Gov. Mills seeks more federal support, action on 'forever chemicals'

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Kevin Miller, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·3 min read
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Mar. 31—Gov. Janet Mills is asking Maine's congressional delegation for help securing federal funding to address PFAS contamination in the state and urging federal regulators to take swifter actions to deal with the "forever chemicals."

In a letter to the state's four members of Congress, Mills outlined some of the steps her administration is taking to detect and address contamination from a class of widely used chemicals at the center of growing health concerns. Those efforts include testing water, milk and meat samples as well as treated sewage for the chemicals.

But Mills said Maine and other states need more federal help — both financial and regulatory — in responding to pollution for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Additional federal money would also enable Maine to expand testing, install treatment systems on polluted water sources and provide direct financial support to impacted farms.

"Our agencies are currently hard at work responding to the emerging threat of PFAS," Mills wrote. "However, with an infusion of federal funds, Maine could more broadly and aggressively undertake these critically needed actions. Of course, PFAS contamination is not a Maine problem; it is a national problem that ultimately requires a federal response. In addition to supporting our state-led efforts, we encourage the federal government to act quickly and decisively in its own right."

All four members of Maine's delegation — Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden — have been actively involved in pushing PFAS issues in Congress, and Mills thanked the lawmakers for their "ongoing advocacy."

Dubbed "forever chemicals" because of their persistence in the environment and the body, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances have been used for decades in countless consumer products as well as firefighting foams. Their unique chemical structures create the nonstick surfaces on cookware, make fabrics stain- or water-resistant and help keep grease from seeping through food packaging.

But some of the compounds have been linked to a host of health problems, including cancer, kidney problems, reproductive dysfunction, immune suppression, high cholesterol and low birth weight. Two of the best-studied compounds, PFOA and PFOS, can no longer be used in manufacturing in the U.S. Yet critics contend that thousands of other varieties are little understood and could also pose health risks.

While PFAS hotspots are popping up across the country, particularly near military bases and industrial sites, Maine has been a focal point for concerns about PFAS contamination tied to agriculture.

A dairy farm in the York County town of Arundel was among the first nationwide to link contamination to sludge or papermill waste spread as fertilizer. And more recently, some of the highest levels of PFAS ever found in milk samples — up to 150 times above the state's health limit — came from a Fairfield dairy farm. At least 45 private drinking water wells located near the Fairfield farm have also been found to have levels above the federal advisory limit for certain types of PFAS, with some registering more than 350 times higher than the limit.

In addition to asking the delegation for continued support securing federal funding, Mills also urged Congress, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal regulators to take more decisive action on PFAS. The governor called for, among other things, adding PFAS to federal lists of hazardous substances, setting maximum contaminant levels in drinking water and investing in research to study how the chemicals are taken up by plants and animals in agricultural settings.

"Maine is currently on the front edge of PFAS discovery and response, and by having the resources and support in the form of Federal leadership as we navigate this incredibly complex and devastating issue, it will ultimately benefit other states as they begin to grapple with the impacts of PFAS contamination," Mills wrote.

More than a half-dozen bills dealing with PFAS are currently pending in the Maine Legislature, several of which emerged from recommendations by a PFAS Task Force that spent nearly a year examining the issue.