ARUNDEL, Maine — Fred Stone wants you to know he is not an activist. Forever chemicals have wreaked havoc on his life. He just wants to pay his debts.
The third-generation farmer from the York County town of Arundel became a national figure in 2019, when he publicized that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, had been discovered at extraordinarily high levels in soil and in the milk of his dairy herd at Stoneridge Farm in 2016 from nearly 20 years of sludge spreading.
He spent more than two years before that trying to bring levels down. The discovery of PFAS in his feed source halted an expensive quest to save his farm. He now lives on welfare with help from friends and family. He keeps a small herd of lineage show cows after having to euthanize a contaminated herd.
“Our only way of being made whole, if that’s even possible, is if the state provides relief,” he said. “Because they are the only ones with the means to do it.”
Stone was patient zero in Maine’s fight against chemicals linked to cancer and other health problems. A closer look at Maine’s handling of his case shows how officials struggled to identify the scope of the problem at Stone’s farm and beyond, interviews and documents show. They barred him from selling milk and made him pay for testing while insisting his case was a rarity.
It was not. Maine has since taken some of the world’s strongest actions against the chemicals and has begun an aggressive testing effort first focusing on 34 cities and towns where the most wastewater or paper company sludge has been spread on land. Discoveries threaten many traditional aspects of Maine life, from farming to hunting and freshwater fishing.
In defending the Stone investigation, the state points to lack of action on the federal level, limited resources to explore contamination and new understanding of the levels at which PFAS can be harmful. Those factors slowed its response in a way it is still recovering from.
“He has been tenacious, and I think in no small part, we’re here because of Stone farm and I wouldn’t wish this on anybody,” Nancy McBrady, director of the Maine Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources, said of Stone. “But I do think that if he were to be found today, we would be in a different position to offer more sound and robust support.”
Finding the source
Knowledge of Stone’s problems began at the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District in April 2016, when officials participated in a federal testing program looking for contaminants that might be regulated in the future. They were not required to test for PFAS yet, and the 50 parts per trillion of PFAS detected in the water was well below federal guidelines set at 200 parts per trillion.
But when those guidelines were revised sharply downward to 70 parts per trillion a month later, Norm Labbe, the former superintendent of the district, decided it was too risky to not explore the issue further. The water district informed Stone in November 2016 the contamination appeared to come from a well located on his farm.
By February 2017, the Kennebunk River well was shut down as a precaution. Labbe hesitated to go public, not wanting to undermine state agencies he worked closely with. The DEP said its initial studies of PFAS at Stoneridge were preliminary and wanted to do more research before they were publicized. But district leaders were getting uncomfortable waiting for the state to act.
“I wanted to announce immediately to my customers what the issue was and why we had chosen to shut the well down,” he said.
It was not until 2018 that the water district said its PFAS levels were linked to Stone’s farm. Labbe said it seemed obvious to him the discovery would not be the last one in Maine.
But he did not regret waiting for the state to finish its work before speaking out. Maine was doing its best to understand the problem, he argued, and it would have been unfair to the state to publicize the issue before it was done studying it.
“[Waiting] six months to a year to speak out isn’t going to make much of a difference when some of this sludge has been spread around for 30 years,” he said.
‘The whole picture’
While the water district was waiting for state action, Fred Stone was fighting to save his farm.
Sludge spreading began in the 1970s and 1980s. Widely pitched across the country as a cost-effective way to improve soil fertility, it also served to get rid of a waste product for local sewage treatment plants and paper companies happy to deliver it to local farmers.
He began spreading sludge on his land in 1983 from three different providers: the paper mill in Westbrook and sewer districts in Kennebunk and Ogunquit under a state-sponsored program that linked farms with sludge providers. Stone stopped spreading it in 2004.
After the water district notification in November 2016, Stone met with his lawyer and veterinarian to discuss options. Maine was not requiring dairy farmers to test for PFAS in milk and still does not. The state periodically tests retail milk for the chemicals. But Stone said he felt obligated to flag the issue for the state and his purchaser, Oakhurst, within days of the notice. Oakhurst suspended its purchasing contract with the farm a month later, according to emails.
There was a sense of urgency early in the state investigation that Stone’s action invited. A late-November email from Rachael Fiske, the state veterinarian, advised a dairy inspector that Stone should take a free well test to hasten the process, a hint at his struggles to come.
“If he does not, I believe the DEP will force him to test and that will most likely drag all of this out even more, possibly to the detriment of his business,” Fiske wrote.
There was no federal recommendation on how much PFAS should be allowed in milk, so Maine had to make its own. It settled on 210 parts per trillion, a standard State Toxicologist Andy Smith noted in a March 2017 memo was not legally enforceable. Maine used it to suspend Stoneridge’s milk-selling permit that April. It would not be restored until the milk tested under those levels. To get there, Stone would have to pay for monthly tests costing up to $500.
