FAIRFIELD — For 32 of its 33 years in this quiet corner of central Maine farm country, the Saunders family has reveled in the solitude, the wildlife and the views that stretch 40 miles to the coastal mountains on clear days.
Even the cornfields across from Nathan Saunders’ modest, saltbox-style home and 5-acre lot added to the peaceful setting where he and his wife raised three boys.
Since January, however, the couple has questioned whether they’ve been poisoned for decades in their own sanctuary. Water collected from their well contained 850 times as much PFAS as new Maine health standards say is safe, and 185 times more of the industrial chemicals than federal regulators say should be in drinking water.
The cause of the contamination is now clear: Sludge from paper mills or wastewater treatment plans that was applied as fertilizer. The sludge contained high levels of the “forever chemicals,” unbeknownst to the farmers who spread it for years on those cornfields or homeowners all along Saunders’ road whose wells draw from underground water tables.
And the source of those chemicals? Well, that’s just “a matter of deduction,” Saunders said.
“These are man-made chemicals, they shouldn’t be in our well water – and I have two paper plants within a few miles of my home,” he said.
For well over a century, the paper industry has been a core part of both Maine’s economy and the state’s environmental challenges. Today’s paper mills are dramatically cleaner than a few decades ago, thanks to better technology and environmental laws shepherded through Congress by the late Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, who grew up along the heavily polluted banks of the Androscoggin River.
But growing health concerns about PFAS – per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances – are shining an intense spotlight on industries that utilized the substances for decades to produce everything from nonstick cookware to waterproof jackets and countless other products that are everywhere in modern culture. Dubbed forever chemicals because of their extreme durability, some compounds within the PFAS family have been linked to cancer, kidney disease, low birthweight, high cholesterol and immune system disruption, among other problems.
Paper mills have used a lot of PFAS – and in some cases still do – in the coatings that keep grease or liquids from soaking through picnic plates, takeout food containers, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags and fast-food wrappers.
“They have legacy use of PFAS, almost certainly,” said John Gardella, an attorney at CBMG3 Law in Boston who specializes in environmental law and advises clients on PFAS issues. “The question is, how long were you using it and what did you do with the (sludge) that came from the waste?”
According to records compiled by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which licensed and regulated the land application of sludge, eight paper companies spread more than 500,000 cubic yards of paper mill waste in Maine between 1989 and 2016. That is a conservative and potentially incomplete figure, nor does it include the hundreds of thousands of cubic yards spread by wastewater treatment plants, some of which process paper mill sludge and wastewater.
Not all paper mills in Maine or nationwide have used PFAS. And while environmental and health advocates disagree, chemical industry representatives say newer varieties of PFAS do not pose the health threat of earlier compounds no longer in use.
But DEP staff members now face the daunting task of determining which among more than 500 sites that received sludge from wastewater treatment plants and industrial facilities should get top priority for testing, based on the volume of waste and the source of that sludge. Sites that received waste from paper mills, tanneries and electroplating facilities could get higher priority because of potential PFAS contamination.
“It is absolutely a huge undertaking,” said DEP Commissioner Melanie Loyzim. “We are going to be sweeping across the state and keeping fingers crossed that we will find positive results rather than the heartrending results we have seen out of Fairfield.”
Gardella said as more states begin testing drinking water for PFAS – as Maine is set to require by the end of next year – their regulatory agencies will also try to track down the source of any contamination that turns up.
Manufacturers’ legal use and disposal of the chemicals decades before the current health concerns “doesn’t protect any company from legal liability down the line,” said Gardella, who has written about PFAS lawsuits for the National Law Review.
“And that is the issue that these companies, particularly paper mills, have to face,” he said. “The fact that they didn’t know the dangers of PFAS because (chemical manufacturers) duPont or 3M didn’t tell them, that doesn’t matter in these lawsuits.”
In fact, Saunders filed one of the lawsuits that Gardella and other attorneys are closely tracking.
The Fairfield resident is the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit accusing paper companies of “willful, wanton, reckless and outrageous use, emission, discharge, disposal, distribution and spraying of PFAS throughout Somerset and Kennebec Counties.”
