In this Aug. 15, 2019, file photo, dairy cows rest outside the home of Fred and Laura Stone at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel. The farm has been forced to shut down after sludge spread on the land was linked to high levels of PFAS in the milk. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

In 2016, testing at Fred Stone’s Maine dairy farm showed stratospherically high levels of certain chemicals used in manufacturing in his soil and water. The culprit was likely his use of biosolids as fertilizer, something that environmental protection officials had assured him for years was safe.

The chemicals they found were per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, common chemicals in manufacturing that have been strongly linked to health problems like liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancer.

Stone, like many other farmers in Maine, was told in the 1980s that he could use biosolids — or wastewater sludge — as a fertilizer on his farm. That was the likely source of the chemicals, also known as PFAS. Stone said that he even worked with sewer districts to spread the sludge on other farms, and still has letters from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection from that time ensuring the safety of the practice.

“There were never any infractions,” Stone said. “I never even got so much as a parking ticket. Everything was done by the book to the letter, no exceptions.”

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Even though Stone stopped using the sludge in the 2000s, the properties of PFAS mean that it still lingered. The chemicals, which are present in everything from outdoor gear to firefighting foam, were made to be exceptionally strong and resistant to oil and water, so they are difficult to get rid of — hence their nickname, “forever chemicals.”

Stone has tried to ameliorate the PFAS on his farm, but it was no use. Stone’s dairy operations have been suspended for years.

“The assistance to farmers to date has been lacking,” said Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of Defend Our Health, a nonprofit advocacy group working on issues of clean and safe food and drinking water in Portland. “The state pulled their dairy license and basically just said, ‘Good luck.’ There’s been very minimal help from anyone to help them figure out how they can survive.”

What’s more, the Stone family’s blood tested extremely high for PFAS as well, with Stone himself testing more than 20 times higher than the national average.

Stone has had to incur all of the costs for addressing this issue on his farm. He was denied federal aid designated for farmers who can’t sell their milk because of contamination.

“One of the challenges with PFAS chemicals is that there is no immediate, easy path to remediate the contamination, short of removing the contaminated soils,” said Sarah Simon, farmland access and farm viability director at Maine Farmland Trust. “Farmers are left with little recourse other than participating in the federal Dairy Indemnity Payment Program (DIPP). One challenge with the DIPP funds is that they require the farm to continue milking the cows while also testing the milk monthly, to the tune of $390 per milk test. This is a substantial cost for the farmer to bear, not to mention the labor and time that goes into milking cows only to dispose of the contaminated milk.”

He has been frustrated with the lack of financial support he has received at the state level as well.

“We always get the promise,” Stone said. “Talk’s cheap. It takes money to buy whiskey — or in our case, it takes money to buy feed.”

Despite Stone’s woes, officials say not to worry too much about your milk having PFAS. Nancy McBrady, director of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources said, that the department is conducting periodic sampling of the retail milk supply and “remains confident in its quality and safety.”

However, the impact of PFAS on Maine’s food system as a whole isn’t yet known. Andrew Smith, state toxicologist at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that PFAS “certainly has showed up in vegetables like leafy greens,” but the science isn’t solid yet on how different fruits and vegetables take up PFAS.

As far as experts can tell, it varies based on the type of plant and even its parts. For example, Smith said there is evidence that fruits take up less PFAS than their stalks, stems and leaves.

There are also concerns about the areas surrounding fields where biosolids were used as fertilizer. In 2020, when another farm in Fairfield was found to have high levels of PFAS, the drinking water in private wells in surrounding areas were also found to have high levels of PFAS.

“The state has been offering to install filtration systems for folks whose levels exceed the federal recommendation, but that obviously doesn’t address the fact that many of them have been drinking contaminated water for years or even decades,” MacRoy said. “Over half of Mainers get their water from a private residential well and those wells are unregulated. It’s up to residents to test their own water and make sure it’s safe, but unfortunately, those are the water supplies that we’re seeing contaminated from PFAS.”

The situations in Arundel and Fairfield are nightmare scenarios for PFAS, and while the Legislature hopes that they are unicorns, there are known to be about 700 sites in Maine where these same wastewater sludges were used — not to mention the surrounding areas where many Mainers live.

They have not been tested to date. But there is a bill before the Legislature, LD 1600, that would create the Land Application Contaminant Monitoring Fund to be used by the Department of Environmental Protection to test and monitor soil and groundwater for the chemicals. Another bill, LD 129, would set a limit on allowable PFAS contamination in the state’s waters.

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Yet another, LD 2160, relaxes the statute of limitations as to when farmers can pursue PFAS-related cases in court. Previously, it was limited to when the contamination occurred, but the new bill would allow farmers to go to court after contamination on their land is discovered.

“The one bill that was most important to us was the statute of limitations bill,” Stone said. “That lets you get into the courtroom.”

Stone worries that farmers will resist testing for fear that they will end up like him. His concerns, so far, have played out on the State House floor.

“If you look at the testimony of people that presented at LD 1600, the dairy farmers testified against it,” said Sharon Treat, senior attorney at the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy. “They’re not a hundred percent on board, but it’s understandable. But on the other hand if we don’t put a stop to this and clean it up it’s only going to get much worse.”

Still, despite the financial ruin it has caused him, Stone thinks that the issue of addressing PFAS in farm soils is an ethical one — and one that the state should be more prepared to support.

“We were taught that you do not sell any type of contaminated food to the general public,” Stone said. “I have had people in our industry say, “Freddy, all you had to do was say nothing. You don’t have to eat the meat, you don’t have to drink the milk.” I said, ‘I can’t do that.’”