The questions about the chemical compounds known as PFAS continue to mount, but one thing is clear.

We may not yet know how much of our state’s soil and water is contaminated, or what the impact will be on Maine’s fragile farming economy, but we do know that the state’s response is going to be very expensive. A glimpse of its cost is just coming into view.

A bill to create a $100 million fund to pay for testing and mitigation was to be presented to the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry committee March 15, and while that may sound like a jaw-dropping amount of money, it’s a reflection of the size of the problem.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are manmade compounds that have been used in industry and consumer products since the 1940s. They earn their nickname “forever chemicals” because they break down very slowly and can build up in soil and groundwater as well as within people and animals.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency,  a number of health effects have been attributed to PFAS exposure, including decreased fertility and high blood pressure in pregnant women; developmental delays in children; increase of some cancers and a reduced ability to fight infections. Exposure is also linked to high cholesterol and obesity.

High concentrations of PFAS have been found in milk and eggs from Maine farms. The source appears to be sludge, including biosolids from wastewater treatment plants that are used as fertilizer. Another bill before the Legislature would halt that process, but it would not do anything about the PFAS that’s already in the environment.

It’s unclear how much land is contaminated because testing is expensive, but hundreds of sites were enrolled in the sludge spreading program and need to be examined.

In addition to creating the fund, the Agriculture Committee bill would create an advisory committee with state officials, experts and members of the public which would recommend uses for the money.

Funds could be used for testing land and water as well as monitoring the health of farmers and their families who worked contaminated land. Funds could also be used to buy contaminated farmland, giving owners a chance to start over.

This crisis has emerged at a good time. The Legislature is currently debating how to spend a projected budget surplus of more than $1 billion. Putting some of it away as a PFAS fund would be a prudent use of this one-time money.

There’s still a lot we need to know about PFAS contamination in Maine, but by now, we should know that waiting to deal with it won’t help.

Reprinted from The Portland Press Herald.

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