Dairy cows rest outside the home of Fred and Laura Stone at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel, Maine, in this Aug. 15, 2019, file photo. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine regulators have identified 700 sites in three dozen towns that are at a higher risk of contamination from the “forever chemicals” found in consumer products and sludge spread on some Maine farms and linked to cancer and kidney disease.

The state may need to spend at least $20 million annually to remediate contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which are increasingly being found in land and water here, according to Maine Department of Environmental Protection estimates. That does not include business losses from tainted dairy, eggs, meat and other products.

The Bangor Daily News asked Nancy McBrady, director of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources, about what farmers can do to ensure land is safe and what to do if they find PFAS contamination on their land. The questions and answers are edited for clarity and brevity.

PFAS chemicals are widespread in Maine. How is the state working to assure a safe food supply?

Everything starts with data collection and information gathering. If historical records indicate that sludge may have been spread on the land, and the current owners are not the ones who spread the materials, then attempting to confirm with prior owners (or the licensed generator who provided the sludge) is an important first step. If that is unavailable, testing soils and groundwater in the location of the potential spreading comes next.

How are the tests done?

The DEP is currently investigating Tier 1 locations throughout the state, and will take on this testing effort. (Tier 1 sites are locations where 10,000 cubic yards or more of sludge was applied to the land and with homes within a half-mile. PFAS are deemed likely to be present because of known sources of wastewater at a specific treatment facility.)

However, if a person does not wish to wait, they can undergo testing on their own. Information on private sampling, available lab resources and interpreting lab results is available on the DACF and DEP websites. The DEP’s approach to investigating locations with potential sludge application is driven by the amount of sludge applied, proximity to homes and the known sources of wastewater at a treatment facility.

What happens if contamination is found?

If test results come back for drinking water above 20 parts per trillion for water, which is our state interim action level, these should be shared with the DEP so it can work with the landowner to install a filter on the well. If the water is also used for farming, crops and livestock, the information should also be shared with DACF so that we can begin investigating the products and feed at the farm. Gathering this data will help identify potential sources of contamination and be the basis for starting to consider mitigation strategies.

What can a farmer do to restore health to their land and animals?

It is possible to significantly reduce the presence of PFAS in dairy and beef animals with a diet of clean feed and water. We are now working side-by-side with the DEP as it tests Tier 1 locations, which will be farms of all types — produce, livestock and fodder. Where a farm is determined to have PFAS contamination, we then work with it to test its products, additional field soils, water sources and feed to determine and monitor levels of contamination. Our goal is to identify, then safely limit or eliminate the PFAS in impacted products.

The testing can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Who is paying for the tests?

DACF’s current budget allows the agency to pay for sampling efforts at these confirmed farms and indemnify the producer for the loss of the value of their crop or livestock. For dairy farms with milk contamination, the USDA’s Dairy Indemnification Payment Program may be an option to receive compensation for the loss of income due to stopping milk production. Our number one priority is helping these farms facing the devastation of PFAS contamination to find a viable path forward while providing financial assistance.

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Lori Valigra

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...