Kids fish off the dam holding back the Kennebec River in Skowhegan. The Kennebec River, which many residents get their drinking water from, was found to have PFAS chemicals at a level below the state's enforceable limit but above a federal advisory threshold. Credit: Erin Rhoda / BDN

Chemicals associated with serious illnesses have been discovered in the public drinking water systems of Skowhegan, Oakland and Fryeburg serving more than 4,500 households and businesses, in the latest development in what one expert called a “universal crisis.”

The public water supplies in Skowhegan and Oakland continue to deliver water to a combined 3,735 service connections — and many more individual people. That’s because the levels of so-called forever chemicals have not exceeded a temporary limit set by the Maine Legislature for PFAS in drinking water, according to Maine Water Company, the public water utility for those towns.

Maine Water announced the results on its website, and will include the findings in its annual reports. But it was not required to notify Skowhegan and Oakland customers directly because the levels didn’t exceed Maine’s current enforceable drinking water standard of 20 parts PFAS per trillion parts water, even though the federal government has cautioned that people could see negative health effects from even lower concentrations of some specific compounds.

In Skowhegan, PFAS were present at 2 parts per trillion. In Oakland the chemicals were detected at 7.63 parts per trillion. Both water supplies were tested April 7.

A well serving Fryeburg, where there are 839 service connections, was removed from operation June 1 because PFAS chemicals were discovered at a concentration higher than what Maine currently allows, Maine Water said. Fryeburg customers received a notice this week from the Fryeburg Water Company, which contracts with Maine Water for its services, informing them that the standard had been exceeded. PFAS levels were at 32.85 parts per trillion.

Downtown Skowhegan in summer. Credit: Erin Rhoda / BDN

PFAS, which stands for per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, have been detected in a growing number of private wells throughout Maine and have been linked to health problems such as kidney cancer and thyroid disease. But finding the chemicals in public drinking supplies will present new challenges that are only beginning to be understood.

The results in Skowhegan and Oakland are complicated by the fact that Maine’s drinking water standard may change. What’s more, the federal government has warned that people should avoid even lower, near-zero levels of some PFAS chemicals.

In 2021, Maine became one of only a dozen states to establish an enforceable drinking water standard for PFAS. A state law signed by Gov. Janet Mills required all public water systems and other types of facilities to sample for PFAS by the end of this year, as Maine Water did. It is therefore not yet known how much of the public drinking water across Maine is contaminated. Testing is ongoing, and many different utilities service Maine communities.

The Maine law set an interim standard of 20 parts per trillion for six different PFAS chemicals, alone or in combination, and it directed that a final rule on the standard be in place by June 1, 2024.

But on June 15, the federal government announced different and very low interim health advisory levels for four PFAS compounds that are not enforceable. For PFOA and PFOS chemicals in particular, “some negative health effects may occur at concentrations that are near zero and below our ability to detect at this time,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stated. It set the advisory level at 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS.

One of those compounds, PFOA, was discovered in both Skowhegan and Oakland’s public drinking water systems at levels that are higher than the unenforceable federal advisory and lower than the enforceable state limit.

In Skowhegan, the chemical detected at 2 parts per trillion was entirely PFOA. In Oakland the PFOA level was 4.21 parts per trillion, and a different chemical, PFHpA, made up 3.42 parts per trillion, according to Maine Water.

Manufacturers have used PFAS chemicals for decades in products ranging from non-stick cookware to waterproof clothing and shoes to food packaging.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has not yet instituted a legal threshold for the amount of contaminants that are allowed in public water systems under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention anticipates the federal agency will propose a maximum contaminant level for PFAS in the fall, with a final rule expected in the fall of 2023.

“We are waiting for EPA to fill in the details on what steps drinking water systems can take in response to the recently released levels,” said Robert Long, a spokesperson for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which houses the state drinking water program. That program “continues to help local systems meet requirements set by the Legislature and do whatever they can to limit PFAS exposure, as we all await new federal guidance.”

Long said that neither the federal government nor the state drinking water program has issued “do not drink” orders for systems with detected PFAS.

It is fair to assume that the PFAS standard in Maine could be lowered or changed in some other way, said Dan Meaney, a spokesperson for Maine Water. The utility owns or manages water systems across Maine that serve about 80,000 residents. He emphasized that the utility does not set water quality standards. It only follows them.

“We will take whatever steps are necessary to comply with the new standard,” he said. “We will invest as needed to make sure we’re in full compliance.”

The cost of future treatment for PFAS could be borne by consumers. Or, “If it were possible to identify the source of the contamination or a responsible party that avenue would be pursued,” Meaney said.

Even if PFAS levels didn’t exceed Maine’s standard, the water utility should have notified customers directly of the test results because people deserve to know what’s in their water and decide whether to drink it, said Tammy Steuber, 56, who has lived in Skowhegan nearly her entire life.


“It’s a big topic right now. People are very concerned about it,” she said. Not telling people directly and immediately is “not good business practice, it’s unprofessional, and it could be dangerous to some people’s health.”

The public water system in Skowhegan has 2,602 service connections, which means it provides water to many more people given that it serves entire homes, businesses and places like the municipal building. Christine Almand, the Skowhegan town manager, said the town hasn’t been in communication with Maine Water about the test results.

There are many questions to be answered, such as how the water came to be contaminated and what the long-term effects might be, said Amber Lambke, co-founder of Maine Grains in Skowhegan, which mills organic grains that are sold in specialty food stores and used by bakeries, breweries and restaurants throughout the Northeast. While Maine Water provides water to her building, Maine Grains does not use water in the milling process.

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“As a consumer, as a citizen that drinks public water in my home, it’s of concern to me for sure,” she said. “We need to know the effect of PFAS, so if we’re going to regulate their use we have data to go by. Hopefully we are headed to a place where the use of PFAS can be regulated.”

The public water supply in Skowhegan comes from Upper and Lower Ponds and the Kennebec River. Maine Water purchases water for its Oakland customers from the Kennebec Water District, which gets its water solely from China Lake.

After the federal government released its health advisory in June, Kennebec Water District staff began developing a plan to address its PFAS levels, which have ranged from 6 to 9 parts per trillion since 2019, according to its website. It intends to hire an engineering firm to evaluate treatment options, which may take “many months.” Implementing a solution will likely take two to three years.

Residents in Skowhegan get some of their drinking water from the Kennebec River, which is pictured here. The public water supply was found to have PFAS chemicals at a level below the state’s enforceable limit but above a federal advisory threshold. Credit: Erin Rhoda / BDN

“There are no immediate actions KWD can take to reduce the levels of PFAS in the drinking water,” it states.

While people will undoubtedly be concerned about results in individual communities, it’s important to remember that transparency about the presence of the chemicals is key to mitigating contamination, said Onur Apul, assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Maine.

“It’s such a universal crisis we’re dealing with. PFAS is everywhere,” he said. “The diagnosis is the most painful process. … Now we have to strategize and remediate safely and sustainably.”

His advice is for people to limit exposure to PFAS as much as possible. Bottled water is one option, though that can also contain PFAS. People can also install filters to remove contaminants.

Granular activated carbon filtration units are typically used for treating all of the water used in a home, while reverse osmosis filter systems can be used for treating water at a single location such as a kitchen sink.

Have you found PFAS in your well or learned about contamination in your public drinking water or school? Do you have information about how local manufacturers have used PFAS in their processes and products? Email Erin Rhoda at

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...