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Maine treatment plants are finding more places to put wastewater sludge

Tons of sludge are being shipped into Canada, with ratepayers expected to pick up the bill.

SCARBOROUGH, Maine — It's a crisis averted at Maine's only landfill that takes municipal sludge and what could be even bigger environmental concerns in the decades to come. 

For several weeks, municipal treatment plants have been scrambling to find other disposal options after Casella Waste Systems reduced the amount of sludge transported to the Juniper Ridge Landfill, near Old Town.

Tons of sludge are now being shipped across the border into New Brunswick, Canada because there is so little disposal capacity in Maine — but this costly move will ultimately be passed on to ratepayers.

David Hughes is the superintendent of the Scarborough Sanitary District where a 30-ton trailer loaded with sludge from the wastewater treatment plant is supposed to be hauled away every four days. Last week, it sat for nine days with no pickup, and Hughes was running out of options.  

"It came to the point our holding tanks were full, our trucks were full," Hughes explained.

Casella Waste Systems contracts with Scarborough and 29 other municipalities to haul sludge to the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill. 

Last month, Casella said it significantly cut the amount of sludge it would accept at the facility because of concerns about of the stability of a section of the landfill. Casella blamed the crisis on two laws passed last year. The first, LD 1911 which went into effect last August, stopped the decades-long practice of spreading sludge on farmland as fertilizer because of recent findings that it contained high levels of toxic PFAS chemicals.

The second law, LD 1864, stopped the flow of bulk waste from out of state, like construction debris. Casella said it needs to mix with the sludge to make the landfill stable.

Patrick Ellis, Casella's director of organic solutions, testified before lawmakers earlier this week. 

"In terms of the short-term emergency that was caused by the instability of the landfill, I think we are past that," Ellis said. Ellis also said sludge transports are back on schedule.

Smaller amounts are going to Juniper Ridge, while much of it is being sent temporarily to facilities in New Brunswick. 

That raises concerns for Adam Nordell with Defend Our Health. The farmer turned environmental advocate had to walk away from his grain farm, which was spread decades ago with PFAS-tainted sludge.   

"Is it getting composted and sold at that point, is it getting spread, is it getting landfilled?" Nordell said.

There are also big worries for sanitary districts about the cost of transporting sludge from Maine to Canada. Scarborough went from paying $200,000 annually to potentially $600,000, and that expense will have to be passed on to ratepayers.

"It's not something we can absorb," Hughes explained.

"We have been working incredibly hard to keep those costs as low as we possibly could," Jeff Weld, the communications director at Casella said.

Department of Environmental Protection spokesman David Madore told NEWS CENTER Maine in a statement: 

"The Department was pleased to hear, on Wednesday, that Casella is currently able to safely manage all of the sludge they contracted to take from Maine’s wastewater districts. Due to ongoing uncertainties about their Canadian outlets, the Department is continuing to pursue sources of waste that could be used to bulk additional sludge at the Juniper Ridge Landfill if needed. The Department is also investigating other sludge management alternatives and new technology to reduce the volume of sludge and reduce Maine’s use of landfill capacity for sludge in the future.”

Hughes said a long-term solution could be years away. 

"To be able to change on a dime, it doesn't happen fast in this industry," Hughes added.

For more information on the state's ongoing investigation into PFAS, click here.

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