The bill would ban the spreading of PFAS-contaminated sludge on Maine farmland, a key step in stemming further contamination of Maine land and water.
The extent of contamination of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to Maine farmland and water continues to come to light across the state. The contamination on farms that have come forward thus far is linked to direct farmland application of municipal waste sludge contaminated with PFAS. Spreading of sludge on Maine land continues to this day and one bill, LD 1911 – An Act To Prohibit the Contamination of Clean Soils with So-called Forever Chemicals, seeks to halt application of sludge to land.
“After years of cheaply disposing of sewage sludge by spreading directly on farmland or mixing with compost, Maine is paying a high price,” said Sharon Treat, senior attorney for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “Toxic PFAS chemicals, which last virtually forever in the environment, have contaminated prime farm soils, migrated into once-pristine drinking water and streams, and bioaccumulated in human bodies, livestock, wildlife and fish.”
Treat added, “Some Mainers are paying a higher price than others for this failed policy. Their farms and animals have been poisoned, their families and neighbors [are] facing a myriad of potential health problems associated with PFAS exposure. The reputation of Maine’s food is being damaged, harming the entire agricultural sector of the economy.”
Some of the state’s impacted farmers have spoken out about the threats to their businesses and health as a result of sludge being spread on their land, in several instances decades before these farmers began their careers.
Nell Finnigan of Ironwood Farm in Albion, Maine, said that the practice of spreading PFAS-contaminated biosolids is impacting the viability of her farm as well farms across the state. “The legacy of the land application of biosolids containing PFAS chemicals is literally putting into question the viability of being able to grow food on thousands of acres across the state of Maine today,” said Finnigan.
She continued, “Our farm was never even spread [with contaminated biosolids], but the land next door was spread repeatedly in the 1990s and now the ability to farm on our land is thrown into question because we’re not sure we’ll be able to find clean water to irrigate our fields. There are PFAS chemicals in all biosolids, whether the levels are ‘low’ enough to be safe seems to ignore the fact that these chemicals accumulate over time.” Finnigan points out that agricultural soils are precious and are needed to support generations of Mainers to come. “It’s a tragedy that any of Maine’s agricultural soils, or groundwater, has been contaminated by this practice historically,” said Finnigan.
Adrienne Lee and Ken Lamson of New Beat Farm in Knox, Maine, shared how the impact of past sludge applications to their farmland has changed the course of their farm business. “This winter we learned that some of our growing fields had a history of PFAS-laden biosolids being spread on them, and our home well came back with levels of PFAS contamination 100 times higher than the safe drinking water standards. In a matter of weeks our business went from forecasting for record growth in 2022 to insecurity about being able to pay our bills or see a clear path forward for the season,” said Lee and Lamson. “It has put our business in a precarious state of limbo as we take the necessary steps to ensure that any of the food leaving our farm is safe for our community. The integrity of our products is of the utmost importance to us, and as a result we pulled all our products off the market while we await further testing of our fields and crops.”
They added that the contamination of their soils may dramatically limit their ability to grow food crops on the affected fields in the future. “The value of our property overnight went from being our one and only asset to the potential of being a huge, unsellable liability where even if we wanted to leave to start a farm elsewhere we likely couldn’t sell this land,” said the New Beat farmers. “The hopes and dreams of passing all this hard work and sweat equity on to our daughter for her to enjoy for generations to come now feels like passing on more of a risk than an asset.”
Lee and Lamson added that, due to drinking the PFAS-contaminated water, the potential for long-term health consequences for their family is high.
Johanna Davis and Adam Nordell of Songbird Farm in Unity, Maine, echoed these concerns. They said, “The discovery of PFAS contamination in our soil, water and in our bodies has thrown our lives into crisis. Davis and Nordell said that PFAS-contaminated sludge spread on their farm has “upended our farm business, thrown our livelihood into question, devalued our land and created an enormous amount of stress about potential health consequences for us and for our four-year-old child.” They asked, “How can we begin to quantify the impact this is having on our family?”
Any increase in allowable PFAS limits in sludge would put additional land and water in jeopardy of contamination from these forever chemicals. The state is currently considering whether current thresholds in some products are too high.
“The stories of these three farms, as well as others that have already been impacted, make it clear that additional contamination of Maine’s soil and water by the application of sludge that contains PFAS must stop immediately,” said Sarah Alexander, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Alexander added, “Composting is an essential component of sustainable waste management, however it does not make sense to compost all materials for application to Maine’s soils.”
As an alternative to composting, state landfills have the capacity to accept sludge. At a legislative work session for LD 1911 earlier this year Paula Clark, director of the Division of Materials Management at Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, said, “I think the landfill capacity exists to accept it [sludge]. I don’t think that it would cause the landfills to all of a sudden be depleted of capacity as a result of this.”
“One of the key lessons from this unfolding crisis is that the decisions we make today can have far-reaching consequences,” said Amy Fisher, president and CEO of Maine Farmland Trust. “Now that we know that PFAS chemicals accumulate and are persistent in our soil and water, and that so much of this contamination is directly linked to sludge, we simply can’t afford to continue spreading sludge that contains PFAS. Maine’s hardworking farmers should not bear the cost of contamination, and it’s common sense that it is less expensive to find alternatives now than to address the consequences later.”