The governors of two New England states have approved key pieces of legislation that transform their relationships with cancer-linked “forever chemicals” — by restricting their use on Maine farmland and facilitating treatment avenues for toxic exposure in Vermont.
In Maine, Gov. Janet Mills (D) signed into law on Wednesday a bill that will ban the application of biosolids — also known as “sludge” — that contain so-called forever chemicals on farmland.
In Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott (R) approved a bill the next day enabling plaintiffs to sue for medical monitoring following exposure to toxins, including these compounds.
Forever chemicals — or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — are an umbrella group for thousands of compounds known for their ability to linger in the human body and the environment. PFAS are linked to kidney cancer, thyroid disease, testicular cancer and other illnesses.
Most notorious for their presence in jet-fuel firefighting foam and industrial discharge, PFAS are also key ingredients in a variety of common products like biosolids used on farms, nonstick pans and cosmetics.
PFAS-laden biosolids have been a widespread source of contamination on agricultural land across Maine, leading several farmers to close shop after finding that their milk was tainted by the compounds, as The Hill reported. Such sludge is usually a product of paper mills.
“What we’re seeing is our farmers are going out of business,” Assemblyman Bill Pluecker (I), the bill’s co-sponsor and an organic farmer by trade, told The Hill.
“Not only is their land and water contaminated, but their bodies, their blood, their children are contaminated,” Pluecker said. “And if we want to keep food supply in the state of Maine that’s healthy and locally based, then we need to take action now to keep the sludge off our fields and the PFAS out of our food.”
Wednesday’s new law will prevent residents from spreading sludge to farmlands unless they receive “written determination” from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection that the sludge is PFAS-free, according to the bill.
The prohibitions will also apply to fertilizers, soil or topsoil replacements used for similar agricultural purposes that are derived from or contain sludge.
The bill tasks the Department of Environmental Protection with developing a plan for fulfilling the prohibition of sludge application — granting the agency until January 15, 2023 to submit a follow-up report to the state legislature.
While some critics of the bill have questioned where the sludge will go instead, Pluecker stressed that Maine has designated space for such substances in its own landfills. The state has also stopped taking waste from its neighbors, he added.
Pluecker described the new law as “a win for Maine’s farmers” and for the state in general, which has also been encountering PFAS contamination in its fish and deer.
“Really we’re taking the lead, across the country, in addressing PFAS issues for our food and for our water,” he added.
In neighboring Vermont, the bill signed by Scott enables plaintiffs to sue polluters for medical screenings following exposure to toxic substances, including PFAS.
This is not the first version of the bill, which the governor previously vetoed in 2019. That veto occurred after an official in his office coordinated with a lobbyist in “watering down” the bill’s text, as reported by The Hill.
The 2019 version sought to help communities impacted by pollution to sue companies for “medical monitoring” costs. Medical monitoring provides relevant healthcare screenings to plaintiffs who have been exposed to, but are not yet sick from, toxic substances.
The new bill, which goes into effect on July 1, changes the threshold that people harmed by toxic pollution must meet to be awarded medical monitoring damages in court, explained Jon Groveman, policy and water program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
Opposition to the previous version mostly came from business groups, who argued that such thresholds weren’t stringent enough, Groveman explained. The new version changes the language to require that plaintiffs prove “an increased risk of contracting a serious disease,” rather than “a greater risk of contracting a latent disease.”
Overall, however, Groveman expressed support for the law as passed, stressing that the Vermont Natural Resources Council “has worked on three versions of this legislation over a period of five years.”
“This final iteration of the bill provides victims of toxic pollution with a fair opportunity to seek medical monitoring costs and, for the first time in the nation, places this right into statute, which will help hold toxic polluters accountable,” he said.