The inside of the Skowhegan Sappi mill is pictured in this February 2017 file photo. Credit: Courtesy of Sappi

In Maine, five companies are responsible for releasing the most toxic chemicals in 2021 and for emitting some pollutants known to cause cancer, based on a recent report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Five companies — four paper mills and one food processor — produce 92 percent of the toxic chemical releases in Maine: Sappi North America’s Skowhegan mill, McCain Foods USA in Easton, ND Paper’s Rumford mill, ND Paper’s Old Town mill and Woodland Pulp in Baileyville, according to the federal report published March 16.

The Bangor Daily News contacted each company for an interview. Only Woodland Pulp responded. ND Paper’s Old Town mill announced Tuesday it would be shutting down in mid-April for an “extended” period.

Maine has seen an overall reduction in the total amount of toxic chemicals being released over the past decade, largely due to a loss of paper mills. In 2021, 79 Maine facilities reported releasing 7.4 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, water and onto land, according to the federal report. This is a 4.5 million pound decrease from the state’s largest recorded release of chemicals over the past decade, in 2017, at 11.9 million pounds.

Of the total chemicals released in 2021, 39 percent went into the air, 30 percent into water, 17 percent offsite and 13 percent onto land. However, Maine ranks low, at 47 out of 56 states and territories in the United States, for total chemical releases per square mile.

No facilities reported the discharge of PFAS — or, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances — as waste, which have been found in Maine wastewater, drinking water, soil, landfill leachate, animal tissue and human blood.

The lack of reporting, however, does not mean companies did not release PFAS because a loophole allows them to not report when the chemicals made up a small percentage of a mixture. What’s more, the EPA requires only some of these compounds to be reported.

maine pfas pollution data

One of the companies, Woodland Pulp, will be submitting a correction to the federal government. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection notified the company of a discrepancy it found in its reported data.

The company expects a reduction of approximately 400,000 pounds, which could bring the facility’s toxic chemical releases down to approximately 600,000 pounds, said Scott Beal, the mill’s environmental and security manager.

“Most of these emissions are tied to our overall production rate, and if that goes up then our emissions go up, too,” he said. “But we look to maintain compliance everyday and to minimize our environmental footprint.”

Since the other companies did not respond, it is unclear what processes led to the emission of certain chemicals and whether they aim to reduce their toxic chemical releases.

The top three pollutants released in the air in 2021 were hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and methanol. Seventy-nine percent of the chemicals released into water were nitrate compounds.

Toxicity depends on a combination of how long people or other living organisms are exposed to a chemical and how much, said Jean MacRae, a professor at the University of Maine who specializes in water pollution.

Hydrogen sulfide is a stinky gas commonly released from paper mills.

“People shouldn’t be breathing it because in high concentrations it can be lethal, but on low levels it’s mostly just a nuisance because it gives a rotten egg smell,” MacRae said.

High exposure to the gas, which was the largest single chemical to be released, can cause eye and respiratory irritation, apnea, coma, convulsions, dizziness, headaches and weakness, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Workers are most likely to be harmed from exposure to the gas, depending on the amount and duration of exposure.

Ammonia, which was the second most common pollutant to be released in Maine, causes algae to grow and consumes oxygen when it is dissolved in water, MacRae said. It can be toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms. In the air, ammonia in high concentrations can lead to respiratory distress or failure, according to the U.S. CDC.

Methanol, the third most prevalent pollutant, can also depress oxygen concentrations in water, leading to the suffocation of fish and other aquatic animals, MacRae said. Human exposure to methanol in the air, depending on duration and concentration, can lead to blurred vision, headaches, dizziness and nausea.

In addition, the top five emitters in Maine released cancer-causing chemicals, according to the EPA.

Sappi, which released the most chemicals into the environment out of any company in Maine, released six carcinogens: polycyclic aromatic compounds, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, dioxins, catechol and nickel compounds. McCain Foods released one carcinogen; ND Paper in Rumford released four; Woodland Pulp released five; and ND Paper in Old Town released four cancer-causing chemicals including lead.

Children are most at risk from lead, which can stunt their growth and cause behavioral and learning problems.

Three of the companies — Sappi, Woodland Pulp and ND Paper in Rumford — released the cancer-causing group of chemicals called dioxins. Dioxins belong to the so-called dirty dozen group of dangerous chemicals and have been found in high levels in Maine fish and shellfish. The chemicals are a byproduct of the chlorine bleaching of paper pulp.

Long-term exposure to high levels of dioxins can affect the endocrine system, disrupting hormone signaling, and leading to infertility and miscarriage.

“I think we should continue to keep an eye on the companies that are releasing toxic chemicals, particularly dioxins,” MacRae said.

The Toxics Release Inventory reports on 787 chemicals from more than 21,000 facilities across the country that cause cancer or other chronic illnesses, adverse human health effects and environmental effects.

Mainers can use the EPA’s “where you live” tool to see levels of pollution in specific areas, such as their town or city.

Mehr Sher is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.

Mehr Sher reports on the Maine environment. She is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for her reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.