Proposed legislation would combat PFAS contamination, expand testing and add protections for those affected

Rep. Pluecker working to tamp down ‘forever chemicals’ tied to health risks

Fri, 04/23/2021 - 7:30pm

State lawmakers are considering nearly a dozen pieces of legislation to better regulate PFAS, a group of “forever chemicals” associated with various health risks, and widely used in industrial processes and household products.

The bills will pass through the Legislature just weeks after a Fairfield resident filed a class action lawsuit against Sappi North America, claiming that PFAS found in Somerset County water sources originated from the paper mill company’s wastewater treatment plant in Skowhegan. The lawsuit is open to county residents who were affected.

The long-term harm these chemicals pose to public and environmental health is well-documented as they don’t break down through biological processes. These endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been linked to various types of cancer, reproductive harm and thyroid issues.

“We all have PFAS in our bodies that (are) going to be there, more likely, until the day we die,”  said Rep. Bill Pluecker (I-Warren) who is sponsoring five pieces of legislation related to PFAS. “We need to protect our kids, and our families and our businesses.”

Two of Pluecker’s bills would set maximum statewide contaminant levels and require public testing of drinking water supplies.

The legislation would decrease PFAS maximum contaminant levels to 20 parts per trillion, much lower than the EPA’s 70-parts-per-trillion health advisory levels, but would put Maine on track to match state-mandated PFAS levels in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. 

“We’re behind in terms of the contamination levels with our New England neighbors,” said Sarah Woodbury, director of advocacy at Defend Our Health, a Portland-based nonprofit. “Twenty parts per trillion is really important to start going in the right direction of setting a health protective standard for PFAS in drinking water.”

Defend Our Health played an active role in introducing PFAS legislation and its executive director served on Gov. Janet Mills’ PFAS task force, which was established in March 2019. The task force studied the extent of PFAS contamination in Maine and published recommendations for how to best protect Mainers in a January 2020 report.

Mills has since established a fund to address PFAS contamination and has urged the federal government to provide financial assistance.

“PFAS contamination is not a Maine problem; it is a national problem that ultimately requires a federal response,” Mills wrote in a March 31 press release.

PFAS were first identified in Maine goundwater in 2016 near historic military sites, but their danger was fully realized when wells near Kennebunkport and Wells became contaminated. This led to the discovery of alarming PFAS levels — up to 1,420 parts per trillion — at a nearby dairy farm in Arundel.

The discovery at the farm unearthed the pervasive nature of PFAS contamination on Maine farms where PFAS-contaminated biosolid sludge had been applied. In the 1980s and 1990s, the state Department of Environmental Protection approved the spreading of contaminated sludge on 500 sites.

“Those (500) sites — because of the nature of PFAS — may still be contaminated,” said Pluecker, who is an organic farmer. “We need to have a way of helping those farmers out so they’re not going out of business.”

Several bills would lend financial support and bolster legal options for citizens living or working on PFAS-contaminated sites. Last week the Judiciary Committee unanimously supported a bill that would extend the amount of time Mainers are able to seek civil recourse for damage caused by PFAS contamination.

Currently, people impacted by PFAS contamination can seek recourse six years from the date of initial contamination, but the new bill would extend the time frame to six years after the contamination was discovered.

Of the five PFAS bills referred to the Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) Committee, two are being presented by Rep. Jess Fay (D-Raymond) on behalf of the DEP.

One would define PFAS and other toxic chemicals as hazardous substances so the DEP can tap into state funds to clean up contaminated sites. The other would require companies knowingly manufacturing or discharging PFAS products to report their actions to the Maine DEP.

Of the three other bills being considered in ENR, one would require the DEP to test PFAS-contaminated sites, and create a fund to pay for testing costs and disposal fees. The other two bills deal with the prevention and phase-out of PFAS in products ranging from residential carpeting and rugs to firefighting foam.

“Moving away from the use of these toxic chemicals can overall help both the health and environment of all Mainers,” said Woodbury. “Stopping (PFAS) at its source is the end game here so that we don’t have to continue to deal with the impacts.”

Woodbury said requiring the phase-out of PFAS in avoidable products by 2030 puts Maine at the forefront nationally.

“No other state has kind of taken this up,” she said. “We’re actually leading on this particular issue.”

The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee is also considering two pieces of legislation — a bill that would cease aerial spraying of PFAS-laden pesticides in Maine and resolve to investigate the most cost-effective way of remediating cropping systems on PFAS-contaminated farms.

“We’re definitely being proactive in how we’re addressing (PFAS), partly because we’re such a mix of rural spaces and urban spaces,” said Pluecker. “Maine’s ahead of the curve.”