A legislative panel has unanimously approved the creation of a $100 million fund to help Maine farmers whose wells, fields and bodies are contaminated by so-called forever chemicals left behind by a state-licensed sludge-to-fertilizer program.

The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee voted 13-0 Thursday in favor of establishing the fund, which would be managed by an advisory committee made up of state officials, farmers and public health experts that would advise the state on how to distribute the money.

Approved uses range from reimbursing a farmer for crop losses or culled herds to cleaning up contaminated farms to buying those that are no longer suitable for agriculture. The committee also may decide to cover the farmers’ long-term PFAS-related medical costs.

It also would fund research into the relatively new science around these so-called forever chemicals, including what crops could be grown on fields that will not absorb the contamination and what levels, if any, can remain in food without posing a risk to consumers.

“This is going to be a defining moment for agriculture,” said Rep. Bill Pluecker, D-Warren, who helped spearhead the bill. “I think the state has a clear responsibility for actions we’ve taken in the past to do right by our farmers now, to make sure this gets funded and they get the money they need.”

Pluecker said the committee was moved by hours of emotional testimony from farmers whose farms are tainted by forever chemicals – per- and poly-flouroalkyl substances known as PFAS – left behind by a decades-old practice of using state-licensed sludge to fertilize their fields.

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The long-lasting chemicals repel oil, grease and water. They can be found in industrial products like firefighting foam, common household items such as stain-resistant carpets, waterproof clothing and non-stick cookware, and the treated sewage sludge that farmers have used as fertilizer since the 1970s.

Potential health impacts range from decreased immune response to a higher risk of certain cancers.

“The committee’s unanimous vote today sends a clear signal that Maine greatly values its farmers,” Agriculture Commissioner Amanda Beal said. “Farmers impacted will have help available to them as they navigate through an uncertain and difficult process of determining what the future will look like.”

Gov. Janet Mills is “strongly considering” dedicating one-time funding in a budget update she is expected to release Friday to establish the PFAS fund, according to a statement issued Thursday. The state is pursuing federal aid and other avenues to provide sustained, long-term funding.

The administration looks forward to working with the Legislature to determine the appropriate initial amount with the understanding that other funding will likely be required from various sources in the years to come, Mills said.

The committee has moved quickly to try to set up the fund, which state officials believe may be the first of its kind in the country, while acknowledging that it will have to rely on the advisory committee the bill would create to work out many of the details.

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The committee will be made up of the state commissioners of agriculture, environmental protection and health, the dean of the University of Maine agricultural experimentation or cooperative extension, an agricultural finance expert, a public health expert and five farmers.

Farmers told the agriculture committee that the creation of a relief fund would encourage those who have been too afraid to test their fields and wells for fear of financial ruin to do so. Widespread testing would reassure consumers that locally grown food that is still on the market is safe to eat.

The state has estimated it will spend at least $20 million a year on its PFAS investigation of more than 700 properties where sludge fertilizer was used. That estimate doesn’t include the kind of help that would be offered by the aid fund, like farm buyouts or long-term health monitoring.

To date, Maine has earmarked about $30 million for PFAS remediation, which includes $10 million to help impacted farmers, $15 million to provide safe drinking water, $5 million for environmental testing, and $5 million for managing PFAS-contaminated waste. 

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