of business.

Smith asked lawmakers to allow him and other DHHS staff to examine the emerging science to develop the best standards for Maine.

“After we saw the variation in what the other states are doing, even though they were ending up in a similar place, we made the decision that the only option we had was to try to do the work ourselves,” Smith said.

Before acting on the two bills, the committee is expected to hold another public hearing on a third measure dealing with PFAS limits in drinking water that has not yet emerged from the bill-drafting office.

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