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As Goes the Water in Waterville, so Goes the Nation’s

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How one Maine town deals with PFAS/PFOA water contamination

Waterville, MEWaterville, Maine, on the banks of the Kennebec River, is 23 miles northeast of Augusta, the capital of Maine. In 2021 it had a population of 15,828. More to the point, however, Waterville’s drinking water is contaminated with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS/PFOA) compounds, a situation faced by many towns and cities.

In response to a growing number of lawsuits, three major chemical companies, Chemours, DuPont and Corteva, recently agreed to set up a fund of more than $1 billion to remove toxic PFAS and PFOAs, from public drinking water systems. The story of what happened in a little, remote Maine town gets to another part of the story, however. It shows how complicated, granular and personal PFAS and PFOA water contamination issues can get.

What happened in Waterville

On May 22, a fire broke out in an assisted-living facility in Waterville. One person was killed and several were injured. The firefighting foam used to combat the blaze was presumed to contain PFAS, a group of compounds that are widespread, dangerous and expensive to remove from drinking water. It entered the public water system, likely because the facility lacked a shut-off valve, commonly used in newer buildings.

The Kennebec Water District (KWD) issued a Do Not Drink order that affected approximately 9,000 people in Waterville, Winslow, Benton, Fairfield. The district lifted the order on May 23, having found no evidence of firefighting foam in the water. This was not Waterville’s only brush with PFAS water contamination, however.

Safe or not safe?

According to the KWD, PFAS may be found in drinking water sources due to land application of wastewater or industrial sludges, discharges from wastewater treatment plants and septic systems, use of firefighting foam, and intentional or unintentional spills
In June 2021, the Maine Legislature set an enforceable regulatory PFAS standard of 20 parts per trillion (ppt). This limit is the same as previous federal limits. The EPA has now set  the health advisory level for PFOA at .004 parts per trillion and for PFOS at .02 parts per trillion. It has indicated that “that some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero. 

The KWD has been testing its water for PFAS compounds since 2019. Of the 20 PFAS compounds tested, three have had cumulative levels between six and ten ppt. This is below the current Maine standard of 20 ppt. However, the most recent test result for PFOA is 4.4 ppt (0.4 ppt above the proposed EPA standard for PFOA).

Even though the KWD found no evidence of firefighting foam in Waterville’s drinking water, there is very likely some background level of PFAS contamination. Whether the level of contamination is hazardous to human health seems to be a matter of definition, and the definition seems to be changing.

Paper mill discharges and agricultural contamination

Measuring the level of PFAS and PFOA contamination in the water is an important part of assessing the problem. Tracking (and perhaps preventing) toxic contamination in the first place could be part of the solution. Drinking water contamination is a nationwide problem, but the sources of the contamination tend to be very local. Two historical features of Maine’s economy leap immediately to mind: pulp and paper processing and agriculture.

Paper mills have played a role in Maine’s economy since the 1730s. But turning a pine tree into a paper plate takes heat, caustic chemicals, a lot of water and it creates substantial waste. Modern papermaking techniques use PFAS compounds to ensure that paper products are grease, moisture and heat resistant. The resulting waste is generally discharged into waterways and transported to land disposal sites.

Oddly, though, a loophole in federal reporting requirements does not require manufacturers to report PFAS discharges when they constitute only a small portion of total discharges. Many manufacturers allegedly ignore even this requirement. The only measure of contamination occurs after the fact. One land disposal site used by Sappi North America’s Skowhegan and Westbrook paper mills, tested for PFOA at 1,300 ppt. 

Since the 1970s, spreading municipal and industrial sludge on Maine farmlands and in forests, was seen as a cheap, clean way to improve soil quality with organic material, bring waterways into compliance with the Clean Water Act and recycle waste – a triple win! The sludge was tested for toxic metals, but not, given the state of science at the time, for PFAS or PFOAs. 

During the 1980s and ‘90s, two-thirds or more of all the state’s municipal sludge. In 2019, a single waste company involved in direct land application noted that it had more than 200 farm customers in Maine. From there, the toxic chemicals migrated into the waterways and the food chair. The practice is now banned in Maine, but the chemicals do not biodegrade and are still present.
Waterville, Maine may seem far away and completely unlike where many of us live. The importance of paper and pulp processing and agriculture may, in fact, set it apart from many locations in the United States. The overarching problem of PFAS and PFOA contamination is common to us all, though.


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