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  • Bangor Daily News

    Living with contaminated water in a small Maine town

    By Lori Valigra,

    25 days ago

    FAIRFIELD, Maine — Lawrence Higgins drummed his fingers on the plastic-coated kitchen tablecloth, then flipped through a stack of test results revealing high levels of “forever chemicals” that have poisoned his well water, soil and chicken eggs.

    On this sunny morning in mid-April, he recalled the day when the first hint of trouble arrived in October 2020. A neighbor asked if the state had come around to test his well water for PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, that are linked to kidney cancer and other health issues. The neighbor was told his water might be contaminated from sludge that was spread in the farm fields across the road.

    Higgins and his wife, Penelope Higgins, both 70, received their test results a month later showing extremely high levels of two well-studied PFAS compounds, PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, and PFOS, or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. As it turned out, their neighborhood and several other areas of Fairfield have some of the highest PFAS levels in the country, according to engineers studying PFAS. Contamination from the so-called forever chemicals, which take a long time to degrade in the environment, is widespread in the state, with other notable levels concentrated in Skowhegan and Unity, putting pressure on Maine lawmakers and regulators to eliminate or contain its effects.

    The Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which conducted the tests, called to tell the Higgins family to stop drinking, cooking with or bathing in the well water or giving it to their animals. Lawrence Higgins said the news was like being hit with a board upside the head.

    “It took the wind out of both of us. We never even thought that one water test would change our lives forever,” Lawrence Higgins said. “No one can understand it unless they’re going through it.”

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    Four families living in Fairfield spoke to the Bangor Daily News about the shock of discovering their polluted water and the unknowns they face about their health. They have put off having children, seen their retirement dreams shattered and lived with health afflictions that could be connected to their long-term exposure to PFAS in their drinking water, dust, wild game, soil and food. As the country tightens drinking water standards years after the discovery of widespread PFAS contamination, many residents in Fairfield will continue to question what they can trust and what basics of life — a hot shower or cold glass of water — they will ever be able to enjoy again.

    The DEP has continued testing hundreds of wells throughout the state where sludge-based fertilizers made from sewage and water were spread widely until 2022, when Maine became the first state to ban their use because of the PFAS contained in them. It has conducted 416 tests statewide, 40 percent of them in Fairfield, where about one-quarter of the tests showed well contamination, according to state data.

    The DEP has installed 488 filtration systems throughout the state for wells with high levels of PFAS so far, a number that could more than double under new federal health limits recently set for certain PFAS, DEP spokesperson David Madore said.

    The systems have provided little comfort for the Higginses and other Fairfield residents in neighborhoods with sludge contamination. Some people distrust the state water tests and filtration systems offered by the DEP, which approved the permits to spread the sludge in the first place. This leaves them worried constantly about whether the filtered water is safe and whether bottled water is, too. The EPA does not require bottled water to be tested for PFAS.

    “I don’t really trust what they [the DEP] are doing,” Penelope Higgins said. “They’re the ones that put it out there, that approved it. They should have known the health effects.”

    Doctors and researchers still know relatively little about PFAS and its effects on people or animals, said Dr. Rachel Criswell of Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan. She consults with patients exposed to PFAS and is working on a research study about the effects in humans. She learned about PFAS in college, but said many doctors do not know much about how to treat patients exposed to the chemicals and come to her for advice.
    Lawrence and Penny Higgins of Fairfield are dealing with contaminated drinking water as well as contaminated chicken eggs. A farmer’s field, pictured in the background, across from their homestead was tested and found to have high levels of PFAS. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

    “I’ve heard from patients that it is the unknowns that are so stressful,” she said.

    Dr. Criswell’s study of 150 patients in Maine exposed to PFAS is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. It aims to identify details about the contamination, how people get exposed and how PFAS affects stress levels and mental health, even among people who haven’t been exposed but who live near neighbors who have. Some people, she said, could have been exposed to PFAS by eating wild game or free-ranging chicken eggs. PFAS also are in food wrappers, cosmetics and other common consumer products .

    Most people in the United States have some level of PFAS in their bodies, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry . PFAS chemicals are ubiquitous in society, being used in products from water-repellent clothing to nonstick cookware and some cosmetics. The chemicals have water-, heat- and grease-resistant properties. They are called “forever chemicals” because they break down slowly in the environment.

    “PFAS is like a slow moving natural disaster,” she said.

    Living in fear

    The Higginses have lived at their Currier Road property for 31 years. They raised their children and grandchildren there, along with various animals, including eight alpacas, a mini-donkey, chickens, two dogs and two cats. They planned to live out their lives on the bucolic property in rural Somerset County, and invested more than $200,000 over the past nine years to build a new retirement house and a new barn. Lawrence Higgins said no one would buy the house now even if they tried to sell it, but he doesn’t feel right selling it to somebody.

