UNITY — Erin Brockovich, former beauty queen turned law clerk, who spearheaded a 1996 groundwater contamination lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric in California and helped more than 600 Hinkley residents win $333 million in settlements, spoke May 7 at the Unity Firehouse about an environmental threat currently unfolding in the area.

The event was organized by PFAS Maine, a team of lawyers that is seeking plaintiffs to join a class action lawsuit against those responsible for PFAS contamination in the state. A similar event was held in Fairfield May 6.

Brockovich said she was “sad, scared, and really pissed off” when she first heard about the record levels of PFAS found in local wells. The levels of the chemical were some of the highest in the country, she said.

“It is here… We have to start finding the solutions, rallying around these communities and dealing with what is precisely the most precious thing we all have — that is our water, our land, and our food. And if that is strong, so are we,” Brockovich said, rallying the audience in the nearly full firehouse.

The per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS, are a group of chemicals used to make coatings that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water. The substances are often referred to as “forever chemicals,” because they do not easily break down in the environment and are difficult to destroy. Additionally, PFAS has been linked to serious health problems including cancer, thyroid problems and developmental issues in children.

Although some types of PFAS are no longer used, some products still contain the substances, including food packaging materials, nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpet treatments, water-resistant clothing, cleaning products and firefighting foam.

Last fall the Maine Department of Environmental Protection issued a list of 34 Maine towns where the agency planned to focus its attention on testing for PFAS. In Waldo County, Brooks, Jackson, Knox, Palermo, Thorndike and Unity were all named as locations where sludge, septic waste and industrial waste were spread over fields as fertilizer. This common practice was banned by the Maine Legislature last week, making the state the first in the country to stop the practice of using industrial and municipal sludge as fertilizer.

Additionally, PFAS can be found in freshwater fish that are typically connected to sites associated with historical use of PFAS-containing products. Recently the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention listed consumption advisories for seven streams, lakes, and ponds in the state where elevated levels of PFAS were detected.

Most of the two-hour presentation Saturday was given by attorney Mikal Watts of Watts Guerra LLP in San Antonio, Texas, whose firm has joined forces with Garmey Law in Portland in a class action lawsuit pending in Superior Court in Somerset County against the state’s major paper companies. Watts is the lead trial lawyer coordinating the PFAS Maine team of attorneys with the goal of rallying people to join the lawsuit filed in September 2021 against the paper mills that he said are responsible, indirectly, for the PFAS contamination in the area by producing such products such as Chinet paper plates. Watts said he plans to file a federal lawsuit in Bangor against Huhtamaki first.

These companies should have known the characteristics of PFAS, he said, and the lawsuit alleges they were negligent in recklessly disposing of the material in a way that contaminated properties. They failed to act as a reasonable company would act in disposing of toxic material, he said.

The Maine paper companies named in the Somerset County suit include VERSO Corp., which closed its Bucksport paper mill in 2014 (an aquaculture facility, a church, and the Maine Maritime Training Center are preparing to open at the site) and Pine Tree Waste, d/b/a Central Maine Disposal in Fairfield, a division of Casella Waste. A second lawsuit against the paper companies is pending in federal court in Bangor.

GO LAB Inc. of Belfast, current owner of a former paper mill in Madison that it has repurposed to manufacture wood fiber insulation, was in the original suit but was dismissed from the suit Feb. 4.

While the paper mills manufactured products containing PFAS, Watts said the mills are not the real target. He said he wants eventually to sue the major corporations in the mills’ supply chains.

“When did they know that PFAS does not break down in the environment?” he asked. “If we can show they knew (the material did not break down in the environment) and they kept selling this stuff, juries are not going to be very happy with them.”

According to Watts, the substance was developed in the 1930s and introduced in products in the 1940s.

The Guardian reported as far back as 1950 that a study of mice showed PFAS building up in the animals’ blood. In 1961, a toxicologist warned the chemicals enlarged rat and rabbit livers. And in 1963, a technical manual deemed PFAS toxic and female workers were for a time reassigned from working with the chemicals for fear of the risks to any developing fetuses.

In keeping with the notion of “You make it, you own it,” Watts wants the original manufacturers to pay for the effects their product has had on the plaintiffs’ health and the cost to remediate the substance from their soil and water. “They should also be responsible for monitoring the plaintiff’s health,” he added.

“Nobody told you the stuff you were spreading had PFAS,” Watt told the audience.

A thorny municipal issue, Watts noted, is the possibility of plummeting property values associated with contaminated water and soil in town. Watts suggest people call DEP and get their property tested, “as soon as possible — and send us the results.”

The attorney said about 50 people in the PFAS Maine Fairfield audience filled out paperwork to join the class action suit. Chairs at the Unity event all had copies of a contract and an info-graphic on their seats, and several attendees could be seen filling out the documents.

For more information, visit PFAS Maine on Facebook or pfasmaine.com, call 453-1087, or email info@pfasmaine.com.