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Environment and Outdoors

Feds announce $22 million to upgrade wastewater infrastructure in Oxford County

Federal and state officials announced $22 million for water and wastewater projects in Oxford County on Tuesday.

While much of that money will go toward upgrading decades-old facilities and mechanical equipment, the improvements will also help strengthen critical infrastructure against storm surges as Maine's climate changes.

Roland Arsenault said there is no shortage of aging equipment in serious need of replacement at the Rumford-Mexico Sewerage District, where he serves as superintendent. Arsenault said in the spring of 2018, system failures led to 58 water quality violations at the wastewater treatment plant. Rats built nests inside equipment and chewed through wires last summer, leading to shutdowns. And other parts of the district's network are pushing 50 years old.

"While the district does an amazing job keeping the antiquated assets functioning every day to meet its discharge permits, not a day passes without equipment failures or system challenges,” Arsenault said during a virtual press conference on Tuesday.

The Rumford-Mexico Sewerage District will receive just shy of $20 million in grants and loans to cover the bulk of the $28 million in upgrades that a recent engineering analysis said will be necessary. That money was part of more than $22 million in funding announced Tuesday by U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development and members of Maine's congressional delegation.

The Mexico Water District will receive $2.5 million in loans to upgrade facilities and infrastructure, including replacing a 100-year-old, cast iron water main. And the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments will receive a $77,900 grant to provide technical assistance to towns or groups in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties.

U.S. Sen. Angus King said the funding will help in a rural region of the state where economic opportunities might otherwise be limited if towns cannot expand their water and wastewater services. But King pointed out that Maine is also slated to receive billions of dollars more through the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure bill recently passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden.

"I think what we are seeing today is a down payment, really,” King said. “There are going to be some substantial new funds through the infrastructure bill for water projects, infrastructure projects, broadband and roads throughout the state."

Of course, Maine's infrastructure needs are massive.

Commissioner Melanie Loyzim with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection said that communities have identified more than $1 billion in needed upgrades just to keep wastewater systems functioning properly. And when those systems fail, as happened in Rumford in the spring of 2018, Maine's surrounding waters often suffer the consequences.

DEP reports show that in 2020, sewage treatment plants in Maine reported discharging nearly 360 million gallons of untreated water and sewage into local waterways, often during larger storms. That is down from 2.3 billion gallons a decade earlier. But so-called combined sewer overflows are still significant sources of pollution to Maine's rivers and coastal waters.

Arsenault said the Rumford-Mexico system is designed to handle 2.7 million gallons daily. But they've seen larger storms in recent years with some generating as much as 8 million gallons in a day. Loyzim with the DEP, meanwhile, said such projects will help systems handle precipitation from those larger storms as the climate changes.

Rhiannon Hampson, who is director of USDA Rural Development in Maine, said waste and wastewater infrastructure haven't always been part of the climate discussion.

"We tend to silo a lot of these different things and I think we are getting to a point where we can no longer do that,” Hampson said. “We can no longer silo each one of these issues. We have to tackle these holistically together, as a community, as a state and as a nation."

The organizations that received USDA funding hope to start work on their projects next year.