FAIRFIELD — Although residents voted last week against the town’s proposed water expansion project in a nonbinding referendum, the Town Council has directed the town manager to continue work on the project amid ongoing concern about PFAS contamination of local water wells.

Councilors on Wednesday discussed the election results and what to do next, ultimately telling Town Manager Michelle Flewelling to continue to move forward with efforts to find funding for the project.

“I think it’s important that we continue to move forward,” said Councilor Matthew Townsend. “And I think we need to look at those areas where people have reservations, and try to assuage those fears.”

At the municipal election last week, a referendum asking if residents supported the project was voted down 402-282. However, the referendum was not binding, so the Town Council is not required to stop the project based on the vote.

Town Clerk Christine Keller said Wednesday the turnout last week was only 16% of registered voters in town, and that turnout was comparable to past June elections, meaning more residents did not come out to vote because the project on the ballot.

The proposed project would expand the Kennebec Water District system, adding more than 20 miles of water lines, reaching 474 households, with the goal of reaching areas of town with private wells that are affected by PFAS contamination.

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PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, also known as “forever chemicals,” are a group of man-made chemicals created in the 1940s. They are both oil and water repellent, making them useful in many consumer goods. However, the chemicals do not break down in the environment or in the body, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” PFAS have also been linked to many health problems, including compromised immune and cardiovascular systems, decreased fertility, low birth weights and several types of cancer.

“As much as we are at the forefront of the problem,” Townsend said, “we need to be at the forefront of the solution.”

The town would build the expanded system, and KWD would then take over its operation and maintenance. The water district, however, has said for it to take over the expanded system, everyone along the new lines would have to connect to the system.

Councilor Stephanie Thibodeau said she spoke with some residents before the election who did not know the referendum was even happening, and some who did not know anything about the PFAS contamination in Fairfield. She said she would like to see the town provide more education on the issue so residents understand the contamination’s impact.

Councilors discussed the possibility of holding another referendum in the November general election, when turnout is expected to be greater because of top-of-ticket races, including governor, but did not make a final decision.

Councilors said they understood people’s concerns about the proposed project, which have focused largely on its cost — estimated at about $48 million — and the required hookup. They emphasized that having uncontaminated water is important to the town’s economic development and the safety of residents now and in the future.

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“We’ve been consuming this stuff for the last 30-something years, and nobody has known about it,” said Vice Chair Michael Taylor. “What damage is done is probably already done. (For) future people living here, clean drinking water may prevent any additional issues and (give) some peace of mind.”

Flewelling said KWD officials are sympathetic to concerns about residents being required to connect to the expanded water system. The district has said an alternative would be to have residents who do not want to hook up pay a flat annual fee, or to have the town pay the fees.

“There’s got to be a middle ground for those that don’t want to hook up to the public water,” Thibodeau said.

With funding concerns, Fairfield officials have been working to secure outside money to pay for the project. The town has applied for federal funding through Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Rep. Jared Golden. The town has also applied for a grant from the Northern Border Regional Commission, and is looking to apply for funding from the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund.

“Fairfield is never going to be the same because of PFAS,” Thibodeau said. “We’re an agricultural community. The land is tainted. The water is tainted. And where does that put us?”

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