The lawsuit initially named only one paper mill as a defendant: The Sappi North America facility in Skowhegan, although previous owners S.D. Warren, Scott Paper and Kimberly-Clark were also named. But Saunders’ attorney expanded the list of defendants last month to include Huhtamaki’s paper mill in Waterville, the Jay mill now operated by Pixelle Specialty Solutions (formerly Verso) and a half-dozen other companies currently or formerly involved in papermaking in Maine.
Determining which Maine paper mills have used PFAS in their manufacturing processes is extremely difficult because they were not required to report that data under either state or federal laws. Paper companies are also notoriously competitive and secretive about their processes.
That changes this year.
Industrial facilities nationwide were required to report discharges of more than 120 types of PFAS in reports due to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month. All of Maine’s paper mills as well as hundreds of other facilities, both public and private, are required to file reports to the Toxics Release Inventory.
Data from the closely watched TRI likely won’t be available until later this year. But the reports will provide the first-ever comprehensive assessment of PFAS releases into the air, water and soils in Maine and across the country.
Unfortunately, those reports will only reflect current, not historic, uses of PFAS.
Few representatives of paper companies responded to interview requests or questions from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram about current or past use of PFAS.
One of the companies that did not respond to multiple requests is Huhtamaki, the Finland-based company that manufactures the Chinet brand of paper dishware in Waterville. A California class-action lawsuit against Huhtamaki claims Chinet is made with PFAS. And the Waterville facility is the largest single contributor of wastewater to the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District plant that was licensed to spread treated sludge on farm fields in Fairfield, Unity, Benton and other towns.
Sappi has denied any responsibility for the PFAS contamination in Fairfield and other towns.
“Sappi strongly disputes the contention that Sappi’s Somerset mill is the source of the PFAS contamination in Fairfield,” Olga Karagiannis, spokeswoman for Sappi North America, said in a statement. “Sappi is well known for its record of environmental stewardship at the Somerset mill and the rest of our manufacturing facilities. As Sappi has been named as a defendant in a lawsuit, we won’t be providing any further comment.”
But a representative for one major papermaker in Maine, Twin Rivers Paper Co., has spoken openly about both the use of PFAS at the company’s Madawaska plant as well as efforts to phase out the chemicals.
“Twin Rivers Paper has a large business – nearly half of its production in Maine – built on food packaging grades, some of which use PFAS chemistry,” Brian McAlary, vice president of business development with Twin Rivers, told state lawmakers in May. “Twin Rivers is committed to finding innovative solutions to replacing PFAS in its food packaging products over the next two years, according to the EPA guidelines.”
At the time, Maine lawmakers were considering a DEP-backed bill requiring that all manufacturers disclose to the agency any products sold in Maine containing “intentionally added” PFAS. The bill, which became law last week, also prohibits the sale of PFAS-treated carpets and rugs starting in 2023 and expands that prohibition to all products in 2030 unless the DEP deems PFAS an “unavoidable use.”
McAlary pointed out that PFAS manufacturers are phasing out the chemicals in coatings for paperboard food packaging and grease-resistant papers – such as clamshell takeout food containers, disposable dinnerware and fast-food wrappers – under a July 2020 agreement with the Food and Drug Administration.
Twin Rivers is committed to ending its use of PFAS by the end of 2023, but McAlary added that it “will not be easy, quick, or an inexpensive process.” In a subsequent interview with the Press Herald/Sunday Telegram, McAlary said the company already offers multiple PFAS-free varieties in the U.S. and Europe and that products containing the chemicals “are not a large portion of the business.”
“If you go back four or five years ago, there was a real push for our company internally to move,” McAlary said. “We saw this happening in Europe and there was an opportunity to differentiate with our competitors.”
Twin Rivers has its own on-site water treatment system and does not spread biosolids, instead either reusing or landfilling waste. But McAlary declined to provide specific information about what varieties of PFAS are still used in Twin Rivers products.
One concern raised by health and environmental groups seeking to rein in the use of PFAS is that chemical manufacturers release new varieties of the chemicals so often that regulators are unable to keep pace.
“We are finding that some of these alternatives can have problematic chemistries, so that’s why it is also important to evaluate these alternatives,” said Mark Rossi, executive director of Clean Production Action, a Massachusetts-based firm that works with chemical companies and product manufacturers.
Clean Production Action is currently working on a certification program for PFAS-free food packaging to meet the intense demand within the industry. Rossi said he hopes the certification program will launch later this year.
