No one could call the “forever chemical” contamination in the Fairfield area a small problem. But it has been focused on the smaller, individual scale — testing and filtering for the contamination in residential wells and households.

PFAS (per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances) is a group of man-made chemicals that have been linked to a number of negative health impacts in people. They are often called forever chemicals because they don’t break down easily in the environment or in the body. Created in the 1940s, they have been and are still used in a wide variety of consumer products.

Residents across Maine are about to see that effort tackled on a much larger scale, thanks to new legislative requirements.

The Kennebec Water District serves Fairfield residents, as well as those in Waterville, Winslow, Benton and Vassalboro. It is one of the utilities that will now be required to test their water — but the district already took action back in 2019 and found levels of PFAS well below the legal limit.

“This was obviously not something that was a temporary news story; this was going to be something that was going to be with communities in the country, in the state, for a long time, because it’s been used for decades in various consumer products,” Roger Crouse, general manager of the Kennebec Water District, said Monday.

In June, the state legislature passed L.D. 129 requiring community water systems to test their water for the so-called forever chemicals, or PFAS, by the end of 2022, and take action if the testing shows levels above the new legal limit of 20 parts per trillion.

PFAS water contamination is a major problem in the area, as wells in Fairfield, Benton, Oakland and Unity Township have been found to have high levels of PFAS. The Department of Environmental Protection has an ongoing investigation looking into the issue, from testing wells to installing carbon filtration systems at impacted homes.

Crouse said that there wasn’t a specific motivation for the district to test for PFAS prior to the recent legislation, more of a general urge to understand China Lake — the water source. Crouse previously worked as the program manager for the Maine Drinking Water Program and while there he oversaw some testing for PFAS at specific sites, so he was aware of the issue when he came to the district.

“We made a decision that, as a utility, we wanted to know what was in the source of supply and what was in our treated water,” Crouse said.

The district tested the water three times in 2019, and at several stages in the process, Crouse said. They tested the water directly from the lake, the “raw” water at the facility that had not been treated and the water after it was treated.

All three times the tests showed very low levels of PFAS: 6.1 parts per trillion, 8 parts per trillion and 7.6 parts per trillion. Those levels are all well below the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended health standard at the time of 70 parts per trillion, and still below Maine’s legal limit now.

It was a surprise to Crouse that the lake had any PFAS in it at all, he said. The district did another round of testing from the lake this year, and took samples from several different areas of the lake. All of the samples came back with similar levels of PFAS, which shows that the PFAS are evenly mixed throughout the lake and not coming from a specific area.

“Even though we were surprised to find PFAS in the lake in measurable levels, we were relieved to know that it is below the level at which it would be considered a health concern,” Crouse said.

The district has always been focused on providing safe water for residents, Crouse said, going back to when the district changed its water source from Messalonskee Stream to China Lake. In 1909 the trustees at the time also chose to buy a significant portion of the land along the West Basin of the lake, to prevent development there, which they were concerned would contribute to pollution in the water.

The 2019 samples also all had similar levels of PFAS regardless of where in the process the sample was taken, Crouse said, which means that the current filters in place are not filtering out any PFAS.

The district currently has several layers of carbon that filter out all matter of things from the lake — decaying leaves, algae and other natural particle matter.

Adding the PFAS tests wasn’t particularly difficult or expensive, Crouse said, since they already test for a number of other things in the water. There isn’t a lab in Maine that does PFAS tests, so they hired a lab from out of state, and it costs about $250 per test.

“There’s different bottles and different protocols with the collection of those samples, but it’s nothing that they can’t just handle and add to the routine workload,” Crouse said.

But while testing at this scale isn’t that challenging, if the district had to filter out PFAS, that would be another story.

It’s hard to say if the district would be able to adjust the current filtering process to filter out PFAS, or if the system would need to be expanded for that, Crouse said. The district would have to hire outside assistance to figure out how to approach the problem, and project could easily cost more than $1 million.

“It would be very expensive to treat,” Crouse said. “This is a challenging compound to remove from drinking water — it’s certainly a compound that can be removed but it doesn’t fall within the normal process that we have. We have a wonderful treatment plant that does a great job of improving the water quality as it comes from China Lake, but it’s just not designed around this.”

While the Kennebec Water District doesn’t have to filter out PFAS, it’s a dilemma staring down at water districts across the state with the newly mandated testing.

The district is also involved with Fairfield’s ongoing effort to expand the town’s drinking water system to reach residents with contaminated well water and offer an alternative to them. The town has hired Dirigo Engineering to assist with the project, and if completed, the expanded system would be part of the Kennebec Water District.

The district has and will be a part of the process, Crouse said, although the funding for it will come from outside sources, not current rate payers.

The good news is that the levels are low enough to not be a health concern, and the district expects that over time the levels should drop.

“As the lake continues to flush out through the years, we would anticipate PFAS levels to drop in the lake,” Crouse said. “Now, we don’t know that for sure, it’s a complex environmental system, but we certainly anticipate that PFAS levels will continue to drop.”

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