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More farms contaminated by PFAS chemicals

Maine lawmakers may ban spreading wastewater sludge as fertilizer, the source of the toxic contamination.

UNITY, Maine — State lawmakers in Augusta are considering an outright ban on the spreading of sludge in Maine, because of contamination from toxic chemicals known as PFAS.

The chemicals were in leftover sludge from wastewater treatment plants. For decades that sludge was hauled to farms across the state and used as fertilizer. 

It's expected to take several years for regulators to test more than five hundred potential sites for so-called 'forever chemicals'. Meanwhile, some farmers are taking matters into their own hands.

Johanna Davis and Adam Nordell own the Songbird Organic Farm in Unity. But the couple has stopped sales and pulled products from customer shelves following the discovery of high levels of PFAS in their water, soil, produce, and in their blood.

"The water that we drink and irrigate our crops with is over 400 times Maine's safety threshold," Davis said.

The farm posted a statement about halting sales on its website last week. The source of the contamination is believed to be wastewater sludge spread on the farm's fields in the early 1990s. 

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, toxic chemicals have been linked in federal studies to health issues such as thyroid disease, liver problems, and organ cancers. 

Unity is one of 34 towns with 700 total sites identified by the Department of Environmental Protection as a top priority for PFAS testing. Instead of waiting for regulators, the couple, who have a 3-year-old, did their own testing to get answers.  

"Unfortunately we are not alone, there are going to be more farms and rural Mainers affected by this," Nordell said.

The couple testified in favor of LD 1911, a bill that would close loopholes that allow contaminated sludge to be applied to land, as long as the soil meets state screening standards. Members of the legislature's Environment and Natural Resources Committee are expected to vote soon on an amendment that outright bans the spreading of sludge. 

"We cannot in my view continue to spread contaminants on agricultural land and elsewhere. We need to stop it," Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford told the committee.

If approved, the amendment would also prohibit the sale or distribution of compost that contains sludge. According to the DEP, there are four wastewater treatment plants and 11 composting facilities licensed to handle the material. The committee is expected to take up the amendment next week.

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