But “innovation is on an S-curve,” Rossi said, where so-called early adopters within an industry lead the way, followed not long after by the majority of other manufacturers, partly in response to new PFAS regulations enacted in Maine and other states.
“The complete transition in the paper industry away from PFAS really will require federal regulation because there are going to be these laggards that hold out,” Rossi said.
It was random sampling of milk taken from grocery store shelves that led state regulators to detect startling levels of PFAS in milk from a Fairfield dairy farm. That discovery sparked additional testing, which to date has discovered 164 PFAS-contaminated wells in Fairfield, Unity, Benton and Oakland – with more expected as the investigation’s circle expands outward.
All of these localized hot spots have a common denominator: Nearby crop fields fertilized with sludge. Much of that sludge appears to have come from the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District, which processes wastewater from Waterville, Fairfield, Winslow, Benton, Oakland, and Vassalboro.
Between 1981 and 2003, the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District spread more than 285,000 cubic yards of biosolids – the industry name for treated sludge – at sites in more than a dozen towns, according to DEP documents.
There is no wrongdoing suggested on the sanitary district’s part or among the dozens of other wastewater treatment facilities statewide that operated biosolids programs, some of which are still active today. The application sites were fully licensed and approved by the DEP under a state-promoted “beneficial reuse” program that provided farmers with free nutrients for their crops and helped municipalities and sewer districts avoid paying landfill costs – costs ultimately borne by ratepayers.
“That’s the way it was – it was a hot commodity for farmers to be able to have compost for their farms,” said Nicholas Champagne, superintendent of the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District.
Since spring 2019, treatment plants that plan to land-apply sludge are required to periodically test their biosolids for PFAS. Land applications of the materials have declined significantly as a result because test results showing elevated PFAS levels would trigger additional testing at the fertilization site.
Champagne, who only took over as superintendent at the Kennebec district in January 2020, said all of the facility’s sludge is now landfilled. Sludge testing results from May 2019 showed concentrations of the two most heavily scrutinized compounds, PFOS and PFOA, above the state’s screening levels but nowhere near the levels found in drinking water in Fairfield and neighboring towns.
“We are seeing these astronomical test results come out of Fairfield and the thing that is puzzling is we are testing our sludge today, but it could have been something from 20 or 30 years ago,” Champagne said.
The state’s recently enacted budget contains $30 million for PFAS-related initiatives at the DEP and the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The DEP share includes 11 permanent full-time positions and six temporary positions to help test more than 500 sludge application sites and to pay for installation of activated carbon filtration systems on contaminated wells. A separate fund aims to help impacted farmers recover financially.
Loyzim, the DEP’s commissioner, said it was unclear whether those tests will reveal additional large hot spots similar to that of Fairfield tied to any industries in Maine. She noted that Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire have been more aggressive than most other states in testing for PFAS contamination.
“I can’t help but suspect that we may appear to have a bigger problem, in part, because we have been proactive in looking for it,” Loyzim said.
PAPER MILL WASTE
No one knows how much PFAS was in sludge or paper mill waste spread across Maine 30, 20 or even five years ago because industries were not required to report usage or discharge of the chemicals until this year.
But paper companies spread a lot of waste across the landscape, according to a DEP compilation of licensed application sites.
Great Northern Paper, which operated mills in the Millinocket region, applied more than 100,000 cubic yards of waste in the 1980s and 1990s in towns or unorganized territories in Penobscot and Aroostook counties, according to an analysis of the DEP data.
Likewise, the International Paper (later Verso) mill in Jay disposed of another 100,000-plus cubic yards of waste through either land application or conversion to compost from the late 1980s to late 1990s. Fields that received “bio-ash” from the facility were located throughout western and southern Maine, from Richmond and Bowdoinham to West Paris.
DEP records indicate that the mills operated by S.D. Warren and Scott Paper in Westbrook and Skowhegan applied several hundred thousand cubic yards of sludge and bio-ash to dozens of locations in farm fields and land owned by paper or timberland companies between 1988 and 1998. Some was also landfilled.
One of S.D. Warren’s more than 25 application sites was Stoneridge Farm in the York County town of Arundel.
In late 2016, farm owner Fred Stone was notified by the local water district that a well located on his property contained elevated levels of types of PFAS. That discovery cracked open the first case in Maine of PFAS contamination linked to application of sludge and/or paper mill waste.
