Farmers whose lands were contaminated by industrial chemicals because of a state-approved program to use wastewater sludge as a soil fertilizer may begin receiving state relief funds this summer.

The head of an advisory committee tasked with allocating $60 million to Maine farmers whose land was polluted by the decades-long practice of spreading sludge and sludge-based compost announced at a committee meeting Monday that she hopes the plan to hand out the funds will be finalized by July.

Distribution of the funding is likely to start slowly as the committee creates eligibility guidelines and procedures for disbursing the money, and then ramp up in the fall and winter, said Elizabeth Fuller, who leads the 15-person advisory committee created last spring.

Farmers and industry advocates urged the state to get support to farming families as soon as possible because of the severe impacts and financial hardships. They encouraged the committee to make the funds easily accessible to those affected, to do what they can to remediate and restore their farmland rather than find new uses for tainted land, and ultimately to take responsibility for the regulatory failures that led to the crisis by giving money directly to those impacted.

“The state needs to provide a way forward or a way out for all PFAS-impacted farmers,” said Adam Nordell, a farmer from Unity who halted sales after finding high levels of the chemicals in his water.

Adam Nordell visits the family farm in Unity he used to operate with his partner, but after testing for staggeringly high levels of PFAS, he had to shut it down. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Contamination from per- and polyfluorinated substances, or PFAS, has impacted farmers across Maine. PFAS, commonly known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, can be found in hundreds of everyday items, including nonstick cookware, cleaning products, paper plates and pizza boxes. The chemicals are linked to severe illnesses that include cancers, thyroid disease and slow fetal growth.


Sludge from wastewater treatment plants that is now known to contain these chemicals was spread on fields as fertilizer for years at 1,100 sites throughout the state. A growing number of farmers are left with land that is unsafe and unsuitable for agriculture. They and their families also have high levels of the chemicals in their bodies, and in some cases have illnesses they believe may be connected to the pollution.

In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, spreading sludge on farm fields was seen as a win-win, a sustainable and safe way to dispose of waste and spur agricultural production by putting the nitrogen found in human waste in the ground, avoiding the need for pricey fertilizer.

Although the sludge was tested for other contaminants like heavy metals, it was never tested for PFAS. Though the health risks of the persistent chemicals were not widely known, manufacturers of the chemicals, including DuPont and 3M, were aware of the dangers of the chemicals since at least 1970.


Maine has been investigating farms for PFAS contamination since 2016, when high levels of PFAS were found in milk from an Arundel dairy. The state is halfway through testing soil and water at the 1,100 farms where sludge is known to have been used as fertilizer and has found 56 farms with high levels of the chemicals. Many farmers now facing PFAS contamination bought their farms without knowing about the land’s sludge history.

The impact of the pollution has been significant. Farmers have found PFAS in their land, their livestock and themselves. The chemicals have been financially and emotionally destructive. Farmers who have been in the business for generations have been forced to close their operations and give up livelihoods that define them.


The Legislature created the relief fund over a year ago with money for long-term health care needs, farm buyouts, and to cover remediation and crop losses. Now that the advisory committee is close to finishing its plan on how to spend it, the day when cash could start flowing seems to be nearing, providing farmers with hope of support and relief.

It’s not clear what will happen to the PFAS-impacted farms or those who own them.

Remediation would be, at best, a significant challenge.

Scientists know how to filter forever chemicals from water, or at least below proposed federal drinking water levels, although filtration requires the installation of expensive systems and annual maintenance. They do not yet know how to remove PFAS from land short of excavating the tainted soil and removing it.

There has been talk of turning farms into solar fields or planting crops less likely to absorb the harmful chemicals, but no decisions have been made. Many who spoke on Monday urged the state to do anything it can to keep as much land open to agriculture as possible, highlighting its economic and cultural importance.

Maine is far from the only state facing a crisis of farms polluted by PFAS, although it has taken a more aggressive approach than most. Nationwide, more than 2,800 sites are contaminated by the chemicals, according to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. But that’s only the contamination that has been found. The actual total number of contaminated farms could be much higher.

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