All four members of Maine’s federal delegation are co-sponsoring a new bill allowing states to use federal funds to expand PFAS testing, compensate farmers for lost income,” and monitor adverse health outcomes for people affected by the so-called “forever chemicals.
The delegation’s proposal was modeled off a bill passed by the Maine Legislature earlier this year that approved a $60 million fund to monitor health outcomes of people affected by PFAS; provide medical care to people with blood levels of PFAS greater than the general population; relocate commercial farms when their land is contaminated; buy and sell land contaminated by PFAS; provide income and mortgage replacement for impacted farms; and conduct soil, water and crop research.
PFAS — shorthand for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are chemicals that break down extremely slowly and have been linked to a variety of harmful health impacts.
“Maine has been a leader in addressing PFAS contamination—not only in drinking water, but also in soils and food. The rest of the nation can learn from our efforts,” Rep. Chellie Pingree told Beacon. “Maine is already collaborating with other states, looking at existing PFAS research and studies.”
While Maine has taken a strong stance against PFAS on the state level, federal agencies have so far not followed suit, leaving farmers across the country to continue seeking solutions for their devastated farms.
“Unfortunately, Maine is not the only state that is experiencing PFAS contamination,” Pingree continued. “This is a nationwide issue, and the more we learn the more urgent addressing widespread contamination becomes. Maine’s response can be a model for other states as more testing across the nation takes place.”
Maine dairy farmer Fred Stone, whose farm in 2016 became the “ground zero” site for PFAS awareness in Maine, said he just received income replacement funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week after shutting down his dairy operation more than four years ago.
From 2016 to 2018, Stone refused to sell milk that had any level of PFAS contamination, even though the state insisted there were “safe levels” of PFAS in dairy.
By 2019, Oakhurst, which had been purchasing Stone’s milk, terminated the contract with him. Stone’s hay, milk and soil still show high levels of PFAS contamination today.
Despite the catastrophic effect PFAS had on Stone’s livelihood, the USDA cut his reparation payment in half, claiming some of the cows in his herd “weren’t eligible for compensation.”
After years of suffering and more than $1.5 million in lost income, Stone received a payment of $63,000.
Stone now plans to appeal the USDA’s decision. He believes the agency is likely facing what he described to Bloomberg as a “dam-breaking situation where they’re going to be overwhelmed.”
“Maine is so far out ahead of other states on this issue that many at the federal level are arguing that this is a Maine-specific issue and that’s simply not true,” Sara Woodbury, Policy Director at the toxic watchdogDefend our Health told Beacon.
“We need other states to step up testing of areas where sludge has been spread to show that this is a nationwide problem that we need to deal with, which will help push federal action.”
“But, at the end of the day, what we need to do is fix the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s]’s broken chemical policy system which allows toxic chemicals like PFAS to get approved without looking at long-term impacts on public health,” Woodbury added. “By the time we figure out a chemical is toxic, it’s already in the marketplace.”
In response to Stone’s potential appeal, USDA officials have said the agency currently lacks the funds, infrastructure and training to deal with the looming nationwide PFAS crisis.
Pingree hopes the new federal PFAS bill she helped introduce will begin to address these shortfalls.
“This is an urgent situation, and we continue to hear that more resources are needed from the federal government,” Pingree told Beacon. “It is critical that we have a federal safety net for farmers impacted by PFAS contamination. It’s also important for the federal government to learn about the work that has already been done in Maine and can be duplicated at the federal level to assist states across the U.S.”
Photo: U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree at Crystal Spring Community Farm in Brunswick on June 6 to discuss the USDA’s new Food System Transformation framework. | Official photo