AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine may need to spend $20 million annually to fight harmful “forever chemicals” increasingly being found in land and water here, top state officials said Monday.
The finding from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection was just the estimated cost of remediating places polluted by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are typically referred to as PFAS. It does not include other costs to the state, which could include reimbursing property owners or farmers whose livelihoods are affected by the chemicals.
It was a stark reminder of how difficult it will be to tackle one of Maine’s biggest emerging problems. The discovery of PFAS in domestic animals and produce threatens farms and its presence in wild game in some areas has spurred calls from sportsmen for Gov. Janet Mills to fund a testing lab in Maine, something the governor is expected to include in an upcoming budget proposal.
Maine’s current two-year budget has $20 million in it for sampling, treatment, remediation and monitoring of the chemicals. The estimate does not include other costs to the state, such as reimbursing property owners or farmers whose homes and livelihoods are affected by the chemicals’ presence.
It is likely going to take until at least 2025 to sample all of the sites Maine has identified so far for contamination. But the state’s early efforts to find the chemicals has been hampered by reluctance from some property owners and hiring challenges, officials said.
“The long-term impacts of this investigation are going to extend far beyond the DEP – agriculture, hunting, fishing, gardening, wastewater and waste management,” said Susanne Miller, the director of remediation and waste management. “We’ll all be affected.”
The state is dividing its investigation into three tiers based on the volume of sludge, a semi-liquid waste used for decades as a fertilizer on agricultural land in Maine, used on different properties. Sites where the most sludge was applied closest to homes are the priority. Higher PFAS exposure has been linked to increased cancer risk and other health problems.
But Miller said not all landowners are willing to let state officials onto their property as more bad news about the chemical emerges, something that makes it difficult to understand how widespread the problem is.
The state has also been trying to fill 17 new positions dedicated to PFAS investigations in this budget since August, but Miller said that has been hampered due to a tight market. Of those new positions, about half have been filled and another five are expected to start soon, she said.
Lawmakers questioned whether the state had the resources to monitor the problem. Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, urged the state to develop a cost estimate of how much property owners might lose if land is found to have forever chemicals, noting it could be important for further litigation down the road.
Advocates have hit the Mills administration for not moving faster, with Defend Our Health, an advocacy group focused on the removal of chemicals from food, water and products, saying the state should have begun banning PFAS in food packaging sooner to help keep those chemicals out of landfill. A ban authorized by the Legislature now cannot go into effect before 2024. The state is also waiting for the federal government to adopt a standard for landfill discharge.
“We must find a way to hold polluters, the chemical manufacturers who hid the dangers of PFAS, accountable,” said Patrick MacRoy, the organization’s deputy director, in a statement.