Maine legislators order wastewater plants to test for PFAS in biosolids

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Graphic Credit: United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Municipal wastewater treatment facilities in the U.S. state of Maine are under pressure to meet a May 7 deadline that forces them to test for the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in sludge used as fertilizer.

The March 22 announcement creates what Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection calls an “aggressive schedule” regarding the testing. By April 12, operators must file plans for testing the sludge or biosolids. The announcement follows the Governor’s move earlier in March to mobilize state agencies and other stakeholders to review the prevalence of PFAS in Maine and put forward a plan to address it.

The tests must prove that the sludge is below PFAS regulatory levels before it can be applied as a fertilizer.

PFAS, commonly used in everything from Teflon cookware to microwave popcorn bags, stain-resistant carpets and firefighting foam, have been linked to cancer, thyroid disruption, low birth weights, higher cholesterol.

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There are currently 41 facilities licensed in Maine for “agronomic utilization” of sludge, as well as more than 60 sites licensed for land application of biosolids.

“The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is committed to addressing the issue of PFAS contamination in Maine and has been working to proactively identify areas of potential concern,” said Jerry Reid, Maine Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner, in a statement. “The Department is moving forward with the additional testing requirement to ensure that any future land applications of sludge are safe,” he added.

Public perception around PFAS recently reached new heights in Maine following the widely-publicized story of farmer Fred Stone, who claimed he couldn’t sell milk from his herd because of exposure to PFAS found in the sludge he spread on his fields for decades. Stone says he blames the state for encouraging the use of biosolids since the 1980s without fully acknowledging the potential health risks to humans and animals.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) currently sets a PFAS health advisory (EPA health advisories are non-enforceable and non-regulatory) for water at 70 parts per trillion. While there is no federal standard for milk, Stone’s dairy herd had PFAS levels in milk that were seven times higher than the water standard.

“I want the state of Maine to make sure that no other farming families have to go through what’s happening to us,” Stone said during a recent press conference at his farm, where he acknowledged chemical contamination of his fields and cows. “Believe me, I would not wish this on my worst enemies.”

Maine had prioritized PFAS testing in public drinking water supplies in recent years, but is now moving the focus to sludge applications for land.

In February 2019, the USEPA announced it will start work by year’s end on developing health standards for PFAS in drinking water supplies.

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