In this Aug. 15, 2019, photo, dairy cows rest outside the home of Fred and Laura Stone at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel. The farm has been forced to shut down after sludge spread on the land was linked to high levels of PFAS in the milk. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Two Mainers whose well water contains high levels of “forever chemicals” believed to increase the risk of cancer and other diseases have sued 15 owners and former owners of paper mills and manufacturing plants in central Maine in U.S. District Court in Bangor.

The lawsuit is seeking class action status on behalf of every resident of Kennebec and Somerset counties who has lived there for more than one year since 1967. In addition to nominal and compensatory damages, lawyers are asking the companies to pay for a medical monitoring program that would allow all residents of the counties to be regularly tested for diseases associated with the pollutant.

The complaint appears to be the first filed after the Legislature earlier this year extended the statute of limitations for lawsuits involving PFAS pollution to six years after the pollution was discovered, rather than six years after it first occurred.

PFAS — short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are used in many consumer and industrial products, including firefighting foam, nonstick coating and food packaging. The pollutant gets into the environment in a number of ways, including through the use of wastewater sludge that’s applied to agricultural fields as fertilizer.

PFAS can take hundreds of years to break down and has been linked to health problems including low infant birth weights and compromised immune systems, in addition to cancer.

Plaintiff Nathan Saunders of Fairfield claims that a test of his well water showed it contained 12,910 parts per trillion of PFAS. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Health Advisory recommends a limit of 70 parts per trillion.

Saunders and his co-plaintiff, Judy Hook of Clinton, aren’t alone in finding high levels of PFAS in their well water. The chemicals are turning up in well water across the state at levels 300 to 400 times higher than the federal health advisory level.

In Maine, dangerous PFAS levels have been detected at numerous sites over the last few years, including dairy farms in the towns of Arundel and Fairfield, and in dozens of private drinking wells in the Fairfield area.

This year, the Legislature also passed a bill that requires manufacturers to report their use of a class of toxic chemicals and phase them out by 2030.

Defendants in the lawsuit include Sappi North America Inc., which owns a paper mill in Skowhegan, and Huhtamaki Oyj, owner of a Waterville plant that manufactures paper plates and paper products.

A spokesperson for Sappi on Friday said the company disputes the allegation that the mill is the source of the PFAS contamination in Fairfield.

“Sappi is well known for its record of environmental stewardship at the Somerset mill and the rest of our manufacturing facilities,” Patti Groh, director of marketing communications, said. 

Originally filed in Somerset County Superior Court, the case was transferred earlier this week to federal court in Bangor.