On the edge of town in Waterville, Maine, where I live and work, is Quarry Road Trails. It is bordered on the west by Messalonskee Stream, which carries water from the expansive Belgrade Lakes to the mighty Kennebec River, and on the east by a steep ridge that rises about 200 feet above the stream. Quarry Road is one of those local gems that affords easy access to nature and reminds you how lucky you are to live where you do. It also has a little-known story.
The park is dominated by large stands of hemlock, maple, pine and birch trees, and in winter ten kilometers of groomed cross-country ski trails. Snow-making equipment ensures sufficient snow even as our winters are warming. Some trails are flat and tranquil with a canopy of snow- covered hemlock branches and others are steep icy hills that are a challenge to climb and a thrill to descend. Recreational skiers of all abilities, high school and college athletes, people on snow shoes and fat-tire bikes, rock climbers and dog walkers can be found on the trails. There is also a wicked sledding hill.
Over a century ago, rubble stone was quarried at this site, which led to the formation of Devil’s Chair, a popular climbing spot. In winter, long, thick ice formations hang from its jagged rocky face.
Devil’s Chair today is obscured by a continuous stand of trees, although the trail is clearly marked with a sign. It is a fairly steep climb to the top that leaves you breathless, as does the view over the treetops. Waterville’s nickname is “Elm City,” and even though most elm trees succumbed to Dutch elm disease decades ago, the town has so many trees that the horizon is obscured in all but the highest points in town.
Quarry Road gained a downhill ski slope and tow rope in the 1930s, built by local clothing store proprietor H.R. Dunham, who also owned a farm up on the ridge with horses, cattle and apple trees. The ski slope fell into disrepair after a few years, and was rebuilt in 1946 by students at nearby Colby College returning from the Second World War. They cleared brush, designed two ski runs, resurrected a wooden ski jump that landed jumpers precariously close to the stream, and even built a lodge out of reclaimed boards from a barn down the road that was being dismantled to make way for the town’s hospital. After a few more years, the slopes were again abandoned, and except for a brief time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the area was mostly left unused until 2007 when a group of visionary volunteers created the park we have today.
I go to Quarry Road as often as I can, in all four seasons. It delivers a restorative dose of nature and is a lovely place to exercise. For six consecutive winters, I was a parent volunteer and spectator while my son skied competitively for the newly formed Central Maine Ski Club.
A few weeks ago, I ventured out to Quarry Road for a different reason. It was the Colby Carnival, and college ski teams from all over New England were there to compete. One of my students in the Environmental Studies Program at Colby College is on Colby’s team and is also my research assistant. She skied the women’s 5K freestyle race and then stayed afterward to trudge around collecting samples of snow and run-off water flowing from the ski trails to the stream.
We were looking for PFAS.
PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) comprise a family of synthetic industrial chemicals with water-, grease- and stain-resistant properties that are used widely under familiar trade names like Teflon, Gore-tex, and Stainmaster. They are also found in ski wax, so sampling right after a race where fluorinated waxes were used made sense.
PFAS contamination is detected just about everywhere. PFAS are called “forever chemicals” for their long persistence in the environment. They also bio-accumulate in living organisms and are highly toxic. These are not desirable properties for widespread environmental pollutants.
We’ve known about the threats of PFAS for decades, since pregnant Teflon workers at a Dupont factory gave birth to babies with severe birth defects, and since the public found out that drinking water supplies near 3M’s waste dumps in Minnesota were poisoned. Dupont and 3M have been major U.S. producers of PFAS.
Nearly all Americans have PFAS in their blood, and exposure has been linked to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular and kidney cancer, and birth defects. A recent health study in Merrimack, New Hampshire, which has a PFAS-contaminated water supply, revealed increased incidence of developmental, autoimmune and kidney disorders in children. Public health advocates are pressing governments everywhere to take action.
We don’t have our results yet from the testing lab, so I don’t know if PFAS will be detected in our samples, but they probably will. In Maine, the Department of Environmental Protection has detected PFAS in soil, sewage sludge, drinking water, and even fish.
Either way, positive results won’t tell us why PFAS are found at Quarry Road. It could be deposition from long-range atmospheric transport or localized use of fluorinated ski waxes. Nor will it be obvious what to do next.
In modern times, we live, work and play in environments that are contaminated. Sometimes we know it and sometimes we don’t. Does it change how we feel about a place when we find out it may be a source of toxic exposure? That this exposure might carry health risks?
I don’t have an answer to this question, but it won’t stop me from doing the work I do or advocating for a safer environment. I will continue to be inspired by the trees at Quarry Road. People will keep skiing and climbing Devil’s Chair. We will go on loving the places in nature we hold dear, despite what is hidden.
This project was conducted with the assistance of Skylar Tuppar ’20, who received a student research grant from Colby’s Buck Lab for Climate and Environment.