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Penobscot Nation and environmental advocates raise concerns about PFAS in landfill runoff

Protesters outside Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town on April 22, 2021.
Nick Woodward
Maine Public file
Protesters outside Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town on April 22, 2021.

Representatives of the Penobscot Nation as well as environmental and health groups are pushing for tighter regulations on what happens to liquid waste from a state-owned landfill in Old Town as they seek to protect tribal members from potential dangers of so-called “forever chemicals.”

The Juniper Ridge Landfill received more than 800,000 tons of waste in 2020, according to reports filed with the state. Yet the landfill, which is owned by the state but operated by Casella Waste Systems, also generated millions of gallons of polluted liquid runoff — known as leachate — that had to be hauled off site for treatment.

Dan Kusnierz, the water resources program manager for the Penobscot Indian Nation, said recent tests showed the leachate contained 20 times as much PFAS as the state allows for drinking water. Kusnierz said the current treatment system fails to remove these harmful industrial chemicals before the leachate is discharged into the Penobscot River, which is a source of both sustenance and cultural identity for tribal members.

“Clean water is of utmost importance to protect these practices,” Kusnierz told members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Monday. “These are not recreational uses but legally protected rights.”

He was among several people who testified in support of a bill that would require treatment of Juniper Ridge’s leachate to remove PFAS, which is short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. The chemicals have been widely used for decades as industrial coatings for countless products, including nonstick and water- and stain-repellant fabrics and grease-resistant food packaging. But some types of PFAS have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer, kidney malfunction and low birth weight. And PFAS hotspots are now cropping up around Maine as a legacy of the state’s industrial past and history of using sludge as fertilizer.

There are currently no wastewater facilities in Maine equipped with the technology to remove PFAS. The wastewater plant serving the Madison-Anson area received federal funding to install a new treatment system to remove PFAS but that system will not be operational until next year, at the earliest.

A representative for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection says that while the agency agrees with the intent of the bill, the department doesn’t have the staff or money to complete the research and rulemaking that would be required. Instead, the DEP says Maine should wait for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to complete its research on PFAS in wastewater and set federal standards.

Brian Kavanah, director of the DEP’s Bureau of Water Quality, also expressed concerns about what would happen if the state was unable to meet the bill’s July 1, 2025, deadline to treat leachate from Juniper Ridge or other state-owned landfills.

“In summary, the department supports the goal of this bill to ensure appropriate treatment for leachate as soon as possible,” Kavanah said. “However, we believe this will be best accomplished by implementing EPA’s standards in a timely manner rather than conducting the very labor intensive and redundant work of developing standards that are unique to Maine.”

But bill supporters — including the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Sierra Club, the Conservation Law Foundation and Defend Our Health — said the state can’t afford to wait for the feds to act. They noted that Maine has been among the vanguard of states that have moved forward with stricter regulations of PFAS, including drinking water quality standards, because federal agencies have been slow to update current guidelines.

“If we ever hope to allow Penobscot tribal citizens to safely eat fish from their river, it is imperative that sources of contamination be controlled,” Kusnierz said. “We urge you to pass this bill to take an important step to control PFAS from Maine-owned landfills and to show Maine as a leader in controlling PFAS.”

The committee is expected to take up several additional PFAS-related bills this session.