When the indigenous tribe known as The Aroostook Band of Micmacs, a federally recognized tribe of the Mi'kmaq people took over the Loring Air Force Base to use as a farm, they didn't expect that they'd be cleaning up a Superfund site - an area that's so polluted it's marked as a high-priority for federal cleanup.
But after the tribe took over ownership of the former base located on a strip of land along the border between Maine and Canada, they found its soil was contaminated with "forever chemicals." These cancer causing chemicals don't degrade in water or soil, and can build up in human bodies, causing any number of health problems. Due to their persistent nature, these cancer-causing compounds can linger for hundreds if not thousands of years.
Only a few decades ago PFAS were considered to be a miracle of modern ingenuity. They've been used in everything from firefighting foam to nonstick pans because of their oil and water-repelling properties. Since then, they've been found to present scores of health issues, such as kidney and testicular cancer, suppressed immunity, and even liver damage.
While PFAS can plague land for generations, the Micmac tribe came up with a unique solution -- growing their hemp on the contaminated land. In 2020, researchers discovered that the Micmacs' hemp plants could remove PFAS from the contaminated soil. This technique is referred to as 'phytoremediation,' and could give contaminated farms new life by finally stopping these pesky chemicals.
During the spring of 2019, the Micmac Nation and Upland Grassroots began their experiment alongside their research partners. Despite the land's complications, the tribe obtained the location for economic development.
Hemp is an ideal resource for phytoremediation due to its deep and profuse roots and accessibility throughout the United States. And phytoremediation is a popular choice for cleaning land of contaminants because it's relatively affordable and limits soil disturbance.
The standard approach to PFAS cleanup can be astronomically expensive. Instead of using nature's resources, the process often involves excavating the affected soil. One estimate on a 100-acre dairy farm in Maine ran close to $25 million. Phytoremediation could save farms 75% when compared to traditional cleaning methods.
While the cost is relatively cheaper, phytoremediation still carries a fair share of minor setbacks. For instance, the process works best when used on land with minor contamination and takes more time than traditional cleaning methods.
Another major obstacle to phytoremediation is water usage. At Loring, the EPA wouldn't allow the use of their water supply due to contamination. As a result, Loring had to truck in water each week for their hemp, which limited how much they were able to grow for the experiment.
Sara Nason, a lead researcher from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, told Grist that the results were "conservatively promising." Though she did show some hesitation, later commenting, "It's a possibility, but I think we still have a lot to learn. It's still unclear how much of the chemicals hemp can remove."
While the Loring experiment extracted some PFAS, a solid chunk remained present in the soil. Despite these obstacles, the Loring land continues to heal. Over the past few years, the woods have grown back, and local wildlife has returned to the area. While state officials have cautioned against consuming the local wild venison due to PFAS, The Aroostook Band of Micmacs continues to consider plans for a campground once the land is properly clean.