Maine lawmakers have passed a sweeping set of bills aimed at addressing the growing problems posed by “forever chemicals” that have shut down several farms and contaminated dozens of private wells across the state.

Although several of the bills await funding decisions or Gov. Janet Mills’ signature, Democratic and Republican lawmakers sent a clear signal this legislative session that Maine should move aggressively on PFAS pollution rather than wait for federal action. Bills passed with broad, often-unanimous support and would set among the nation’s strictest limits on PFAS pollution in drinking water, prohibit the uncontrolled testing of PFAS-laced firefighting foam, and provide millions of dollars to detect and clean up contamination.

“We really need to get ahead of this and recognize that we don’t know the extent of the issue,” said Sen. Rick Bennett, an Oxford Republican who co-sponsored several of the bills. “But what the Legislature was doing was giving the administration all of the tools … to address this as quickly as possible.”

Dubbed “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment and bodies, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been used for decades in a vast array of consumer goods, including nonstick cookware, water- or stain-repellent fabrics and grease-resistant food packaging. Some compounds have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer, kidney malfunction and immune system suppression.

On Monday, Mills signed a bill that would establish a limit of 20 parts per trillion for six types of PFAS in drinking water. Although not as stringent as standards adopted or under consideration in a few other states, the 20 parts per trillion level for the six compounds is significantly lower than the federal government’s current “advisory level” 70 parts per trillion for two compounds.

The bill, L.D. 129, also would require all public water utilities as well as schools and daycare facilities using private wells to begin testing for PFAS by the end of next year and to take steps to remediate any elevated levels.

Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of the group Defend Our Health that has been active on PFAS issues for years, pointed out that prior to the new law, water that would have been considered toxic in Massachusetts, Vermont and other states would have been deemed safe to drink in Maine.

MacRoy said that bill along with others – including one that would require the state to test hundreds of sites for PFAS contamination – represents a significant step forward. The challenge, MacRoy said, will be securing funding and implementing the programs.

“Obviously, it is going take time and effort, and we are not out of the woods,” he said. “We now have the tools to begin to identify problems and begin to address those problems, but there are more sites that will be found to be contaminated and will have to be addressed. … It definitely moves Maine forward and aligns us with other states that are making a lot of progress.”

For years, PFAS contamination was largely regarded as primarily affecting areas around military bases and airports where firefighting foams were tested or used to battle the intense blazes creating by burning fuel. But more recently, Maine has garnered national attention over the potential for PFAS contamination in agricultural fertilizer containing sludge or paper mill waste.

The owner of an Arundel dairy farm, Fred Stone, testified to state lawmakers multiple times over several years about how his multi-generation farm was ruined by the discovery of PFAS in water, soils and his cows’ milk. Stone linked the contamination to treated municipal sludge or potentially paper mill ash he used as fertilizer on his crops for years through a state-licensed “biosolids” program.

Last year, state regulators found PFAS levels more than 150 times higher than the state’s milk standard on a Fairfield dairy farm that also spread sludge as fertilizer for years. Since then, more than 60 private wells in Fairfield, Benton, Unity and Oakland – all located near fields that received biosolids – have since been shown to have unsafe levels of PFAS.

Many of those homeowners, some of whom have been drinking water containing 300 to 400 times as much PFAS as the federal health advisory level, pleaded with lawmakers this year to tighten Maine’s standards and give homeowners more time to sue responsible parties. Another bill that passed the Legislature and is on Mills’ desk, L.D. 363, would extend the statute of limitations to six years after the discovery of contamination.

Mills has made PFAS a high priority of her administration, beginning with the creation of a task force whose recommendations served as the basis for many of the bills approved by lawmakers this year. The governor also recommended spending $40 million in the current budget to assist farmers impacted by PFAS, to clean up contaminated sites and to provide affected homeowners with safe drinking water.

It’ll be the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee that ultimately decides how to divvy up the nearly $1 billion in additional money expected to flow into state coffers this budget cycle. Several PFAS-related bills are now on the “appropriations table” awaiting funding decisions.

One such measure, L.D. 1600, would require the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to test soil and groundwater at every site that received sludge or septic waste prior to 2019. The bill also would create a Land Application Contaminant Monitoring Fund to cover those testing and monitoring costs but carries an estimated price tag of $3.6 million annually.

Rep. Lori Gramlich, D-Old Orchard Beach, sponsored that bill as well as two other major PFAS-related measures awaiting funding decisions: L.D. 1503, which would allow the DEP to ban the sale 0f products containing “intentionally added” PFAS, and L.D. 1505, which would require reporting of firefighting foam containing PFAS and would prohibit testing of such foams unless the material is collected for proper disposal.

Gramlich said she is thrilled that the bills received such strong bipartisan support, which she attributed to the fact that the issue is now affecting people across the state. Gramlich said she is “encouraged but cautiously optimistic” about the bills’ fate in the budget process.

“I’m confident,” she said. “I know they are working very hard … but the fact that we had such strong bipartisan support out of committee positions us well.”

Both Gramlich, a Democrat representing southern coastal Maine, and Bennett, a Republican representing rural western Maine, said lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recognize the role the state played by licensing and promoting the use of biosolids as fertilizer. Both said the state has a moral obligation to help address the resulting contamination.

“It was the state that was encouraging the spreading of sludge on agricultural land, and I think we share a deep responsibility to mitigate this,” Bennett said. “People’s lives have been uprooted and it has been tremendously devastating.”

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