    Their well-laid plans were shattered when they received the initial well tests from the DEP in November 2020. They showed the PFOA level was 1,780 parts per trillion and PFOS was 58.4 parts per trillion, both significantly higher than the 70 parts per trillion federal health advisory level at the time. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has since lowered the health advisory limit on those two PFAS chemicals to 4 parts per trillion. Maine’s limit is 20 parts per trillion, but that will be lowered to comply with the federal rule.

    “We don’t feel safe here anymore,” Lawrence Higgins said. “We think about it every day. It’s in the news all the time. You can’t forget about it. You can’t ignore it. And every time we get an ailment, we blame it on PFAS.”

    The Higginses can’t even eat the fresh eggs from their hens that they had enjoyed. Filled with PFAS, the couple throws them away each day.

    “The chickens are penned in and drink filtered water, but the eggs still show PFAS high enough that you can’t eat them, even in the wintertime, when the ground is frozen,” Penelope Higgins said.

    In August 2023 Maine state toxicologist Thomas Simones told them in a letter that egg samples from their chickens measured an average 15 nanograms per gram of PFOS in their eggs, much above the recommended limit of 0.6 nanogram per gram for children and 2 nanograms per gram for adults. He recommended that children not be allowed to eat any of the eggs and adults eat only one per week.

    Penelope Higgins’ blood already is showing levels of certain PFAS higher than levels in 95 percent of the U.S. population. Their local vet does not know how much PFAS has or will affect their animals. She said the state toxicologist told her she should only eat the egg whites because PFAS concentrates in the yolks.

    “If you’re lucky you can have an egg,” Penelope Higgins said. “I hate seeing them go to waste.”

    Ashley Reny, 35, and her husband, Tony Reny, 32, also have made life-altering decisions after their property on Howe Road — another hot spot for PFAS contamination in Fairfield — showed a 20,000 parts per trillion reading in their well water. One part per trillion is about one drop in 500,000 buckets of water, illustrating how even a tiny amount of PFAS can lead to health issues. They bought six acres of land with open fields in January 2020 and had the well water tested. However, standard tests do not check for PFAS.

    “This property is very sentimental to us even in the short amount of time we’ve been here,” she said. “Tony proposed to me on this land. We got married on this land. We thought we were buying our forever home. So to think that isn’t the case anymore, it is sad.”

    The couple has even postponed having children. Ashley Reny said they are afraid to raise a child in an unsafe place.

    “It’s very scary to raise a child where they’re eating anything off the ground,” she said. “You can’t monitor what a child puts in their mouth every single moment.”

    She gets her blood checked every year for PFAS, which is a $600 test, and recently found out her cholesterol levels are high and her kidney functions are low. Both are new diagnoses since she moved to the Howe Road property. Still, doctors said it is difficult to show that PFAS directly caused health issues.

    Ashley Reny and Lawrence Higgins both testified before the state’s judiciary committee last year in support of a bill that would require health plans in Maine to cover PFAS blood testing. The bill did not receive final passage this year, and it will take until next year at the earliest for any proposal to go forward.

    “Let me tell you, it’s hard to enjoy a hot shower, or a cold cup of water or even my new beautiful house knowing it could be killing us,” Ashley Reny told the committee. “The scare of these diagnoses is enough, but then to know that they are going to require more money to keep testing to make sure it is not getting worse adds so much more stress.”

    She said providers need a lot of education about PFAS, and the chemicals need to be added to standard water tests.

    How the contamination got there

    The application of sewage sludge to farms as fertilizer is the biggest contributor to land contamination in Maine and the United States, said Robert Bowcock, an environmental investigator with Integrated Resource Management Inc. of Claremont, California. Maine banned the practice in 2022 .

    As of January 2024, at least 59 Maine farms, both conventional and organic, have been found to be contaminated with PFAS, according to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. The primary source of this contamination has been traced to the use of biosolids and paper mill sludges, either applied to farmland as soil amendments or disposed of by spreading on fields, MOFGA said in a May 14 notice to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    The group is alleging the EPA failed to regulate the spreading of sludge that was contaminated by at least 18 different types of PFAS, 12 of which have enough scientific evidence to require the administration to regulate it for public protection. The organization cited a 1987 Clean Water Act provision requiring the EPA to identify and regulate toxic pollutants in biosolids every two years.

    Bowcock is investigating PFAS in Maine for a lawsuit filed by the Higginses and other affected homeowners against Huhtamaki, which has a mill in Waterville, and the three chemical companies that allegedly supplied it with the PFAS they make, Solenis, BASF and 3M. Bowcock is working with environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who is consulting on the lawsuit.

