Energy & Environment

State resistance foils law changes, hampering PFAS suits

Second in a four-part series

State-level efforts to help victims of “forever chemical” exposure get compensation have met resistance from both governments and industry — and this pushback has been particularly effective in Republican-led states.  

In Vermont, an official in the governor’s office coordinated with a lobbyist in “watering down” a bill that aimed to make polluters pay for health screenings, emails obtained by The Hill show. 

And in Michigan, a bill aiming to add more time to the clock to allow people to sue over contamination has languished in the Republican-controlled legislature.

While these pieces of legislation would have applied to multiple varieties of contamination, they’re often discussed in reference to a class of toxic forever chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — a class of thousands of compounds that have been linked to health issues including kidney cancer and thyroid disease. 

The 2019 Vermont bill — called S.37 — sought to help communities impacted by pollution to sue companies for “medical monitoring” costs. Medical monitoring provides plaintiffs who have been exposed to, but are not yet sick from, toxic substances relevant health care screenings in an effort to prevent illness down the line. In late 2019, a Vermont court ruled that medical monitoring can be used as a legal solution for industrial pollution, but the legislation, which was vetoed before the ruling, would have sought to enshrine the right to the remedy in state law. 

Some sites of PFAS contamination. © Valerie Morris/iStock/Associated Press-Mike Groll 

But the legislation came under scrutiny from the business community, which lobbied for changes.

The Hill obtained an email sent by Ethan Latour, then a staffer to Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R), to lobbyist Warren Coleman, recapping a conversation they had. The email indicated that it was intended to be a draft of an update for the governor. 

In it, Latour indicated that Coleman and others had been working on changes to the legislation, including exempting activities done in compliance with state and federal permits from being the basis for medical monitoring claims. 

“These changes would make the legal standard for medical monitoring more consistent with judicial decisions made in other states … but would be perceived as watering down the bill,” he wrote in April 2019. 

In the same email, Latour said that Coleman had been working with state legislators to sway them toward “his/our proposal” — pointing towards a joint venture between the governor’s office and the lobbyist. 

“Warren has been working diligently with the House Judiciary Committee to try to help them see the benefits of his/our proposal around strict liability and medical monitoring,” he wrote. 

“Strict liability” means that a defendant would be liable for committing an action regardless of intent. If S.37 had been adopted as initially proposed, Vermont would have been the first state to explicitly put polluters on the hook for contamination and its impacts via a strict liability standard, but the provision was stripped out of the final version of the bill.

The email from Latour to Coleman also makes another reference to “watering down” the legislation, discussing efforts to potentially get rid of the bill’s strict liability portion — which was removed before it passed the state House. Those emails pertained to conversations between Coleman and Vermont House Judiciary Chair Maxine Grad (D). 

“From his conversations with Maxine, Warren gets the distinct impression House Judiciary is indifferent to the strict liability provisions — and might be willing to remove them from the bill — but does not want to do anything to the bill that could be perceived by environmental groups as watering down the medical monitoring provisions,” Latour wrote. 

While strict liability tends to apply to dangerous activities such as blasting operations or the transport of hazardous waste, proponents of the clause argued that chemicals like PFAS could cause so much harm that industry should take responsibility not to release them, according to Jon Groveman, policy and water program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, an environmental advocacy group.

Democratic State Rep. Martin LaLonde, who led the House’s work on the bill, said the strict liability provision was cut for “practical reasons.”

“I believed, as I think others did, that we would be more likely to pass and have the governor sign what we understood was the critical medical monitoring provisions in S.37 if the entirely separate concept of strict liability for toxic substance releases was not part of the bill,” LaLonde told The Hill via email. 

He said he worked with both proponents and critics of the bill — including Coleman — to find “compromise language,” but those conversations were not related to strict liability.  

In the email Latour sent to Coleman, the staffer for the governor’s office asked whether what he had written accurately reflected their conversation.

An email the next day between Coleman and Latour somewhat backtracked. It showed a strike-through on the portion of the email that referred to “his/our proposal,” instead calling it “their proposal.”  

It also struck through the part stating that the proposal would be “perceived as watering down” the legislation and only said that Grad “does not want to do anything to the bill that could be perceived by environmental groups as watering down the medical monitoring provisions.”