At the same time, officials prohibited him from selling feed or compost in case it was contaminated. They later forbade him from showing his animals unless their milk was clean and no PFAS was detected in manure, cutting the farm off from revenue sources. While it received payments from a federal dairy indemnity program, checks were often late, emails show.
Clockwise from left: Fred Stone carries milking equipment into the milking parlor on his farm in Arundel on Friday, April 15, 2022; Milk pours into a bucket on Stone’s dairy farm. Stone can no longer sell the milk his cows produce because of high levels of PFAS on his land; A cow chews its cud on the farm. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Stone complied and kept quiet. He worried about his farm’s future and protecting Oakhurst from the reputation of having unsafe milk. He dumped hundreds of gallons per day. He also invested in a $22,000 filtration system.
Officials privately doubted that would help, according to a 2017 email between Smith and Fiske. Smith said that Stone’s hay was likely a major source of exposure. If he chose to grow hay on his farm next year, it would counteract any benefits of the new system.
“I hope he is thinking through the whole picture here before spending $20k,” he wrote.
That was not the only doubt they had. Officials also questioned whether manure or fertilizers spread in years when sludge was not could have contributed to Stoneridge’s PFAS levels, said David Madore, the department’s spokesperson. But since manure spreading is common, it would make it difficult to determine whether most contamination came from that or sludge.
Even as Stone’s situation was about to come to light, officials believed his was unique. Kerri Malinowski, who leads the DEP’s safer chemicals division, defended that reasoning by pointing to Maine’s agricultural department finding no trace of PFAS in other milk samples and her agency finding no other farms that spread sludge from the same sources in a March 2019 email to a reporter.
“Ultimately, I think it maybe led us to draw the conclusion that maybe this wasn’t widespread, per se, but a unique situation,” he said. “Obviously, as time went on, we realized that was not the case.”
But Stone said the state never raised the concern about fertilizer to him. He called it “ignorant,” saying he had not spread any for 15 years before the PFAS discovery.
Stoneridge Farm’s milk finally showed non-detectable levels of PFAS in August 2018. It was short-lived. In January 2019, it tested at 187 parts per trillion. He believes it was because of new feed he had purchased, but he was never able to prove it. At that level, Oakhurst refused to purchase more milk, and Stone did not feel comfortable trying to sell milk with any level of contaminants. His lenders backed out.
The exhausted Stone went public in March 2019. Altogether, he estimates he lost nearly $440,000 due to PFAS. That omits the devaluation of his property and the contaminated cows he had to kill when he could no longer afford to keep them.
To kill the cows, many of whom Stone knew by face and name, was an action that was unthinkable at the beginning of the ordeal, Stone said. By the end, it was a cold calculation he had to make.
“You can’t feed 150-some odd animals just for laughs and giggles,” he said.
Going it alone
Maine was in a difficult position during the Stoneridge investigation.
Activists had been questioning sludge spreading since the 1980s, but the dangers of PFAS were not well-known until 1998, when a study of chemicals in 3M products suggested they lingered in human blood and caused long-term health risks. More recently, the federal government has been remediating military sites where PFAS contamination was linked to firefighting foam. PFAS has been discovered at the former Air Force base in Limestone.
Despite knowing that the chemicals are harmful for years, federal regulators have been slow to address them with plans to regulate them in drinking water are still pending. The country is still only beginning to scratch the surface of how widespread PFAS contamination is.
“Maine has had to go it alone,” said Sharon Treat, a lawyer with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a former Democratic state lawmaker from Hallowell.
The scope of the Stone investigation was staggering, said Madore, the DEP spokesperson. The state had to determine a boundary, whether contamination was spreading and what could be causing ongoing exposure. After the state took its last ground and water samples, it took months to study them to understand what they meant. To repeat that at multiple farms without proof of risk would have taxed state’s resources, he said.
“So we scrambled to find and identify funding to be able to start this as quickly as we could until we could stand something up or ask for additional funding,” Madore said.
The state has been more aggressive since Gov. Janet Mills took office in 2019. DEP is now required to test land where sludge or septage was spread for PFAS. The Legislature approved a phase-out of the chemicals in most products by 2030, the first such action in the world.
Maine has also lowered the acceptable levels of PFAS in drinking water to 20 parts per trillion, although the milk standard has not changed. Lawmakers are on track to ban sludge spreading on farmland this year, phase out pesticides with the chemicals in them and pass a $60 million relief fund for farmers.
Stone says these are welcome but late changes. The remnants of his herd lie interred in a southwest corner of his pasture. The mounds are overgrown with long grass. For him, they are grim reminders. They would be unremarkable to someone passing by.
The farmer is a major reason for Maine’s policy changes, but they are too late to save his farm. He feels like he is the only one who paid a price.
“I would have preferred to have been stupid,” Stone said.