    Penelope Higgins contacted Brockovich in December 2020 and asked for her help. She said Brokovich told her the Fairfield water testing levels were the highest she had seen in the United States. That lawsuit is in the discovery phase.

    One reason the PFAS numbers are so high in Maine, Bowcock said, is that the population is small and dispersed, so there isn’t enough wastewater from toilets and other residential activities to dilute the chemicals. In a major community with hundreds of thousands of residents, the wastewater treatment plant industry might contribute 5 percent of the wastewater stream. But the Huhtamaki facility contributed half of the wastewater stream in the Fairfield and Waterville area handled by the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District plant.

    “You don’t have as much of the municipal wastewater flows to dilute it, so that’s why the concentrations are so high,” he said.
    Main Street in Fairfield, Maine. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

    It is not clear to what degree Huhtamaki was told about the dangers of the chemicals and its handling requirements, but the manufacturers of the chemicals and the patent holders are responsible for PFAS, he said.

    A second lawsuit filed by defendant Nathan Saunders of Fairfield and others initially went after six paper mills, but it now is limited to just Huhtamaki because the judge said there is a causal connection between the paper-plate maker’s conduct at its Waterville mill and the plaintiffs’ injuries.The case is still in the discovery phase.

    Nathan Saunders and his wife, Cordelia Saunders, like the Renys, live on Howe Road. They are concerned about the link by the National Cancer Institute connecting PFAS exposure to kidney cancer and lowered immune response. Nathan Saunders donated a kidney to his wife when she went into kidney failure in 2010. Now he worries about his remaining kidney after exposure to PFAS during the 30-plus years they have lived in their home, which he said is on one of the most contaminated streets in the state.

    The Saunders have a filtration system from the state, but Nathan Saunders said he understands why some people with a system still are nervous about their water.

    “There are 28 PFAS compounds the DEP tests for, but there are 10,000 to 14,000 different PFAS chemicals that are not being tested.”

    Asked if he will ever have a comfort level with the filtration system he said, “Never, never, never.”

    Fixes are expensive and elusive

    The town of Fairfield considered trying to hook private well owners up to the public water supply, but the effort was short lived. The engineering firm it hired to come up with a plan figured it would cost $40 million. The town held a referendum vote that was defeated.

    Part of the problem, said Town Manager Michelle Flewelling, is that there was no way for the taxpayers to generate revenue from the project to pay for the investment. The Kennebec Water District, which serves the town, would get money from bill payers, but the town would have to foot the bill for the hookups, she said.

    “The town of Fairfield would have the debt, but the water district would have the assets,” she said.

    A potentially more costly project also helped kill the project, she said. Kennebec Water District gets its public drinking water supply from China Lake, which has PFAS levels that are too high under the new federal guidelines. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued an advisory that anglers eat no more than one meal per month of any fish species caught in the contaminated lake. So even if the town were able to expand the public water system to reach more homes that currently rely on wells, their water still would have contained PFAS.
    Fairfield Town Manager Michelle Flewelling. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

    Treating individual residential wells is expensive and is not covered by Maine’s $60 million state program to help farmers. The DEP filtration systems are offered only to residences affected by a known source of PFAS contamination such as a licensed septage or sludge land application site or closed, unlined landfill, Madore said.

    So far the DEP has spent almost $10 million to investigate soil and groundwater contamination as mandated by the Legislature. Maintenance of the filtrations systems accounts for about 41 percent of that. The investigation and follow-up work is fully paid for by the DEP using state and federal funds.

    The current filtration systems were installed to ensure household water didn’t exceed PFAS levels of 20 parts per trillion. With the new EPA rule in place, Madore estimated Maine will need to install 500 additional filtration systems costing up to $7.6 million, not including ongoing maintenance costs. It costs $1,800 annually to change a water filter and $3,500 annually for routine water sampling. The DEP plans to continue installing, monitoring and maintaining the filters until funds run out.

    The filters help homeowners stop adding to the PFAS they already have in their body, but it can take a long time to get them out entirely. For some people with high exposure, it could take a lifetime, Dr. Griswell said.

    “We don’t know enough to know that your health risk will be minimized if you do take it out of your body,” she said.

    That resonates with Kelly Rogers, 56, who has lived in her home on Nyes Corner Drive, another PFAS hot spot in Fairfield, for 24 years.

    “We got the news about the high PFAS levels one month after we had paid the house off,” she said. “I have been tested and have PFAS in my blood. I’m not leaving. I’ve already been exposed.”

    She hopes other people don’t have to go through what she is enduring.

    “You think about it every day. Every time I turn the faucet on. Every time I wash my clothes, you know, is it in the pipes? Is it coming out?” she said. “You hear things but don’t know if it’s true.”

    Lori Valigra is an investigative environment reporter for the BDN’s Maine Focus team. She may be reached at Support for this reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.

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