In this Aug. 15, 2019, file photo, dairy cows stand in the milking chamber 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

AUGUSTA, Maine — A $100 million fund to clean up agricultural land contaminated by so-called forever chemicals and address health effects advanced in the Maine Legislature on Thursday in a major step toward a big financial response to the emerging crisis.

An amended version of a bill from Sen. James Dill, D-Old Town, would establish an expansive pool of money meant to help both commercial farms which have been hurt by the discovery of per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals — or PFAS — in land or products, providing mitigation equipment and financial aid for people whose health has been affected.

Other uses could include funding education for farmers, research on PFAS exposure and establishing good safety criteria for food products. An advisory committee would be developed to make recommendations on how the money should be used by 2023.

The unanimous vote of the Legislature’s agriculture panel sends a strong message to Gov. Janet Mills to increase state investment in fighting forever chemicals, nicknamed because of how long they linger in humans, land and water. They have been found in groundwater, livestock and produce and are used in everything from nonstick pans to food packaging.

The Democratic governor’s administration has supported the fund, indicating there may be money coming when Mills unveils a revised version of her $1 billion surplus spending plan. Lindsay Crete, the governor’s spokesperson said Mills is “strongly” considering adding the one-time funding into her budget while seeking federal funds to support long-term efforts.

That change could come as soon as Friday. Mills has dedicated $9 million more for the issue in her plan to date, although state officials has said up to $20 million per year may be needed to fight contamination. 

Lawmakers on the agriculture committee sought to move quickly, voting later to incorporate the bill’s funding into their budget recommendation. But they also debated how to use the fund for people with health care needs and how expansive the bill should be, with some noting the growing scale of the problem could test its limits.

The state’s agricultural department suggested language that should be developed around PFAS-related health problems, provided that insurance does not cover it and it can be determined exposure to the chemicals contributed to the problem.

But Rep. William Pluecker, I-Warren, was wary of putting too many guardrails on the issue, saying it could cause additional suffering for farmers. He specifically referenced Songbird Farm in Unity, which pulled products after PFAS was discovered in them. The committee agreed to broad language saying aid would cover negative health effects associated with PFAS.

“I just don’t want to put them in that position of having to go and make a case in public about how once again, they have been hurt by the contamination,” Pluecker said of farmers.

Sen. Russell Black, R-Wilton, encouraged the committee to leave the work of developing the more stringent guidelines to the panel charged with creating them. He noted the state is still learning how widespread the PFAS contamination is and how it affects people, but worrying about that could get in the way of getting relief to people quicker.

“We don’t know how many neighbors’ wells are going to be polluted,” said Black, a farmer. “We don’t know how many commercial and hobby farmers are going to be affected.”