The thing about opening Pandora’s Box is you have no control over what happens next.

On the day it was announced that “forever chemicals,” or PFAS, were found in deer meat in the Fairfield area my first words were: “That is devastating news.”

Not because I have hunted, fished and drank the water from the same contaminated ground in and around Fairfield, but because of the massive implications of widespread PFAS contamination in our state and the simple fact that, if PFAS is in the meat of deer in this area, it is likely in everything else we eat and drink from our farmlands, watersheds and the wild fish and game we harvest in Maine.

PFAS is a class of man-made chemicals, invented in a military lab and used in countless public applications. Prolonged human exposure has been linked to cancer, immune system suppression, developmental disorders, and other serious health problems.

As a self-employed logger for over 30 years, I am familiar with history of pollution created by paper mills and other manufacturing facilities like tanneries. Ironically the trout brook behind my family home was called the Tannery Brook.

In the 1970s our Maine rivers were rightly described as open sewers. They were treated as unregulated dumping grounds for industrial and residential waste. In the early 1970s, Congress, led by Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine, passed the Clean Water Act. This landmark legislation is celebrated as the beginning of one of the world’s greatest environmental achievements and the beginning of the wastewater treatment movement that would clean up our rivers.

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Looking back, the Clean Water Act achieved only part of its worthy goal. Yes, we removed solid waste from our rivers, but we allowed this solid waste in the form of sludge to be spread on the very ground that grew our food and the same soil where PFAS now leaches.

How did so many well-meaning individuals miss such an obvious source of pollution? How long have government agencies and chemical companies — which together are responsible for making PFAS and spreading hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cubic yards of industrial sludge — know about risks to public health?

Maybe they didn’t, but we must ask the question, or we will learn nothing from this catastrophic failure to protect our environment and the safety of Mainers.

Worse, the sludge that is the major source of PFAS is stored in countless and yet undisclosed landfills all around our state, many located near major rivers like the Kennebec and Penobscot, and many likely leaching PFAS into residential and public water supplies.

This newly disclosed PFAS environmental catastrophe and corresponding governmental response is in its infant stages, but Maine, led by the Mills administration, Sen. Collins and the Legislature, has decided to meet Pandora head on.

Last legislative session and again this year a number of bills have been passed and introduced to start to identify and mitigate PFAS contamination. Millions in federal and state dollars have been set aside, but I can say confidently, that it is a drop in the bucket. Hundreds of millions will be needed to mitigate this overwhelming disaster.

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Recently, on behalf of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Institute for Legislative Action, for which I work, I asked in several media stories for the Mills’ administration to use her upcoming Supplemental Budget to invest in creating a PFAS testing lab in our state to insure adequate and timely, in-state PFAS testing. I am happy to say she will announce her plan soon.

Far more needs to be done. The Legislature and the committees having jurisdiction over natural resources need to assess not only current fiscal PFAS mitigation needs, but what the needs may be 10 years out. We cannot wait for years as a class action lawsuit to hold chemical companies accountable works its way through the courts. What if it takes a decade, and worse, what if it fails?

In order to make such long-term fiscal impact estimates, legislative committee members need to know how big the problem is. The Department of Environmental Protection has disclosed the sites in which they believe PFAS contaminated sludge was spread, though they have not made public where this same sludge is stored in municipal and state licensed landfills.

In addition, we know very little about the many military and municipal locations PFAS was used for fire suppression training and how these chemicals were disposed of as they were retired.

Until we know the answer to these questions and all the sites are tested for contamination, we will not know how many wells and drinking water supplies are affected.

What will it cost in order for Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Department of Marine Resources, DEP, the CDC and our university system to coordinate long-term food and wildlife testing, research and PFAS monitoring and the corresponding cost of installing expensive water filtration systems on yet to be identified, contaminated drinking water systems?

In the coming months, the Legislature will debate how to spend a projected $800 million surplus. I would argue the amount of the surplus is unknown until all of these questions are answered.

Like Ed Muskie and those that pushed the Clean Water Act, we have an environmental disaster that must be faced head on, this time we must finish the job.

David Trahan of Waldoboro, a former state legislator, is executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of that organization.


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