The University of Maine could get federal funds for a new PFAS lab.
In this April 15, 2022, file photo, dairy farmer Fred Stone talks to a cow named Blue in his milking parlor in Arundel. Stone was forced to slaughter most of his herd after finding high levels of PFAS "forever" chemicals on his land in 2016. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The University of Maine could become a leader in understanding “forever chemicals” and become a key part of the state response to the hazards PFAS have created in soils and waters across the state.

In combined requests from U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, the University of Maine could get $8 million and $10 million in the next round of federal earmarks to establish a research center, a laboratory and research funding, all centering around per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

PFAS have been detected in a growing number of private wells, public water supplies and farm fields throughout Maine and have been linked to health problems such as kidney cancer and thyroid disease.

If the projects secure funding, the university system could lead the way when it comes to understanding how these chemicals work and minimizing their negative effects on humans and the environment, said Hannah Carter, dean of UMaine’s Cooperative Extension.

“Maine, whether we want to be or not, is going to be a leader in PFAS research,” she said. “Maine is really right now at the forefront. Certainly, other states have PFAS issues, but nothing like what we are dealing with here in the state of Maine.”

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Much of the money would go toward equipment needed to test PFAS and setting up lab spaces to allow research on water, fish, soil and more while avoiding cross-contamination, Carter said.

The University of Maine and the system have several research projects around PFAS and have a workgroup of interdisciplinary researchers on the subject. The congressional funds would bring those resources together, Carter said.

“What we want to do is have the testing capabilities here on campus. So our researchers can do the water testing, they can do tissue testing, they can do soil testing for their research projects that are PFAS related,” she said.

Other laboratories in the state conduct PFAS testing and research. UMaine researchers have to use those facilities if they want things tested, further burdening the limited capabilities the state has, Carter said. Having another laboratory at UMaine would lessen the load.

Additionally, there is not a lot of definitive research available on the specific health risks of PFAS or the way it settles in water, soil and air. That is a problem this new center could help with, Carter said.

“There’s just so much research that needs to be done,” she said. “And the good news on that front is that we have the researchers here on campus that have the background and have the interests to do this research that desperately needs to be done.”

The new research center also would be another chance for the state and the University of Maine System to partner together to better Maine, she said.

This is the second consecutive year that members of Congress have been able to submit requests for earmarks — or congressionally directed spending — for projects. Not all requests will get money in the final bill, but more than 100 Maine projects were funded last year.

For this year’s round of spending, Maine’s congressional delegation has submitted roughly 500 earmark requests that total more than $900 million. Last year, Maine secured about $200 million in funding for more than 120 projects.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of money the University of Maine could receive for a PFAS lab. The University of Maine could receive between $8 million and $10 million between combined requests from Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King.

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...