What the Sludge?!

PFAS problems in Maine highlight PFAS problems everywhere.

Dairy farmer Fred Stone with his Brown Swiss Lida Rose.The PFAS chemical contamination in his fields and his cows has been linked to sludge he spread on the fields which he was told would help the soils. (Getty Images) .

Today, I’m sharing a story with you that is much like the one that started it all for me: one town, one chemical, and the harmful impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.

The town is Fairfield, Maine, a small community with a population of less than 7,000 people, nestled next to the Kennebec River. There’s a tiny main street, but most people live on the outskirts of town.

The chemical, or more accurately class of chemicals, is PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), known as “forever chemicals” because they persist in both the environment and in human bodies for decades. They don’t break down easily and as a result can accumulate at toxic levels in the environment.

PS: Scientists have detected these chemicals in the blood of almost all Americans. The EPA keeps a list on some of the health issues related to PFAS and PFAS exposure has been linked to more severe cases of COVID-19. 

We still don’t have national standards for PFAS chemicals in our drinking water, only a health advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt). In the absence of any real federal action, states have grappled with how to address this contamination.

Maine is a state known for its beautiful environment—lush forests, family-owned farms, and vast blue skies—but the elevated levels of contaminants found in Fairfield’s private drinking water wells are some of the highest numbers I’ve seen anywhere in the country.

A Network of Neighbors  

In late December Fairfield residents Lawrence Higgins and his wife Penny contacted me, concerned about their well water.

The couple originally learned about the water issues in Fairfield from neighbors, whose wells had tested high for PFAS chemicals. Lawrence and Penny hadn’t heard from Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), but contacted them and insisted someone come back and test their well water.

Sure enough, the Higgins house tested extremely high: 1,780 ppt for PFOS. Penny said down the road the levels are even higher. 

They’ve lived in their home for 27 years, raising kids and grandchildren there. They tend to a herd of alpacas, along with some donkeys and a mule, and operate a small store out of their house where they sell alpaca products.

Penny told me that she and her two daughters have dealt with quite a few health issues and she is concerned not just for their health, but also for the well-being of their animals. Rates of cancer among their neighbors is notable too.

They are part of a growing number of families affected by this contamination as 29 wells (so far) contain elevated levels of PFAS.

A little more than 50 percent of Maine residents get their drinking water from residential wells, which are not subject to any federal or state regulations.

Maine DEP has sampled 128 water supplies in Fairfield and results are still pending on 55 tests.

Where’s The PFAS Coming From?

The question for any community with high levels of contamination is:

Where is it coming from?

According to a January 2020 Report from the Maine PFAS Task Force, PFAS was originally discovered in groundwater at former military sites throughout the state, an ongoing issue at hundreds of active or former bases throughout the country.

But PFAS was also discovered in the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Wells Water District supply well, which led to finding high levels of contaminants at a nearby dairy farm, report the Task Force findings.

In 2016, Maine dairy farmer Fred Stone learned that his cows were producing tainted milk, causing him to eventually shut down a century-old family business.

It raised flags about the use of biosolids (sludge) spread on fields, a practice widely used on farms in Maine and around the country. Stone started using it in the 1980s as part of a state program helping municipal or industrial sources dispose of their waste. He also used sludge from a local paper mill.

“The state told farmers it was okay to spread it and that it was good for the soil,” Lawrence Higgins told me.

Even though Stone notified the USDA about the elevated PFAS levels at his farm, the problem was almost completely ignored, as only one other farm and two cartons of milk at a store were tested at the time.

But just a few years later, the Tozier Dairy Farm had its products removed from shelves in June 2020 after milk samples revealed levels of PFOS at 12,700, 14,900, and 32,200 ppt.

Those numbers are astronomical!

The Higgins live just 6 miles down the road from this farm. The property across the street is farmland that also used the sludge as fertilizer.

They recalled to me that the previous owner of their home had started a petition about the sludge, so this issue has been on residents’ minds for quite some time.

Bob Bowcock, the water expert I work with, has called for the land application of sludge in the U.S. to be ceased immediately.

What are we doing with our hazardous waste? We’ve just found another way to recycle it and create more problems.

Taking Action

You know I love to see communities in action. Lawrence and Peggy have formed a local group to work on this issue.

“We’re having another Zoom meeting next week,” Lawrence said, as the global pandemic has made it harder to meet in-person. He’s learning the technology along with many others.

Fairfield Water Concerned Citizens has almost 100 members in their Facebook group and Lawrence says he’s aiming to have 400 people soon. They are spreading the word through flyers and helping organize neighbors.

Right now, Maine DEP is only testing certain areas and he feels that every drilled well in Fairfield should be tested.  

I agree. The DEP needs to identify all of the polluted wells; install carbon filters to all homes that have contaminated wells; and install extraction wells to pull the chemical plume away from the homes that have not been impacted.

The Higgins still have many questions to contend with:

  • What are they going to do about their health moving forward?

  • What about the value of their property?

  • They need blood work to determine their own blood levels for these chemicals; will the state pay for that?

They are tackling each question, one step at time.

“We’ve been paying taxes all these years, they need to be backing us now,” Lawrence said. He said he won’t stop until all the wells have been tested.

Final Thoughts

Currently, we have no enforceable national drinking water limits for PFAS chemicals and tens of thousands of drinking water systems across the country have never tested for these contaminants.

Not to mention we have more than 40 million Americans that use private well water, a system that’s off the grid. States need to change their testing programs on well water so we can catch these issues a lot earlier.

PFAS compounds have no smell or taste, so they are not easy to detect in drinking water without proper testing.

Communities throughout this country are fighting these same chemicals in places like Hoosick Falls, New York, Decatur, Alabama, and Parkersburg, West Virginia, throughout North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, and California. Plus, Australia and China.

These toxic chemicals have been used to make everything from textiles, adhesives, food packaging, firefighting foams, and non-stick cookware.

What’s beyond frustrating is that we’ve known for decades what industries used these chemicals, we knew they were bioaccumulating, but the chemical industry and our regulators kicked the can down the road, dragging their feet on this issue.

We need to look at this situation in Maine and throughout the country, be honest about it, and get resources to these families.

The new Biden administration has vowed to take swift action on PFAS and many hope for more details soon.

What Others Have to Say About PFAS

“Why the heck are we making chemicals that are never going to go away?” said Linda Birnbaum, who retired as director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Science in 2019.

“The PFAS pollution crisis is a public health emergency,” wrote Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at Environmental Working Group, in a public statement. “More than 200 million people are likely drinking water polluted with PFAS.”

In Other News, I’m Feeling Inspired by…

Amanda Gorman, the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate also became the youngest-ever inaugural poet, making a splash at last week’s inauguration with her original poem, “The Hill We Climb.”

Not only is she an amazing performer, but she overcame a speech impediment, which I admire and relate to as someone who has had to deal with dyslexia my whole life. Our struggles are what make us strong.

Here she is performing a poem about the environment.

“You don’t need to be a politician to make it your mission to conserve, to protect, to preserve that one and only home that is ours.”