In an email to The Hill, Coleman indicated that he took issue with the bill’s potential impacts on industry.

“As drafted, this had serious implications for Vermont businesses, who were warned by regulators that they may not be able to secure insurance coverage for this type of liability,” he said. 

Coleman added that as the state sought to put the right to sue for medical monitoring into the law, business groups were pushing for changes that would be “consistent with existing court precedent” rather than “creating a new and unique legal test.”

“The stakeholders worked with the Senate sponsors of the bill, House and Senate committee chairs, House and Senate leadership and various members of both parties, but in the end S.37 was not amended substantially enough in the House to address these issues,” he wrote. 

Coleman declined to answer specific questions from The Hill about whether he viewed the proposal in question as a joint venture with the governor’s office and what client or clients he was working on behalf of. 

Latour, who now works for the same firm as Coleman, declined to comment, referring The Hill to Coleman’s response. 

Scott spokesperson Jason Maulucci directed The Hill to a message from the governor explaining his veto. 

In that message, Scott said that the bill “lacks the clarity needed by Vermont employers who our state relies on to provide good jobs.”

“Numerous Vermont employers have expressed concerns to me, and to legislators, that the unknown legal and financial risks, and increased liability, is problematic for continued investment in Vermont,” he added. “If Vermont manufacturers and others cannot secure insurance or cover claims, then our economy will weaken, jobs will be lost, tax revenue will decline and, ultimately, all Vermonters lose.”

The governor also said that there was a “path forward” for the bill, touting a bipartisan amendment that did not make it into the final version but would have increased the threshold for getting medical monitoring in comparison to the thresholds proposed in the legislation.

The logo of French construction materials company Saint-Gobain SA as seen in Paris Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. © Associated Press – Michel Euler 

In April 2019, Scott met with the president and CEO of Saint-Gobain, a manufacturing company allegedly responsible for contamination in Bennington, Vt., records show.  

That contamination was first discovered in 2015. Local residents are involved in an ongoing class action lawsuit against Saint-Gobain, which together with its predecessor, ChemFab, manufactured fabric coated with a type of PFAS called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) for several decades. 

According to a form requesting the meeting on behalf of Saint-Gobain, which was obtained by The Hill, CEO Tom Kinisky hoped to discuss “concerns about S.37” with the governor, among other topics. 

Asked about the meeting, Saint-Gobain spokesperson Peter Clark said via email that Kinisky met to discuss progress on environmental remediation efforts and negotiations on a consent decree. He added that Kinisky “shared concerns” about the bill’s potential impacts.

Maulucci, however, said that the meeting “was not about S.37.”

The bill, with the strict liability provision removed, passed both the House and Senate, but Scott never signed it. 

Last year, another version of the bill, now called S.113, was introduced. This version does not include any strict liability provisions, and additional changes have been made to the language, including specifying that it now only applies to “exposure at a rate significantly greater than the general population” instead of exposure more generally.

The new legislation was taken up by the Vermont Senate’s Judiciary Committee during a hearing last week.

Working with state senators from Bennington, the Vermont Natural Resources Council has helped craft the new version of the bill, which will only focus on medical monitoring to begin with, Groveman explained. He said he hopes the bill will address the governor’s concerns sufficiently to avoid a veto and at least get this portion of the initial legislation through.

“We do intend to go back to the strict liability issue, but we wanted to wait,” Groveman added. 

As the case against Saint-Gobain moves forward, Groveman said that attorneys could struggle with Vermont’s three-year “statute of limitations” — a law that prohibits legal claims after a set time period passes. Vermont’s statute comes with a “negligence discovery rule,” meaning that the statute is tied to the date the plaintiff was aware not only of both the injury and its cause, but also of the defendant’s negligent conduct.

“It gives such an advantage to the polluters,” Groveman said. “Basically they can say, ‘Yeah, it was our chemicals. Yeah, we did release it. You have these diseases because of it. But we weren’t negligent.’” 

Even as some states look to extend statutes of limitations in order to grant plaintiffs more time to seek compensation, Groveman stressed that “the people who are harmed are always the underdogs” and that taxpayers “shouldn’t absorb the costs” — a situation he believes that a strict liability standard could help transform. 

