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Toxic disaster of PFAS contamination a nightmare for Maine farmers

It's a crisis happening in real time that is threatening the livelihoods of dozens of Maine farms.

ARUNDEL, Maine — A toxic disaster centered on wastewater sludge, tainted with industrial compounds known as PFAS chemicals, is unfolding across Maine.

This sludge was marketed by the state government and was hauled to farms and used as free fertilizer for decades. 

Over the years, the chemicals in the sludge leached into the groundwater, poisoning it and hundreds of drinking water wells.  

Lawmakers in Augusta in the past several years have taken aggressive steps to address the contamination, including an outright ban on sludge spreading and the use and sale of sludge in compost and fertilizer.

State officials are scrambling to try to save farmers from financial ruin, as statewide testing is expected to reveal a much larger scale of contamination.   

Fred Stone and his wife Laura met showing farm animals at county fairs as high schoolers. 

The couple took over the historic Stoneridge farm in the mid-1970s, supplying several thousand gallons of milk weekly for Oakhurst Dairy.   

 "We thought we could rectify and salvage the operation, I mean our farm goes way back more than 100 years," Fred said. 

In November of 2016, high levels of forever chemicals were discovered in his cow's milk, in his soil, and in his drinking well.

Two-and-a-half years later, Fred spoke out publicly for the first time, telling NEWSCENTER how he was forced to pull thousands of gallons of milk from the shelves.

RELATED: Tainted milk threatens to shut down century-old dairy farm

"We dumped the milk. After that, it went down the drain," Fred said. 

The majority of the farm's Brown Swiss and Holstein cows also had to be put down. Despite buying clean cows and paying for testing and filtration systems, Stoneridge farm hasn't recovered from the financial and emotional blows. 

"We were spending hundreds of hundreds of thousands of dollars to no avail," Fred explained. 

Industrial chemicals, known as PFAS, were in municipal wastewater sludge, including industrial waste from paper mills.

Starting in the early 1980s, Fred and hundreds of other farmers were encouraged by the state to use the sludge as fertilizer in an effort to prevent it from ending up in landfills.   

"We helped the towns out, the towns helped us out," Stone added. 

Stone received licenses to spread sludge, issued by the Department of Environmental Protection, which states the leftover waste won't pollute water or cause a health hazard. 

PFAS chemicals don't break down in the environment or in the human body. Exposure has been linked to serious health problems, including organ cancers, thyroid disease, and decreased immunity.

State environmental officials have publicly stated they were unaware PFAS was in the sludge. Fred and his family meanwhile have high levels of chemicals in their blood. All have health issues doctors can't explain.

"I have full-blown Parkinson's, where I fall down a lot and have to take meds, but there is no family history," Stone said. 

The massive contamination in Arundel did eventually spur the passage of several laws dealing with PFAS, including mandatory testing for the chemicals in soil and drinking water at roughly 700 sites, spread with sludge. 

In rural Waldo County, 130 miles away, Scott McCormick recalls watching the demise of Fred's farm on our newscasts. 

"There is no way it's going to happen up here in Jackson, Maine, on a dead-end road," McCormick said. 

Ten years ago Scott bought 100 acres, with dreams of raising hay, produce, and livestock for his family and customers. 

He also discovered his fields had been treated with wastewater sludge for more than a decade. At that time, though, Scott wasn't worried because of the same promises DEP listed on the farm's sludge permit. 

"I thought it was safe," McCormick said. "It was old farm ground, and we are going to restore it."

But his family's world turned upside down in February, when their farm was identified as a "hot spot" for PFAS contamination. 

Rather than wait on state regulators, the couple tested their drinking water. The results showed PFAS chemicals nearly 50 times above Maine's safe limit. The couple, who have a 7-year-old daughter, had also just welcomed a baby girl. 

State medical officials said the chemicals could pass to the baby through breast milk, but Scott's wife was still encouraged to continue breastfeeding for the health benefits.

"She is breastfeeding. The baby is fine. We are fine. But we are still scared because no one knows at what level is something going to happen," McCormick said. 

Lawmakers are taking the first step in providing a safety net of tens of millions of dollars to address the crisis in real time. So far, testing has identified 10 farms with high levels of PFAS, but that process is expected to take years. 

"Even though $100 million seems like a lot of money, we don't totally know the scope of PFAS contamination yet and how many farms will be impacted," Amanda Beal, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, testified before lawmakers last month. 

Beal joined dozens of state officials and agricultural producers in support of legislation that would set up an advisory committee. 

The committee, made up of farmers, health, and environmental experts, would allocate funds for impacted farmers' health and business costs, buy or sell contaminated land, expanded PFAS testing, research, and long-term health monitoring.

Scott, meanwhile, is waiting for the results of blood tests he had to pay for, which could run more than $1,000. Samples from his livestock are safe, but additional testing of soil and hay, his primary crop will take place later this spring. 

If his fields are found to be contaminated, there are very limited options.      

"I am for solar panels and all that, but not looking out my front door. I didn't buy this for that," McCormick said. 

Even if the fund becomes law this session, that money won't be available to impacted farmers during this growing season, and a number of farmers are questioning whether it will be enough to salvage their operations. 

"This isn't my fault. I am not going to start over with my own money" McCormick added.

As for Fred, that help will be too little, too late. The third-generation farmer, who is surviving on government assistance and the generosity of others, is stuck with acres of contaminated land, no one will touch. No price tag is expected to make this farm and his family whole again, he said.

The state is also working on a short-term income replacement program for farmers with contaminated land, and farm advocacy groups are raising relief funds as well. 

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