DEP officials, landfill operator to brief lawmakers on Maine’s growing sludge crisis
State environmental officials plan to update lawmakers on Wednesday about what some view as a developing crisis over the disposal of sludge.
Municipal treatment plants have been scrambling to find alternative disposal options ever since Casella Waste Systems said last month it was reducing the amount of sludge that the company would accept at the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill. Casella said the change — affecting between 5 million and 8 million pounds of municipal sludge monthly — was necessary because two new laws increased the amount of sludge coming to the landfill while limiting the company's access to out-of-state waste it says is needed to mix with the liquid sludge.
But Casella's critics from the environmental community contend the company isn't considering other solutions. And treatment plant operators are warning of increased risk of environmental problems — including discharges into Maine’s rivers or coastal waterways — as sludge builds up at facilities.
Scarborough Sanitary District Superintendent David Hughes said he should have a truck haul away sludge every four days but he was on day nine before one finally arrived last week. Had the situation went much longer, Hughes said, he was facing a decision of whether to dump sludge in a trailer on the ground, bringing in more heavy equipment or making other significant changes to his facility’s operations. Hughes said this week that “it’s better but I’m still on edge” because the pick-up schedule is still unpredictable.
"It's been a lot,” he said. “Just trying to communicate and get conveyed to the DEP and the state Legislature how critical this situation is has been exhausting."
Casella representatives have directly linked the current situation to two bills signed into law last year. The first, L.D. 1911, effectively ended the long-standing practice of spreading treated sludge as fertilizer or using it to make compost amid growing concerns about contamination with the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS. Several farms have been forced to close due to PFAS pollution linked to past fertilization with sludge and dozens more are contaminated along with hundreds of neighboring wells.
The second bill, L.D. 1639, closed a perceived loophole on the disposal of out-of-state waste at Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town. For years, Casella has used construction and demolition debris imported largely from Massachusetts as the “bulking agent” to combine with more liquid sludge in order to ensure the stability of the landfill. But the new law, which took effect last month, has reduced the volume of that bulky waste by 14% even as sludge deliveries to Juniper Ridge have increased by 15% monthly, according to figures provided by Casella.
A spokesman for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, David Madore, said Tuesday that the department continues to explore potential solutions to the issue.
“We have identified some potential sources of bulking material and are sharing information with Casella to determine how much of those materials may be helpful for bulking sludge and what the tip fee for those materials would be,” Madore wrote in an email. “There is a shortage of disposal capacity across the Northeast to manage wastewater sludge, unrelated to PFAS. The only facilities identified to date are either already taking diverted sludge from Casella, or only accept liquid sludge at extraordinary cost.”
But environmental advocates who had pushed for those two laws for years accused Casella of causing the situation.
“The passage of Maine’s two waste management bills impacted Casella’s bottom line, and that’s what this is about — profit,” Adam Nordel, an organic farmer impacted by PFAS pollution who is now a campaign manager for the organization Defend Our Health, said late last week. “And now, it seems that Casella has done a poor job of finding alternative bulking agents after the people of Maine asked them to stop filling our landfill with out-of-state waste, even though there are readily available alternative items that other landfills use to stabilize wet material. The corporation is now acting irresponsibly and is deliberately putting our wastewater treatment districts in an untenable situation.”
A spokesman for Vermont-based Casella, in turn, accused Defend Our Health and other groups of using inaccurate information to attack the company.
“This is not a matter of us choosing one material over another or attempting to disrupt the system,” Casella-spokesman Jeff Weld wrote in an email. “We provide service in real time and we have a responsibility to do so as safely as possible. There is a lack of materials available to dispose of this amount of sludge while maintaining permit compliance. L.D. 1639 [took effect] last month, and it became apparent after less than a month that the bulking volumes were not going to be consistently available. People seem to make the assumption that we are turning away suitable bulking material to prove a point, and it’s simply not the case.