“In states with a lot of industry, they’re going to be very, very frightened to do anything like this,” Groveman said, noting that companies could threaten to leave the state. 

While S.37 would have applied to various types of contamination, it has particularly been discussed in terms of PFAS contamination. PFAS are most well-known for their presence in firefighting foam and industrial discharge, but they are also present in a variety of household items, such as nonstick pans, cosmetics and food packaging.

Toxic contamination cases are typically handled in state courts since toxic exposure claims are often made under state-level laws like negligence, nuisance or trespass, said Oday Salim, a law professor at the University of Michigan. 

“Torts like nuisance and negligence are state law claims that state courts presumptively have jurisdiction over,” Salim said. 

A two-year federal statute of limitations can apply to claims made through the Federal Tort Claims Act, under which people can sue the federal government for harm caused by a federal employee. 

In recent years, public awareness of PFAS contamination has been growing, though some of the contamination may have happened years or even decades ago — making it particularly complicated to sue polluting companies and government entities. 

State lawmakers have been trying to change that. 

In Michigan, a languishing effort

Some states have altered their laws, giving people more time to sue, but in Michigan, where the governor is a Democrat but the state legislature is Republican-controlled, the effort to change the law is playing out similarly to the way it did in Vermont. 

Democratic Michigan State Sen. Winnie Brinks has targeted the state’s statute of limitations for the past several years, introducing legislation that seeks to change when the clock for seeking compensation starts. She has hoped to shift that start time from the moment at which contamination occurs to when it is discovered. 

But her bill has failed to gain traction. 

“There is opposition because the Republicans are in control of our legislature. They control the agenda. And it was made very clear to me that we would not be getting a committee hearing on this legislation any time soon, so we don’t have the support of folks in leadership in the Republican-led legislature at this time,” she told The Hill last year. 

Brinks said that this is true even in Republican-led communities where there is PFAS contamination. 

“We may get some support. However, even at this point, we’ve not been able to get Republicans who do have sites in their district to sign on,” she added.

She criticized her GOP colleagues, saying, “It’s incumbent upon any legislator of any party to look out first and foremost for their constituents rather than defend folks who had the ability to contaminate our drinking water and let them off scot-free.”

The Hill has reached out to Republicans who lead the Michigan state Senate’s committees on environment and local government, to which iterations of the bill have been referred. Neither responded to The Hill’s requests for comment. 

In some states, however, legislatures are making changes.

While party politics factor in, with Democrats generally seeming more enthusiastic about such changes, sometimes what has been passed in different states isn’t directly comparable — and sometimes Republicans have been on board.

In New York, a new approach

A recent modification to New York law — which received widespread bipartisan support in Democrat-dominated chambers — allowed plaintiffs such as Loreen Hackett to get compensation for contamination in her community in Hoosick Falls, N.Y.

“In this tiny, little-ass town we got Chernobyled,” said Hackett. 

Massive PFOA contamination — a result of industrial discharge — was discovered in Hoosick Falls in 2016, leading the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to grant the impacted sites Superfund status — a designation that gives the EPA the authority to clean up the contamination, or demand that the polluters do so. 

The Hoosic River as seen through the village of Hoosick Falls, N.Y. © Associated Press – Mike Groll 

Prior to 2016, New Yorkers had three years from their diagnosis date to file a claim for compensation in toxic exposure cases. But that year, New York changed its statute of limitations to give plaintiffs three years from when an area is declared a Superfund site. 

That change enabled the legal fight Hackett proceeded to lead on behalf of her community.

Hackett has had breast cancer, blood disease and a hysterectomy, and has watched her grown daughters endure reproductive, bone and thyroid issues. But the 56-year-old resident of Hoosick Falls said she has given up on herself — redirecting her focus to the town’s youngest residents.  

“I can’t put a dollar amount on the life that I lost, but it’s too late for me,” Hackett said. “So I’m more worried about my grandchildren, having medical monitoring for their lives.”

