Wednesday is usually the busiest day of the week at the hundred-acre Ironwood Farm in Albion.

Nell Finnigan and Justin Morace are usually harvesting greens, packing storage crops and filling coolers with food bound for local markets. But this week, nothing is being picked, stacked or sold.

The soil and grass at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel got contaminated with PFAS chemicals from sewage sludge spread on the farm fields from 1983 to 2004. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer, file

Test results showing elevated levels of forever chemicals, or PFAS, in their well water had put a stop to all that.

Now they must wait, trapped in limbo, wondering if their fields and bodies have been poisoned as well.

“Wait for the tests, wait for the research, wait for the thaw, wait six weeks while the labs catch up,” said Finnigan on Wednesday at a news conference in front of the state capitol. “Teetering on the edge of losing everything: our business, our home, our career, our future, our health. Everything.”

Finnigan is one of three farmers who have found PFAS in their well water, fields or crops and decided to go public with their ordeal in hopes of persuading lawmakers to support a bill that would stop the use of wastewater sludge as fertilizer and compost.


They are all victims of the “decades old practice of literally (defecating) where you eat,” Finnigan said.

Or in Finnigan’s case, right next door. Even though no sludge has ever been spread at Ironwood, it was spread on fields at a farm to the south, records show, and the PFAS it contained apparently leached into the groundwater that feeds the wells on Ironwood Farm. It all took place when Finnigan was just 7 years old.

Despite the outcry that has arisen in recent years, wastewater sludge, which has been linked to PFAS contamination in many parts of the state, is still being spread on Maine fields.

PFAS, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl compounds, are long-lasting chemicals with a unique ability to repel oil, grease and water. They can be found in industrial products like firefighting foam, and many common household items, like stain-resistant carpets, waterproof clothing and non-stick cookware.

In 2019, Maine halted the spread of sludge with elevated PFAS levels. But the policy has a big loophole – wastewater treatment facilities can send their sludge to a compost facility to be dried, but with PFAS levels unchanged, and then sold to farmers, landscapers and home gardeners. Rep. Bill Pluecker, I-Warren, has introduced a bill, L.D. 1911, to ban the spreading of sludge or sludge product, including compost.

That is the bill that Finnigan and the other farming families at Wednesday’s news conference are asking lawmakers to support.


“I’m stubborn,” said Brendan Holmes of Misty Brook Farm, another Albion farm that has stopped sales because of PFAS contamination. “I won’t give up and my farm will not fold. But I need your help. I need this bill to pass so we quit the insanity of poisoning the best agricultural land in the state of Maine.”

They also asked lawmakers for financial help to pay their bills while they await the state investigation of their wells, fields, crops and livestock, the installation of water filtration systems, and the search for soils on their properties that might still be suitable for farming.

Farmers have been getting state licenses to apply treated wastewater sludge – the solid byproduct from municipal wastewater treatment – to fields for decades in Maine and around the country. The state Department of Environmental Protection has issued more than 700 sludge application licenses to farmers in every corner of the state.

DEP has estimated it could cost $20 million a year to test these sites and install water filtration systems where needed. That doesn’t include the cost of reimbursing farmers for lost produce or livestock sales, or buying them out if scientists say their land is no longer suitable for farming.

That estimate also does not cover the cost of addressing health problems that might arise from long-term PFAS exposure, which is linked to decreased immune system response, low birth weights and higher rates of kidney and testicular cancer, among other health problems.

“My own family, including my 4-year-old son, have industrial levels of PFAS chemicals in our bodies, the health consequences of which no one can really tell us beyond that it’s certainly bad news,” Finnigan said, noting that one of the chemicals found in her well has a half-life of 25,000 years.


This month, Adrienne and Ken Lee of New Beat Farm, a 94-acre property they bought 10 years ago, got the news: sludge spread on the fields by the previous owner had contaminated their well, resulting in a lab test showing PFAS levels hundreds of times higher than the state’s drinking water limit of 20 parts per trillion.

They have pulled all their produce from the shelves and started drinking bottled water, but will have to wait until the ground thaws before they can test their fields and know if it’s safe to plant. She should be planting onion and tomato seedlings now, but she can’t trust the very ground beneath her feet.

In the meantime, they are too scared to bathe their 20-month-old toddler in a well-drawn bath.

“In just a matter of weeks, our business went from forecasting record growth for the season to insecurity about being able to pay our bills or see a clear path forward,” Lee said. “The pride and confidence we had that we were feeding our family and our community safe and healthy food have been crushed.”

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