Maine has so far avoided an “environmental catastrophe” with sludge disposal, but officials who run an Old Town landfill expressed concern Wednesday about the continuing impacts of two state laws.
Patrick Ellis of Casella Waste Systems said a growing crisis with sludge disposal has subsided now that they are able to ship the material to New Brunswick, although that increases costs for municipalities.
“We are not happy we have to pass along a significant rate increase to them, but we are happy that we’ve been able to service them and avoided an actual, in my mind, environmental catastrophe of having to dump sludge into the rivers in Maine,” Ellis told members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
Casella, which runs state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill, paused the collection of municipal sludge in late February after they noticed instability at the landfill.
The issue came to light when local sanitary district officials complained that they do not have the ability to store sludge onsite for long periods of time. According to Casella, the sludge started building up when two state laws made it difficult for the company to accept sludge at the Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town.
The laws have “manifested a significant and dangerous challenge to our efforts to manage the state landfill,” said Shelby Wright, engagement manager for Casella.
One law essentially prohibits the spreading of sludge on farm fields, a reaction to the discovery that some of those fields are now contaminated by chemicals known as PFAS.
Those chemicals, which are used as stain-resistant coatings on carpets and furniture, have been found in wells and soil across the state. Exposure to high levels of PFAS have been linked to an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancers.
The second law impacting the disposal of sludge restricts the importation of construction waste into the state. That waste had been used to bulk up the sludge to make it safe for disposal.
Sen. Anne Carney (D-Cape Elizabeth) said both laws are important environmental measures and urged Casella officials to focus on solutions.
She said rather than use the situation “as an excuse and leverage to try to get rid of really important public policies that prevent pollution and contamination in our state,” it would be helpful for Casella to work with state and municipal officials.
More than 30 sanitary districts across the state could be affected by changes to sludge disposal.
In Scarborough, “it’s been awful,” David Hughes, sanitary district superintendent, told Spectrum News Tuesday.
Hughes and others came to the State House last year to warn lawmakers that costs would rise significantly if the state banned the spreading of sludge on farm fields.
Costs in Scarborough have risen from about $200,000 a year prior to the passage of the ban to $600,000 following an emergency amendment to the town’s contract with Casella, Hughes said.
And now, they are so far behind in sludge removal that they can’t catch up.
“The truck we needed Friday didn’t show up until Wednesday,” he said. “We kept it in storage and they were chock-a-block full.”
He said he contacted his state legislators to tell them that he was close to being forced to “dump it on the ground or dump untreated wastewater into the ocean.”
As a short-term solution, he thinks lawmakers should repeal the restrictions on out of state construction debris. But the state must take the lead on something more, he said.
“We need a long-term, regional solution and we need to work with other states and other countries,” Hughes said.