AUGUSTA, Maine — A state fund aimed at helping Maine farmers test for “forever chemicals” will need $20 million more than it got last year, an official said Monday.
The $60 million fund was established last year by the Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills, following a similar but short-term emergency fund set up by two farming interest groups after major discoveries of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in agricultural land and water across the state that have triggered a major public health response.
Maine’s fund has not distributed any money yet as an advisory panel works to consider public feedback and plans to finalize a spending roadmap this summer. But the estimated need is roughly $80.5 million over five years, Beth Valentine, the fund’s administrator, told the Legislature’s environment committee on Monday.
The revised estimate shows the escalating nature of Maine’s PFAS crisis and a widespread need for help across the agriculture industry. During a legislative hearing earlier this year, speakers testified that at least 50 farms in Maine were struggling with contamination. Farmers are growing antsy for the fund to be implemented, one advocate said.
“A lot of farmers have expressed concerns about how this money was put into this fund last year and that, 12 months later… nothing has been distributed,” said Julie Ann Smith, the executive director of the Maine Farm Bureau Association.
The Legislature has enacted some of the strictest laws on the subject, including the nation’s first ban on wastewater sludge spreading that has been linked to the discoveries on farmland and another law aiming to phase out most products containing the chemicals by 2030.
There have been issues with the state response as well. Legislators may tweak a law that took effect this year requiring companies to report whether their products contain PFAS. Business groups have said they are currently impossible for many businesses to meet, and the Mills administration has been systematically granting extensions to businesses.
PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they accumulate in the environment and human bodies. The chemicals, which research has linked to health risks including liver disease in humans, have been widely used in nonstick coating for cookware, to protect carpeting and upholstery and waterproof clothing and in firefighting foam and food packaging.
The fund established last year has wide parameters. Among many other potential uses, the law directed the state to give Maine farmers money to pay for initial testing of the presence of “forever chemicals” on their properties and buy any contaminated properties from farmers at a “fair market” rate if they wish to sell.
The money could also be used to pay lost income for up to two years for farmers whose land and crops were harmed by PFAS contamination, provide loans and experts to help farmers transition to new forms of production and conduct blood testing for farmers, their workers and families as well as private well owners to see if they face elevated risks from exposure.
The fund would also cover the costs of “amplified monitoring” and medical treatment not covered by insurers for individuals whose blood levels for PFAS test at or above 20 nanograms per milliliter, Valentine, the administrator, said Monday.
The revised budget request of about $80.5 million over five years includes about $37.3 million in “direct financial support,” $25.2 million for land-related support, $10.8 million on research and $7.3 million for health treatment, testing and research, Valentine said Monday.
Mills did not include the money in her $900 million state budget proposal released earlier this month, meaning lawmakers will have to find the money in the last month of the legislative session if they are going to meet Valentine’s funding request.
An advisory committee along with various subcommittees made up of citizens, legislators and state government leaders have held 24 meetings since last year to gather public input, with an additional public meeting scheduled for June 12. The panel will meet in July to finalize a plan to start spending money under the fund.
“The actual need will become clearer as the process of implementing the PFAS fund gets underway later this summer,” Valentine said after the hearing.