“I’m the quintessential, pissed-off Italian Nonna — they hit the wrong person for a temper,” she said, adding that her two grandchildren help fuel her fight. “And then I see all the medical issues they go through and it just makes me madder and madder. And I don’t even cry. I just get more mad.” 

Lawyers filed a lawsuit on behalf of residents and the town of Hoosick Falls the same year the state law was changed, leading three of the accused parties — the chemical companies 3M, Saint-Gobain and Honeywell — to settle last year for $65.25 million, to be distributed in cash payments and to fund medical monitoring for community members. A fourth company, DuPont, did not settle. 

Steve Schwarz, who represented the town of Hoosick and its residents, said the change to New York’s statute of limitations was “really significant” for people who had been exposed to PFOA. 

“We had people, for instance, who were diagnosed with kidney cancer in the late ’90s or in the early 2000s, and without the change in the statute of limitations, they would have been out of luck,” he said. 

“A number of people who would not have had a remedy had a remedy, and those cases are pending,” Schwarz added. 

However, now that the date of Hoosick Falls’s designation as a Superfund site is outside the three-year statute of limitations, anyone who newly wanted to sue in the town wouldn’t be able to — unless they were diagnosed within the last three years. 

Schwarz said he was recently contacted by someone who told him that his wife had been diagnosed with thyroid disease, potentially related to PFOA exposure, in 2012. 

“I had to tell him that I could not do anything for him at this stage because she was diagnosed that long ago and she didn’t do anything in the window that was opened,” he added. 

Schwarz said it’s “hard to make a judgment” about whether enough people were informed. 

“It certainly was publicized,” he said. ”But again, does everybody pay attention to everything in the news? Probably not.”

He said that no general notice was sent out to people in Hoosick Falls, and that prior to the settlement, those with cancer took more interest in the issue than people with other illnesses.  

“People that had cancer tended to be more proactive about that,” Schwarz said. “It’s possible that there’s some people that were missed.” 

Sean Lynch, a spokesman for the 3M, said that “our statement on the resolution of matters in Baker, et al., lawsuit in Hoosick Falls, New York is available on our website.”

“The agreement resolves claims on behalf of the proposed classes without the need for further lengthy and expensive litigation,” that statement said, noting that 3M, Saint-Gobain and Honeywell would collectively contribute a total of $65.25 million to resolve plaintiffs’ claims.  

Clark, the Saint-Gobain spokesperson, said via email that the company is “pleased” with the settlement and stressed the importance of community health and safety, while Victoria Streitfield, a spokesperson for Honeywell, said in a statement that it “supports the settlement” and “remains committed to responsible remediation in Hoosick Falls.”

Most of the people to benefit from the cash payments will be property owners, who will be getting about 10 percent of their home value in 2015 if they signed on to the case or if they choose to do so in a second sign-on period, Hackett said. But 10 percent may not mean all that much to these residents, as Hackett is confident that no one would want to buy their homes. 

Hoosick Falls, N.Y., resident Loreen Hackett speaks during a news conference at the state Capitol calling for hearings on the state’s handling of PFOA contamination in drinking water in Hoosick Falls on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, in Albany, N.Y. © Associated Press – Mike Groll

Meanwhile, she continued, the medical monitoring clause in the settlement provides only 10 years of health follow-up to community members — and she fears that her grandchildren might develop cancer after that period expires.

She reiterated the fact that DuPont “absolutely refused” to settle, meaning that a portion of the case is ongoing — another lingering question mark in the community’s five-year battle.

Daniel Turner, a spokesman for DuPont, said that due to changes in 2019 to the company’s structure, DuPont de Nemours no longer manufactures PFOA. 

“While we do not comment on ongoing litigation, we believe these complaints are examples of DuPont de Nemours being improperly named in litigation, and we will continue to vigorously defend our record of safety, health and environmental stewardship,” Turner said. 

New Hampshire, Maine specifically target PFAS

While New York amended its statute of limitations for chemical contamination in general, an approach that other states such as New Hampshire and Maine are taking is to create PFAS-specific exceptions that give longer statutes for just these types of claims. Because they don’t leave companies on the hook for other types of contamination, these PFAS-specific changes make the relative liability smaller for the business community. 

