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Fairfield residents planning to file civil suit in connection with PFAS contamination

More than a dozen people with toxic wells being represented by Texas-based law firm
Part One of a special report on private wells in Fairfield with extremely high levels of PFAS
Part One of a special report on private wells in Fairfield with extremely high levels of PFAS(WABI TV)
Published: Jul. 19, 2021 at 4:19 PM EDT
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FAIRFIELD, Maine (WABI) - Back in February, we told you about dangerously high levels of PFAS chemicals found in Fairfield private wells.

Since then, Maine has enacted several new laws to address these so-called forever chemicals including lowering the legal limit in drinking water from 70 parts per trillion to 20 parts per trillion.

Joy Hollowell headed back to Fairfield to see what’s changed since our special report, and what hasn’t.

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“I feel that because of what we’ve been doing for the past 8 months, we’ve got the state’s attention and that’s really starting to step up.”

Lawrence Higgins is among a growing number of residents discovering their private wells are contaminated with PFAS chemicals. To date, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection discovered high levels of the so-called forever chemicals in 130 wells in Fairfield. Toxic wells were also found in the surrounding towns of Benton, Unity township and Clinton. Testing is taking place now in Oakland.

“As long as you don’t think about it, it’s fine,” says Higgins. “But if you start thinking about it, it really eats at you.”

Lawrence’s wife, Penny Higgins wants to see the medical community take a more active role.

“When we first asked for blood work- what are you talking about? What is it? It’s almost like we had to educate them about PFAS,” she says.

The Higgins are among 56 households in Fairfield now using state installed water filtration systems. 14 more are in Benton and five in Unity Township. Each one costs $4,000 - $5,000. Additional costs including a water softner, ongoing sampling and filter change outs can range from $2,000 to $16,000 dollars according to the DEP.

Currently, the Maine legislature dedicated $20 million for testing and mitigation of PFAS statewide. However, the DEP acknowledges there isn’t enough current information to know whether that money will be enough. “The Department is still in the initial prioritization and planning stages of the program and sampling has not yet occurred statewide,” says David Madore, Deputy Commissioner, Maine Department of Environmental Protection. “Department staff and management will be monitoring the costs closely as the program unfolds and will be as careful as possible to make sure the funds reach as many households as possible.”

The Higgins are among more than a dozen residents in Fairfield filing a civil lawsuit.

“Our lawsuits will be individual cases against the manufacturer and polluters,” says Russ Abney with Watts/Guerra LLP out of San Antonio, Texas. His firm was contacted by well known consumer advocate Erin Brockovich who is working closely with residents in Fairfield.

“This is one I think screams out for help. These people got the highest concentrated levels that have been reported in the country,” says Abney.

The lawsuits are expected to be filed in the next few weeks.

But just who is responsible?

“The bio-solids were spread out on those fields from sometime around the last 1970s, maybe 1980 through 2003 from the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District facility,” according to David Burns, former director for the bureau of remediation and waste management at the Maine DEP.

In a statement to WABI by David Madore, Acting Deputy Commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, stated, “The Department has been aware that Huhtamaki contributes a significant industrial wastewater component to KSTD. This is included in language in KSTD’s MEPDES permit, along with references to other industrial inputs.”

In a statement to WABI, Huhtamaki said, “Our commitment to protecting the environment is something we take very seriously everywhere we operate. In Waterville, as in all locations, we comply will all applicable environmental and product safety laws and regulations. And while we are tracking and reviewing developments with PFAS related matters, we have not been contacted by authorities regarding the matter.”

“There is also a second material that was spread on some of the fields between 2006 and 2015,” said Burns back in February.

That came from the Soil Prep, Inc. facility in Plymouth, according to the DEP. The state says “full consideration” must be given to this second source as well.

WABI spoke to Soil Prep, Inc. Company President Phil McCarthy. He calls it an “industry and social issue” adding that he’ll let the state of Maine move forward with its investigation before he makes any further comments,

In the civil lawsuits, Fairfield residents will be asking for monetary damages to clean up soil, water and dust contamination in affected homes, along with payment for mental anguish and medical monitoring, according to Abney.

“Ultimately the people that generated and make money selling it are the ones that are going to pay for it,” he says.

Fairfield resident Nathan Saunders and a resident from Clinton filed a separate lawsuit against more than a dozen paper mills and paper companies.

Meanwhile, the town of Fairfield is working on its own long term solution- expanding the public drinking water supply. They hired Dirigo Engineering a locally based firm to come up with a plan.

“They’re right on Route 201 so this is literally happening not only in their back yard but also their front yard,” says Fairfield Town Manager Michelle Flewelling.

Last week, the town of Fairfield received $22,500 from the Somerset County Community Benefit Fund for the study. It’s due by the beginning of December.

“The change in the law from 70 parts per trillion to 20 really shook up the kind of areas which we thought would be our first area of concern,” says Flewelling. “There’s absolutely no way that the municipality could put drinking water to an entire municipality in one construction season.”

In addition to filtration systems, the DEP continues to supply bottled water weekly to affected residents.

“I’m starting to have confidence in the state of Maine doing the right thing,” says Lawrence Higgins.

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Starting next year, Maine will prohibit the sale of fire fighting foam with PFAS.

In 2023- carpets, rugs and fabric treatments containing the forever chemicals cannot be sold in our state.

And nearly all products with PFAS will be banned in our state by 2030.

MaineGeneral is involved in a collaborative study with the Maine CDC to evaluate or confirm the usefulness of the current PFAS blood serum diagnostic test that is being made available to patients who have requested a such a test. This is a small study of no more than 30 individuals. This study will help to more completely quantify serum PFAS levels of Fairfield area residents exposed to PFAS chemicals from contaminated drinking water. Results from this study can be used to determine whether broader, more comprehensive testing is needed for such individuals.

For more information on the Fairfield-Area PFAS investigation, log onto https://www.maine.gov/dep/spills/topics/pfas/fairfield/index.html

You can also check out the Facebook group created by Fairfield residents with contaminated wells-

https://www.facebook.com/groups/597095690648320/permalink/1313347729023109/

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