Read the full article by Penelope Overton (Press Herald)
“The state has finalized a plan on how to spend $70 million in relief funds for Maine farmers whose lives have been upended by toxic chemicals left behind by a now-defunct state-approved sludge spreading program.
The budget – $60 million in state funds and $10 million in likely federal funds – will be split into pieces with $30.3 million in grants to get farmers back on their feet, $21.5 million in compensation for contaminated land, $7.3 million for medical needs, and $11.2 million for scientific research.
Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Amanda Beal touted the plan as a first-in-the-nation technical and financial assistance program to help farmers navigate the uncertainties of forever chemical contamination.
‘Our work in this area has been groundbreaking and it continues to grow as we gain more experience and understanding,’ Beal said. ‘DACF is dedicated to helping farmers through this uncharted territory, with the overarching goals of protecting human health and maintaining farm viability.’
Former organic vegetable farmer Adam Nordell, of Unity, said the final plan, which was approved by an advisory committee Monday, will help Maine farmers like him. He and his partner closed their farm, Songbird, last year after he discovered forever chemicals in his water, soil and blood.
‘This is a big win for Maine’s PFAS-exposed communities,’ said Nordell, who now works on forever chemical issues for Maine’s Defend Our Health. ‘Maine is essentially offering a safe and viable way forward for impacted farmers, which is critical in our efforts to clean up the food system.’
People eligible for fund assistance will include those who live and work on contaminated farmland where sludge from wastewater treatment plants was spread as fertilizer as part of a state-approved recycling program dating to the 1970s.
Neighbors whose residential wells test above the state limit for certain perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, also can receive assistance from the fund. PFAS are a large group of synthetic, potentially harmful chemicals used in household products and industry.
PFAS are called forever chemicals because some don’t degrade naturally and linger indefinitely in the environment. Developed in the 1930s, PFAS entered the market in the 1950s as coatings to protect goods from stains, water and corrosion. They also are found in many firefighting foams.
Songbird Farm is one of at least 49 Maine farms contaminated by PFAS-tainted sludge.
The state is investigating about 1,100 sites where state records show sludge spreading was permitted. So far, the results aren’t great: 23% of wells exceeded the state’s interim drinking water standard and 39 farms exceeded the state’s soil threshold for growing hay.
The PFAS relief plan calls on the state to explore options to provide lifetime medical care to those who have elevated PFAS levels in their blood – 20 nanograms per milliliter or more – because of sludge-related exposure and who suffer PFAS-related conditions.
One nanogram per milliliter equals one part per billion, which is equivalent to about one drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The blood of Nordell, the Unity farmer, has about 3,500 nanograms per milliliter of PFAS. His family tested at similar levels.
‘I’m so pleased that the state is taking responsibility for the health effects of PFAS exposure and is offering health services, not just to the farmers, but to everyone who has been exposed to the chemicals near a sludge spreading site,’ Nordell said.
PAYING FOR HEALTH COSTS
Certain medical conditions, like kidney, breast and testicular cancer, liver and thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and ulcerative colitis, are more likely to develop in persons exposed to PFAS than in the general population. This list is expected to grow as scientists learn more.
To pay for the health costs, the plan recommends the state consider providing affected people with lifetime access to MaineCare, enrolling them in the state employees’ health plan, or setting aside money from any settlements from the state’s April 2023 lawsuit against PFAS manufacturers.
The plan also calls for the development of a clinical trial to study ways to rid the body of PFAS, including investigation of the effectiveness of serial blood and plasma donations, plasma replacement and cholestyramine, a medication believed to accelerate the excretion of PFAS.
A Maine study could build upon the limited body of previously reported findings because it would diversify participant gender and age, and would enroll participants with much higher levels of overall PFAS burdens and different concentrations of individual PFAS chemicals.
Most importantly, a clinical trial would offer impacted farmers a way to possibly reduce their overall PFAS body burden. Plan writers say that there is a high level of interest among Maine farmers and their families in participating in such a clinical trial.
But mounting a randomized, controlled medical trial isn’t easy, cheap or quick, plan writers warned.
It would probably take about a year and $200,000 to hire a contractor to develop and run the trial. A study looking only at PFAS reduction would take two years and cost $500,000. A more valuable study of health outcomes would take three to five years and cost $4 million, they said.
‘This is critically important progress in the fight against PFAS in Maine,’ Nordell said.”