In New Hampshire — where the Republican party controls both chambers, alongside a Republican governor — the state legislature voted this past July to create a six-year “statute of limitation on civil actions relative to damage caused by perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.” The move was a bipartisan legislative process that resulted in previous statutes of limitations in the state being effectively doubled.

“It’s a significant step forward for the people of New Hampshire, because they will have time to address the kind of problems that you have when you have PFAS exposure,” Assemblywoman Suzanne Vail (D), who sponsored the bill, told The Hill. 

New Hampshire has had severe PFAS contamination issues at the former Pease Air Force Base and at local industrial sites. 

PFAS discharge, allegedly from a factory owned by Saint-Gobain, contaminated the district water supply near the town of Merrimack, N.H., necessitating significant municipal investments in water filtration systems and the delivery of bottled water to residents within a certain zone of contamination, according to Vail. 

“We’re hoping that this is a building block for just saying this will make polluters pay,” she said.

The six-year statute of limitations — which begins running following the discovery of the injury — now provides plaintiffs with sufficient “fact-finding time” and a chance to find a physician who can link an illness to environmental contaminants, Vail said, acknowledging that this is not always an easy task. 

When it came to extending the statute, Vail stressed that the bill passed through the legislature with Republicans entirely on board, “even in these hyperpartisan times.” 

“People know that there’s no way out,” Vail said. “And they know that people are getting sick, and it just starts to come home to them.”

But the six-year statute, she continued, “opens the conversation about making polluters pay, and there’s nothing I want more than to make them pay forever.”

“These are forever chemicals,” Vail added. “And it’s bankrupting our state.”

When asked to respond to comments about making polluters pay, Saint-Gobain reiterated its commitment to environmental cleanup, saying the company is paying to install more than 15 miles of water lines and distributing nearly 500,000 gallons of bottled water, as well as installing advanced filtration at its facility.

“We remain committed to our remediation work in the Merrimack community,” the spokesperson said in an email.

An additional New Hampshire development that could help plaintiffs seeking compensation is a 2019 decision to set drinking water standards, or maximum contaminant levels (MCLs), for certain types of PFAS, added Laurene Allen, a member of Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water. 

New Hampshire’s significantly decreased threshold for drinking water contamination meant that more people’s wells could now be considered contaminated, and those individuals also have more time to make their case due to the extended statute of limitations, Allen explained. 

“So we worked to get MCLs that were health-based. We worked very, very hard to submit science,” Allen said. 

Another state that recently took a creative step forward was Maine, doing so with the help of Erin Brockovich, who — prior to becoming the subject of a Hollywood blockbuster film — gained renown for championing residents of Hinkley, Calif., who had become sick from hexavalent chromium contamination in the early 1990s.

Just over a year ago, Lawrence and Penny Higgins, owners of an alpaca farm in Fairfield, Maine, found out that Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection was checking a neighbor’s well for PFAS, so they asked for the same test on their well. 

“They came up and tested our water, and then three weeks later they called us, told us not to drink our water, not to cook with it, don’t give it to your animals. It was contaminated,” Lawrence Higgins told The Hill. 

“It was really a shock to us,” Higgins continued. “We’ve lived here for 28 years, and we’ve always had our water tested, just to make sure it’s safe for our kids and our grandchildren. So I didn’t really know what to do.”

.Lawrence and Penny Higgins tend to alpacas on their farm. The couple tested the level of PFAS in their well water and found that it was 26 times higher than the EPA’s health advisory levels and 90 times higher than Maine’s. © Courtesy of Lawrence and Penny Higgins 

His wife Penny, who had been experiencing an array of health issues, had the idea of contacting Brockovich about the situation. She responded immediately and asked what the PFAS levels in their well were, which Lawrence said were at a level 26 times higher than the EPA’s health advisory levels, and 90 times higher than Maine’s MCL.

“She called me up the next day and said, ‘Absolutely, I’m going to help you. I want to work with you,’” Higgins said.

With the help of Brockovich and attorney Russ Abney, a partner at Watts Guerra LLP, the Higginses rallied some 300 people to their cause, frustrated that state officials were “dragging their feet” on the issue and that the town of Fairfield was simply delivering them water bottles. 

