Veronique Plesch’s home in Fairfield is next to fields where sludge contaminated with PFAS was spread over the years. A state law adopted in 2021 meant her drinking water’s contamination level qualified her for a filtration system. Plesch was photographed in 2021. A new report by the state Department of Environmental Protection says the agency has so far tested the groundwater at more than 1,500 homes in Maine. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald file

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has so far identified more than 1,000 locations that must be tested for PFAS contamination and through the course of its investigation has collected groundwater samples for testing at another 1,500 homes, the agency said in a report to a legislative committee.

DEP since 2019 has spent nearly $6 million on testing — a figure that does not include money spent by other state agencies on their own PFAS testing — and the overall cost is expected to rise significantly over the next few years.

The report, dated Sunday to the state Legislature’s Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources, also said DEP does not expect to meet a testing deadline set for the end of 2025.

“While the department put a timeline in place to meet the 2025 deadline for completing the soil and groundwater investigation, it is not anticipated that this deadline will be fully met due to the scope of this investigation,” the 45-page report said.

Legislation passed in 2021 requires DEP to test anywhere a license was granted to spread sludge or septage — a wastewater treatment byproduct and the remaining product after a septic system is pumped out. But even identifying those sites has been a challenge, as DEP staff must sort through often incomplete paperwork dating back to the 1970s. And even if a site was licensed to apply sludge or septage, that doesn’t mean that a landowner actually spread it.

DEP previously estimated there were about 700 sites where sludge or septage was spread, but has now increased that number to roughly 1,040 sites, but that is far from a final number. Complicating the matter are inconsistent records on where sludge or septage was spread, meaning DEP likely does not have a complete picture of where it must test, the report said.


Although it was not known at the time, the material spread in the state contained PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, a group of synthetic chemicals used in industrial settings and consumer products, including items like nonstick cookware, water-resistant clothing and heat-resistant food packaging.

The chemicals can repel water, oil, grease and heat, and were used for many years in items like firefighting foam. But PFAS chemicals don’t break down easily and can accumulate in the environment, as well as in people and animals. Research into the health effects are ongoing, but may include increased cholesterol, increased risk of high blood pressure, and increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer.

The DEP report said just more than three-quarters of the water tests performed so far found the water to be safe to drink — with PFAS levels below Maine’s drinking water standard of 20 parts per trillion.

The rest of the tests found 12% of water samples were between 20 and 100 parts per trillion, 7% were between 100 and 1,000 parts per trillion, and 4% were greater than 1,000 parts per trillion.

When it comes to the $6 million spent on the investigation so far, a large part of that spending is for department personnel costs. Other than that, the largest areas of spending are filter installation and maintenance, laboratory analysis, and sampling contracts.

DEP estimates that based on current spending the average cost per site, not per well, is roughly $26,778. But given that much of the site testing is not complete, the cost could double to more than $53,000.


DEP estimates that overall costs could range anywhere from nearly $19 million to $53.5 million, depending on the total number of sites tested. Those numbers don’t include the cost of ongoing monitoring and maintenance of filtration systems, and don’t include the additional ongoing testing done by other state agencies, including investigations oof farms by the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and the fish and wildlife testing done by the state Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.

“Based on regulatory uncertainty, costs of the program into the future are not easy to estimate,” the report said. “As the regulations appear to tighten, and the solutions for managing and treating PFAS are still unknown, the costs will continue to rise.”

At the beginning of DEP’s investigation, state law required the agency test half of the sludge and septage sites by the end of 2024, and test all sites by the end of 2025. But in light of the expansion of the investigation in the last year, it’s unlikely all testing will be completed by that time, the report said.

With a changing legal and regulatory landscape, drinking water standards may decrease or be different than what Maine is currently using in its investigation,” the report said. “As this number changes, it will have a significant impact on how the program continues to develop. The current pace of investigation will likely slow in order to address drinking water results that were previously below the current standard.” 

There are additional reasons for this anticipated delay, including landowners who have denied access to their land or been unresponsive, but who may later request testing assistance.

Sarah Woodbury, director of advocacy for Portland-based Defend Our Health, said the organization is satisfied with the speed of DEP’s investigation, but wants to see the state standard for drinking water lowered to reflect the most recent research from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“We have been very pleased with how the DEP is managing this — they are on time; they are moving how they are supposed to be moving,” Woodbury said.

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