In the years since, Stone has lost all his livelihood because he is no longer able to sell milk from his century-old dairy farm commercially. He has disposed of much of his herd – “The 35 left are animals I just can’t kill,” he said – and been the subject of international media coverage about the unfortunate intersection of PFAS and farming.
While testifying on a bill to create a special PFAS testing program for farm fields, Stone presented lawmakers with a copy of a 1986 licensing letter from the DEP stating that biosolids “will not pollute any water of the state” and “will not constitute a hazard to health or welfare.”
“They were pushing this to beat holy hell,” Stone said in an interview. “DEP was out here telling us how great this material was as a soil amendment. … We were trying to bring in money wherever we could bring in money and we were trying to cut down on the cost of production, and that’s why we did what we did.”
Stone said he knows that farmers in Gorham, Westbrook, Steep Falls and other towns also spread waste from the paper mill on their farms. Some of those are still farms, Stone said, while others grew housing developments.
‘RACING TO FIND ALTERNATIVES’
Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, said paper mills in Maine have diversified in recent years to replace paper products that are no longer in high demand – such as newsprint – and expanded to packaging, boxboard and other products, some of which use PFAS.
“It’s a very competitive situation but the industry is racing to find alternatives,” he said.
Strauch, who represents paper and forest industry companies in regulatory and legislative matters in Augusta, has urged state lawmakers not to treat all PFAS the same as PFOS and PFOA, two well-studied compounds that are no longer produced or used in manufacturing in the U.S.
Asked about the paper industry’s liability concerns regarding PFAS, Strauch said companies and society as a whole need to figure out how best to respond to contamination concerns.
“The sites that were contaminated by PFAS in the past were all sites that were permitted by the DEP and biosolids were tested, so everyone has to take some ownership in this new information,” Strauch said.
He added, however, that market demand is already driving companies to seek out “more natural solutions.”
“Everybody is working at it,” Strauch said of the transition to PFAS-free products. “It is certainly where consumers want to go.”
Gardella, the Boston-based attorney with CMBG3 Law who counsels clients on PFAS legal and regulatory issues, agreed that paper companies switching to alternative chemistries is “a good step, and one they absolutely need to take.”
Nonetheless, companies in every industry – not just papermaking – that used PFAS in the past are still “at incredibly great risk right now” as public pressure builds on state and federal regulators to respond to existing contamination.
“The regulatory agencies don’t care, truthfully, that you had a permit to discharge this effluent or waste,” Gardella said. “It doesn’t matter. Now there is a problem with PFAS contamination and they want that contamination cleaned up.”
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Back in Fairfield, Saunders is unsure what the future holds for his home and others in this rural neighborhood where he has lived for more than three decades.
“The view from here is wonderful for me,” Saunders said. “There are no houses. … We are very close to town. We just love being here.”
A few minutes later, however, he added: “I picked the worst place to live as far as high levels” of PFAS.
Within two months of his well water testing at 12,910 parts per trillion for PFAS – compared to a federal health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion – the DEP had installed a water filtration system in his basement at no cost to him. Other homes on his road had PFAS levels in excess of 20,000 and 30,000 parts per trillion compared to the state’s new health level of 20 parts per trillion.
Saunders’ water now reads “non-detect” for the roughly two dozen PFAS compounds analyzed by the monthly follow-up tests. Even so, Saunders’ wife won’t drink the water because of concerns that PFAS may be related to health problems she’s had in the past.
Like many homeowners, Saunders had hoped the years of sweat equity his family spent expanding their home and landscaped grounds would help pad his retirement savings if and when the couple decides to sell. But who is going to want to buy a house with a contaminated well and potentially contaminated soils? he asks.
The class-action lawsuit Saunders filed wants the paper companies to pay for ongoing medical monitoring for anyone in Somerset and Kennebec counties who may have been exposed to PFAS.
Personal injury lawsuits have not yet been filed, but they are likely coming.
Standing in his kitchen, Saunders dipped into a packed folder to pull out a federal chart showing the range of PFAS levels in blood samples from workers at the duPont and 3M factories where the chemicals were produced and utilized.
On the highest end, factory workers averaged roughly 1,000 and 700 parts per trillion for the two most problematic compounds, PFOS and PFOA. Saunders’ blood levels were 1,100 and 1,400 parts per trillion.
“And I got that sitting in my living room,” Saunders said. “That’s enough to make someone upset.”