Eventually, Higgins said, the Department of Environmental Protection installed a water filter in their house, but he found out that their chickens were still being exposed to ongoing PFAS contamination in the soil. 

David Madore, a spokesman for the department, disagreed with the characterization that it responded slowly, saying it “moved as expeditiously as possible to investigate potential PFAS contamination in the Fairfield area.”

The PFAS source in the Higgins’s region of Maine is the sludge generated by paper mills, which was long spread as biosolids on farms and then seeped into the water supply, according to Abney. As far as who is responsible for the contamination, Abney said that anyone “up the stream,” from the farmers to the manufacturer, could be considered at fault. 

“At this point, our desire is not to sue our neighbors, the farmers that obviously didn’t know about the contamination and are kind of victims themselves,” Abney said. “So, our attempt now is to go up the chain as far as we can, which gets us to the paper mills.”

Abney filed a lawsuit on behalf of about a dozen households versus about a dozen paper companies and waste disposal services in the state of Maine’s Superior Court in September, seeking both monetary compensation and medical monitoring for the plaintiffs due to their long-term exposure to PFAS. 

For Abney, timing was key in waiting to file the complaint till this past summer. Doing so would have been much more difficult when the Higginses and their neighbors first discovered the contamination, even though the state has a six-year statute of limitations. What the state had lacked, Abney explained, was a discovery law — meaning that the clock would not have started running at the time of discovery, but at the time of contamination.

The only way for the plaintiffs to have won such a case, Abney explained, would have been to argue that although the contaminants had been dumped years ago, they continued to leach into their wells every day — also known as the continuing tort concept. 

But in June 2021, Gov. Janet Mills (D) signed into law a bill passed by the state legislature — where both chambers are controlled by Democrats — that revised the statute of limitations for injury or harm resulting from PFAS. The changes now mean that a plaintiff has six years to file a case from the point at which he or she “discovers or reasonably should have discovered such harm or injury.”

While the Higginses said they only learned about the statute as they began the crusade, Penny told The Hill that she thinks they were instrumental in getting that component changed, as they “had spoken in front of the legislature and told them what was going on.”

“I think seeing faces helped make them change the laws,” she added.

Brockovich echoed these sentiments, adding that when she and Abney became involved, “one of the first things we talked about and looked at was that statute of limitations thing, which was coming up.”

“So they were a part of really showing up as the people in the state of Maine,” Brockovich said. “Imagine if every state did that at a local level. You’d light up the whole United States.”

In Abney’s mind, that shift was pivotal in terms of his ability to represent the Higginses and their neighbors. 

“The clarification just removed a big fight that I had hoped to win but I couldn’t say with certainty that I was going to win,” Abney said. “I can say now with certainty that I’m going to win that fight, so I don’t believe that defendants will even race.”

An initial rendition of the bill that enabled the change was killed in 2020. Assemblyman Bill Pluecker (I), who sponsored the 2021 version that ultimately passed, attributed the shift that occurred in the intervening year to “political will.” 

The previous version was sponsored by a Democrat and was perceived as partisan advocacy for one dairy farmer, Fred Stone, whose land had been contaminated by the sludge, according to Pluecker, who himself is an organic farmer. Stone and other dairy farmers in Pluecker’s district — located about an hour southwest of Fairfield — have had to close shop after finding their milk tainted with PFAS, he said. 

Similar to Abney, lawyer Susan Faunce, who is representing Stone, said that before the change to the statute of limitations, the laws provided significant hurdles, since they only allowed plaintiffs to seek compensation within six years from when contamination “accrued.”

However, Faunce said that this word wasn’t defined — meaning that it could have been taken in a way that was unfavorable for her clients. 

“There’s no definition of it, and so we became concerned because that sort of leads the statute of limitations open for interpretation, meaning that a judge would decide what the definition of ‘accrual’ is,” she said, adding that past judgments concerned her that the judge in Stone’s case could have ruled “conservatively” prior to the law change.

“Any time that there’s a statute of limitations issue that has been brought before the law court, the law court has tended to rule conservatively, basically not allowing the claim to move forward,” she said. 

