Pingree to USDA Sec. Vilsack: Meet with Maine Farmers Affected by PFAS Contamination
Congresswoman Pingree urged fellow Agriculture Subcommittee members to treat Maine’s PFAS challenges as a ‘cautionary tale’ because land across the country is likely contaminated as well.
WASHINGTON, DC—In a House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee budget hearing today, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) underscored the widespread per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination affecting Maine farms and families, and questioned U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on what resources and funding the Department needs to address the issue.
“We're finding [PFAS] all over our state. Some of the farmers, because they don't have time to wait for the state, are paying for their own testing. They're testing themselves and finding extremely high levels of contamination in their own bodies and their children's bodies,” Congresswoman Pingree said in the hearing. “So, I just can't say enough about how hard it is to witness this going on and to realize we just don't have the resources, we don't have the science, we can't tell the farmer right now what to do to mitigate the problem, to remediate the problem.”
Pingree also extended an invitation to Secretary Vilsack to visit Maine so he could hear first-hand how farmers are dealing with “forever chemical” contamination.
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree
Well, thank you so much, Mr. Chair. Thank you for holding this hearing today. And Secretary Vilsack, it's always wonderful to see you and I appreciate your spending time with our committee and talking to us about the budget for the next year. I have a couple of questions I'll submit for the record, I have some things I often talk to you about–about organic rules and about climate change.
But I really want to just spend my time talking about one thing that is a relatively new issue in my state. But really a devastating issue. And that is the challenge that our farmers are finding in having their land contaminated by PFAS. I know I've communicated with the Department about this a little bit, and it may be an issue that some of my colleagues haven’t thought about much, but treat this as a cautionary tale because I think that Maine has done a lot of investigation into this.
Our farmers are very actively engaged in trying to understand the impact this has on their farms. But because much of the contaminated land is due to the spreading of sewage sludge on the land, much of it back in the 70s and 80s, it's likely to be appearing in states all over the country. And as I say, it is it's just it's just devastating.
I've participated in some roundtables with farmers in our state who already know they have contaminated land. I've met extensively with our commissioner of agriculture and our head of the environment. And I'm really proud of my state for investing in the funds to help farmers test their land and to do everything they can to support these farmers.
But when you listen to a young family, and I know we're all anxious to have more young farmers – and we've have been really proud in our state of how many young people have gotten engaged in farming – many of them are certified organic. So they're particularly cautious about that land. But once they find out that they've gotten that diagnosis of PFAS contamination, it's just it's a dead stop. You know, all of a sudden, the products that you've been cultivating in the greenhouse, the things you're about to plant in the land this spring, you just have nowhere to turn. Your land is contaminated and very likely you have produce that will be unsaleable. Perhaps you have a dairy herd which has been eating contaminated feed. Perhaps you don't have contaminated land, but you bought hay from somebody else who had contaminated land and didn't know about it. And we've just really seen the tip of the iceberg. But like I said, it's heartbreaking to talk to the farmers.
Many of them are concerned about their own health because we have a lot of young farmers, a lot of young children who've been outside playing in the yard or drinking the water that's also contaminated. Our state is doing a wonderful job investing in testing, but it takes a long time. It takes a long time to discover which lands had sewage sludge spread on them.
And there's a lot because it was a conventional practice and probably for many years we assumed it was a good idea. And adding fertility to the land, we didn't know that there were these permanent chemicals, PFAS, in some of that sewage sludge. And we're finding it all over our state. Some of the farmers, because they don't have time to wait for the state, are paying for their own testing.
They're testing themselves and finding extremely high levels of contamination in their own bodies and their children's bodies. So, I just can't say enough about how hard it is to witness this going on and to realize we just don't have the resources, we don't have the science, we can't tell the farmer right now what to do to mitigate the problem, to remediate the problem.
And we're still trying to figure out what are safe levels in produce in other products. And our own CDC and the state of Maine is doing that kind of research. So, I know I'm kind of going on here, but I, I just can't say enough about it. And the importance of the USDA stepping in to help. Funds are being set up in our state to support those farmers who may be devastated economically.
To do more research, to do more testing, to support the testing. But I guess and I've contacted the USDA and I know that you are working cooperatively with us, but what else do you need to be able to take a bigger leadership role and funding? Do you think you need to face this problem into going into the future and as always, I certainly invite you to come to the state of Maine, because I would love nothing more than having you sit down with some of the farmers and hearing their story firsthand and hearing with our own Department of Agriculture about how they're dealing with this.
Secretary Tom Vilsack
You've correctly identified the need for more information. I think we need a national standard so that there's a better understanding of precisely what is acceptable. I think we also need to get away from the ad hoc commodity by commodity assistance programs that we currently have, and we have to create more of that overall program that basically covers all the commodities. We have something for dairy industry, but we don't necessarily have something for produce.
And so this is a significant funding issue and one that I suspect you're going to take up in the farm bill. And I would use this opportunity that you raised just simply to make this pitch. We always go into the farm bill discussions with the notion that we have to do it within the existing budget. I think that's a mistake.
I think there needs to be some real thought about this. We need to maybe suggest that on at least this occasion there may be a need for additional resources in the farm bill to address these kinds of emerging issues.
Well, thank you for that, and I wholeheartedly support you in that endeavor. And we'll look forward to working with the department about all of the things that you need – the criteria ,the support, and the and the really the change in the way that we look at supporting farmers.
Because, as you said, we may have some ideas about how to go about it in the dairy industry, but beyond that, we haven't given enough thought and certainly don't have the program. So thank you for your consideration.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. I look forward to working with you on this challenging issue. Thank you. And thank you.