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Beneath the Surface: How Maine towns can help residents impacted by toxic PFAS water contamination (Part 2)

Published: Jun. 9, 2022 at 8:23 PM EDT
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FAIRFIELD, Maine (WABI) - The fight for clean water in Central Maine has been going on for two years.

In less than one week, Fairfield residents will vote on a potential solution.

Affected residents in Fairfield and Unity received a boost in their pending legal action.

They’ve recently added renowned environmental activist Erin Brockovich to their side as they pursue mass tort lawsuits after their exposure to forever chemicals known as PFAS in their drinking water.

The chemicals have been found in individual wells and had previously been spread on farmland as sludge.

Now, everyone is talking about PFAS.

But what can be done to make it right?

(You can find part one of this special report here.)

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich marvels at how the Fairfield community has come together in its fight for clean water.

“I’ve seen them rise up. I’m so proud of this community, and they are a model for the action,” Brockovich said. “I think we all think something has to magically come down from above and fix these things for us, when it will be them.”

Fairfield residents Lawrence and Penny Higgins were the first to reach out to Brockovich almost two years ago. We took you inside the Higgins’ home last summer, showing you the filtration system the state installed for affected residences.

Although they have clean water now, Lawrence says his wife Penny and their kids have health problems from PFAS exposure.

“We worry about it every day,” Lawrence said. “Our chicken eggs are contaminated, our vegetables are contaminated because the water is. The air is. You can’t go a day without thinking about it, wondering what it’s doing to your bodies.”

A local engineering firm has proposed a large public water system. It would cost $48 million. As the vote draws near, public opinion varies.

“It’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard of,” said environmental investigator Bob Bowcock. “And the reason, the simplest reason and explanation for that is, if you turn all those wells off, where’s the contamination gonna go? Just further out.”

“We have clean water now,” Higgins said. “We have no PFAS in it at all. The town water has eight parts per trillion. It’s contaminated water. Why hook up to the water that is contaminated, when we have safe water now?”

Fairfield town manager Michelle Flewelling says the plan was put together in case the state stops maintaining those filtration systems.

“There isn’t a whole lot more that we can do,” Flewelling said. “That’s the part that’s frustrating.”

Because state-regulated public water is the only option that serves the entire town, it’s all it can offer.

“The only way that this drinking water expansion project works is that it served the community as a whole,” Flewelling said.

The price tag is high. But, Flewelling wants residents to know that taxation is the last resort.

“The process right now is to ensure that not one penny of it comes from taxpayer dollars,” Flewelling said.

While the vote looms, the Higgins have a message for those considering a move to Maine.

“Maine, it’s supposed to be Vacationland,” Lawrence Higgins said. “A nice place to raise your family and kids, and it’s turned out to be a disaster. I wouldn’t want to move to Maine right now.”

But that’s not keeping everyone away.

“This isn’t going to be the last time that you’ll see me in Maine,” Brockovich said. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

Continuing, and elevating, Mainers’ fight for clean water.

The vote on the public water expansion is Tuesday, June 14th.

All residents, even those who do not have high levels of PFAS in their water, would have to connect to the public system.

Ongoing sampling has found PFAS in more than 260 Fairfield wells.

If the vote is yes, the town would continue with planning and securing grant funding.

If the vote is no, Flewelling says residents with contamination levels higher than 20 parts per trillion will keep using and maintaining their filtration systems, but the town doesn’t have another option for households with contamination levels below that threshold.

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