Maine’s Department of Environment Protection first began conducting milk samples on farms in June 2020 and found that they surpassed the “milk action threshold” for a type of PFAS called perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, according to Madore, a spokesman for the department. Since then, he explained, the department has sampled more than 400 drinking water wells — finding that nearly 40 percent exceed Maine’s Interim Drinking Water Standard.


The Higgins’s alpaca farm. Sludge generated by paper mills, which spread as biosolids on farms and then seeped into the water supply, is the source of PFAS in the Higgins’s part of Maine. © Courtesy of Lawrence and Penny Higgins 

Regarding the department’s delivery of bottled drinking water, which the Higginses referenced, Madore stressed that his office provided these supplies “to Fairfield residences whose drinking water wells tested above the state threshold while we worked to install filtration systems on their wells.” 

The Hill contacted the dozen or so relevant paper mills and waste disposal firms listed on the Higgins complaint but only heard back from a few of them. 

Representatives for Pixelle Specialty Solutions, International Paper Company and Kimberly-Clark Corporation, which also owns Scott Paper company, said that their firms do not comment on pending litigation. A spokeswoman for the Finland-based company Huhtamaki said that the firm would “respond to the complaint accordingly and in due course.”

Another company on the list, Northern SC Paper Corporation, is majority-owned by The New York Times Company. Spokeswoman Linda Zebian confirmed that “The New York Times Company has an investment in the former Madison Paper Mill through a subsidiary.”

“The Times Company had no direct involvement in the Mill’s operations and, while we are still investigating, is not aware of it ever having used PFAS. The Mill was sold in 2016,” she told The Hill in an email.

Beyond the paper mill sludge and dairy contamination, Pluecker also expressed concern about an unusual property located in his town of Warren, Maine, which a company called Steamship Navigation had purchased to set up as the R.D. Outfitters rifle range. The owners “got paid a million dollars” to receive bales of PFAS-laced carpeting, which were supposed to serve as bulletproofing mechanisms, and then left the country with the money, according to Pluecker. 

Although the site is riddled with degrading plastic, Pluecker said that the town remains powerless due to lack of both ownership and the funds necessary to clean up such massive pollution. 

“So now we have PFAS in the soil there and nobody who’s going to be financially liable,” the assemblyman added. 

Some 27,000 tons of the carpet remain piled up on the property, the Bangor Daily News reported. While the Department of Environmental Protection gained control of the site through a court order in 2001 and secured a contractor to remove the material in 2018, only 16 tons of carpet were removed and that contract expired at the end of 2021, according to the Daily News. 

The department will be requesting new proposals for removal in the first quarter of 2022, Madore confirmed to the Daily News. 

In response to a query from The Hill about the site, Madore said that the Department began in 2017 to analyze samples for PFAS concentrations in the materials, which were found to be heavily contaminated. The department then followed up in 2018 with soil and surface water samples, detecting various levels of contamination. 

The highest levels identified in the water samples were in an unused, on-site well, but the concentrations were still below Maine’s interim drinking water standards, according to Madore. 

“Some PFAS impacts are evident at the site but appear to be localized and not impacting neighboring drinking water supplies,” he said.

Back on her alpaca farm in Fairfield, Penny Higgins said she hopes to gain a few concrete things if they win their lawsuit, including medical monitoring to follow their health, as well as financial compensation for their lost property value. She also would like to see the stop of sludge spread, as well as more scientific studies on the ground in their region. 

Just nine years ago, her husband added, they invested significant funds in rebuilding their home, as well as in building new barns for their alpacas, ponies and minis — making the contamination findings “a slap in the face.”

The Higgenses, like many of their neighbors, also recently lost a dog to cancer, but like local physicians for humans, the veterinarian was unfamiliar with the potential health effects of PFAS exposure on animals, Penny said. 

Although they have some optimism that their lawsuit will proceed in their favor, especially following the change to the statute of limitations, the Higginses feel they’ve lost a lot that just may not be recoverable. 

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be comfortable drinking water,” Penny Higgins said. 

Also in this series:
Justice for PFAS exposure confronts ticking clock
Formidable legal bar shields military from PFAS lawsuits
Past toxics cases set the stage for PFAS lawsuits

—Updated at 11:02 a.m.

Energy & Environment