Jun. 20—AUBURN — For Roger Gauthier, it is already hard enough to be a farmer in 2022.
But this spring, after his land in Auburn was included on a list of sites where sewage sludge had been spread as fertilizer, he lost a number of customers who used to buy his hay.
Gauthier's property at 276 Penley Corner Road was owned by the Lewiston-Auburn Water Pollution Control Authority, which held a land application license for sludge, or biosolids — the solid byproduct from municipal wastewater treatment. Sludge used as fertilizer can sometimes carry worrying amounts of PFAS compounds.
Gauthier said concern about his product is unwarranted. He leased and farmed the properties at 276 and 317 Penley Corner Road for years, but said the acres he recently bought from LAWPCA and uses for haying are separate from where sludge had been spread.
He also said soil tests in 2019 and 2020 showed the land in question was either at or below state screening standards. He also said tests of his well water have come back negative.
"It's cost me thousands of dollars," Gauthier said, referring to people associating his land with PFAS contamination.
The presence of PFAS compounds, also known as "forever chemicals," in soil and water near Maine farms has become a crisis after high-profile discoveries at farms and wells in Arundel and Fairfield, which eventually led to several pieces of legislation to address it.
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been used for decades in a vast array of consumer goods, including nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpeting and fabrics, waterproof clothing and grease-resistant food packaging, but have been linked to a host of health problems, including cancer, kidney malfunction and immune system suppression.
In April, the Maine Legislature passed LD 1911, which banned the use of sludge as fertilizer unless it is free from PFAS compounds, all but eliminating the practice.
Leading up to LD 1911, the state had already passed bills that lowered the legal limit for PFAS in drinking water, and required the Maine DEP to test every site where sludge has been spread.
As part of LD 1911, passed this year, the state screening standards must also be updated by 2023, likely making the threshold much lower.
The state DEP has since prioritized the sites into four tiers to designate a schedule for testing. Sites identified in Tier I are those where at least 10,000 cubic yards of sludge had been applied to fields within a half-mile of homes. A landfill in Lewiston is listed among the Tier I sites, but according to state officials, the farms on Penley Corner Road are considered Tier II.
David Madore, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said testing has not yet been conducted.
According to the Portland Press Herald, the state is experiencing slow turnaround times for testing. It relies on a single lab in Massachusetts to handle the bulk of its testing for hundreds of farms.
"These sites have been prioritized as Tier II, and staff hope to begin sampling in the area in near future," Madore said. "In 2019 and 2020, DEP conducted a limited investigation that included some soil sampling to the south of the LAWPCA compost facility on property still owned by LAWPCA."
That testing, which met the screening standards, was required for LAWPCA to gain approval to resume land application operations, Madore said.
For now, farmers who have played by the rules, such as Gauthier, are stuck in a difficult waiting period. Gauthier said PFAS compounds, still used in some packaging and other items, are likely much more prevalent during a trip to Walmart or fast food chains than in the hay from his fields.
Many states, including Maine, have passed legislation to prohibit or phase out the use of PFAS compounds in food packaging.
"Everybody picks on the farmers," he said. "There aren't many left."
The PFAS issue is likely to get more complicated. Earlier this month, an updated federal advisory on drinking water said even trace amounts of the most-researched PFAS compounds — PFOA and PFOS — can pose significant health risks.