LEWISTON — A number of sites in Lewiston-Auburn where sewage sludge has been spread as fertilizer are on the state’s radar as a new round of testing for “forever chemicals” begins.

While testing to date has not shown levels of PFAS coming close to the crisis scenario experienced in the Fairfield region, Lewiston and Auburn have been designated “Tier 1” communities for state testing that will analyze every site where the sludge has been spread.

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been used for decades in a vast array of consumer goods, including nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpeting and fabrics, waterproof clothing, and grease-resistant food packaging.

PFAS contamination in Maine has been linked to the spreading of sludge — the solid byproduct from municipal wastewater treatment — which has been used as an alternative to fertilizer since the 1970s. Since then, the chemicals have been linked to a host of health problems including cancer, kidney malfunction and immune system suppression.

The property at 276 Penley Corner Road in Auburn, owned by the Lewiston Auburn Water Pollution Control Authority, is among local sites to have received sewage sludge applications in recent years, and will likely be subject to state testing for PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals.” Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Officials from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Lewiston Auburn Water Pollution Control Authority spoke to the Sun Journal this week about the testing.

Travis Peaslee, LAWPCA general manager, said that while the wastewater treatment plant is required to conduct its own testing at least twice a year, the upcoming tests will focus specifically on sites where sludge has been spread. He said so far, PFAS levels from LAWPCA testing are “in line, or maybe even slightly below average for the country,” which allows the plant to continue land applications.

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Peaslee said because PFAS are ubiquitous, “they will certainly be found at every single farm site,” when the state testing is conducted.

“It’s just a matter of at what level and whether or not those levels will be determined to be impactful,” he said, adding that there’s “lots and lots of uncertainty” that remains around the issue, “which is why this topic is so sensitive to these farmers out trying to make a livelihood for their families.”

In 2019, land applications of sludge became more scrutinized by state officials after an Arundel dairy farm had elevated levels of PFAS in its soil, water and milk. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection began testing sludge licensed for land applications, and if it exceeded a certain screening standard, additional testing was required to continue the program. Many treatment facilities, including LAWPCA, opted to halt their programs and send all sewage sludge to landfills.

In 2020, Fairfield became the epicenter of the crisis when elevated levels at a dairy farm led to testing that found a widespread problem, including contaminated well water for nearly 200 homes. The Maine Legislature passed a series of bills last year to address the issue, including lowering the legal limit for PFAS in drinking water, and requiring the Maine DEP to test every site where sludge has been spread.

According to the Portland Press Herald, some Fairfield wells were found to have PFAS levels that were hundreds of times higher than the 20 parts per trillion standard set by the Legislature.

Since then, the DEP has prioritized the state’s sites into four tiers to designate a schedule for testing. According to the department, the sites identified in Tier 1 were sites where at least 10,000 cubic yards of sludge had been applied to fields within half a mile of homes.

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“Live Well” is a sign on a barn at 276 Penley Corner Road in Auburn owned by the Lewiston Auburn Water Pollution Control Authority. Because sewage sludge was spread on the land there in past years, the farm is likely to be tested for PFAS under the state’s surveillance program. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

David Madore, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, confirmed this week that there are at least two sites slated for testing in Lewiston-Auburn in the coming months. One is in the vicinity of Route 136 in Auburn, he said, while the other is a landfill site in Lewiston that had “utilized sludge-amended topsoil.”

He said the investigation into the Auburn site has not yet begun, while some testing has already been done in the vicinity of the landfill.

Since announcing the statewide PFAS testing and tiered approach, the Maine DEP has not publicly identified the specific sites in each community.

Madore did not respond to questions regarding the exact locations, but Jeff Beaule, manager of engineering and asset management at Lewiston Public Works, said Madore is referring to a former sludge landfill next to the city landfill, which was closed in the 1990s.

He said there has been some PFAS testing in the groundwater on the site and at three neighboring residences.

State toxicologist Dr. Andy Smith told the Portland Press Herald in December that the state’s primary concern is drinking water, and that “other exposure pathways are secondary to those.”

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After land applications of sludge became subject to more testing, the number of sites taking the material rapidly declined. Leading up to 2019, LAWPCA typically provided sludge to between six and 10 farms each season.

However, in a list provided to the Sun Journal, LAWPCA named only four that had received the material in recent years, including two LAWPCA-owned farms at 276 and 371 Penley Corner Road in Auburn. Peaslee expects both will be subject to the new state testing.

Peaslee said the DEP has informed municipalities of their intention to test, but “as far as I know they have not been releasing exactly which farm they will be testing, nor when, until just before actually doing so.” He said it will also be up to the individual farm owners or operators whether or not to allow the testing.

The LAWPCA list also included Skelton Farm in Lewiston, which has since been sold and is in the process of being converted to solar.

Kathy Shaw, an Auburn farmer and chairwoman of the city’s Agriculture Committee, said the issue “seems to be more and more concerning.” She said the committee “will be keeping our eyes and ears open for further reports from the DEP on its findings and will share any findings with the public.”

The testing conducted for soil focuses on PFOS and PFOA, two of the estimated thousands of types of PFAS chemicals, which have been phased out of production in the United States, but are still easily found. The compounds do not readily break down in the environment or the body, hence the nickname “forever chemicals.”

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Peaslee said sludge from LAWPCA has at times slightly exceeded the screening standards for soil — 2.5 parts per billion for PFOA and 5.2 parts per billion for PFOS — requiring the facility to conduct further testing.

He said the DEP has used a “cumulative capacity calculation” to determine whether a land application can continue.

“If the soil has capacity then they approve continued land application, which is the case for the couple farms we apply on now,” he said. “If the soil exceeds the standard then we are not allowed to continue land application.”

He said part of the new DEP testing is to determine whether or not the screening standards that have been used are appropriate.

“This is why they are testing the soil and associated groundwater,” he said. “They are essentially truth checking the model, while also updating with the latest health and scientific data. Once they have enough data they will assess their model and likely need to develop new screening standards.”

As for how the PFAS compounds are ending up at LAWPCA, Peaslee said PFAS “come from everywhere,” and in Lewiston-Auburn are not likely the result of specific industrial sources. The Fairfield crisis has been linked to waste from nearby paper mills, which have used the compounds when making coated paper products.

“PFAS is an unintended consequence of societal choices,” he said. “We simply receive these chemicals from every source connected directly, or indirectly, to our facility. As stewards of the environment, we are as concerned about PFAS as anyone.”

The former Lisbon Farm at 371 Penley Corner Road in Auburn is one of two farms owned by the Lewiston Auburn Water Pollution Control Authority that received sewage sludge applications in recent years. LAWPCA General Manager Travis Peaslee expects both will be subject to state testing for PFAS. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal


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