The cost of Maine’s eternal chemical crisis is about to hit many sewer users in the pocketbook.
Sewer bills could rise by $20 to $40 a year in some southern Maine communities over the next year as municipal sewer districts face increased costs for landfilling sewage-generated sludge. wastewater treatment plants. This spring, Maine banned the reuse of sewage sludge as fertilizer or compost because it contains traces of dangerous chemicals forever.
“There’s going to be a sticker clash,” said York Sewer District Superintendent Phil Tucker. “We are not the source of the problem. We didn’t make these chemicals, but we’re supposed to get rid of them, manage them, and it’s going to be expensive.
And those costs are only expected to increase as disposal rules become more stringent, landfill space runs out at the few facilities in the state equipped to accept sludge, and sewer districts begin to installing million dollar dryers in their treatment facilities to reduce the volume of sludge they produce.
Septic tank owners could be next – state lawmakers ordered the state Department of Environmental Protection to return in January with a plan on how to handle sludge pumped from private tanks. the state if they decide to ban its reuse as fertilizer or compost, too.
The looming cost to homeowners in public sewage districts is the latest impact of a spreading crisis that has contaminated agricultural fields and drinking water wells, shuttered farms and left fish and game unsuitable for consumption. Maine now spends $20 million a year to study the extent of the problem.
In April, Maine passed a right which banned the spreading or composting of industrial or municipal sludge after farms where the sludge had been spread under a state-approved program — some dating back to the 1970s — began testing positive for high levels of forever harmful chemicals, or PFAS.
Long-lived per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals found in industrial waste and common household items such as cosmetics, nonstick cookware, and fast food packaging accumulate in water, soil and the human body over time and pose a significant health risk. people.
Last month, the US Environmental Protection Agency warned that even trace amounts of two of the oldest PFAS chemicals can pose significant risks to human health, compromised immune and cardiovascular systems, decreased fertility, low birth weight and several types of cancer.
According to Maine DEP, all municipal sludge tested had at least some level of PFAS detected.
With the secondary market for fertilizer and compost now closed, municipalities must truck their sludge to one of the few landfills in Maine allowed to accept it. Some even send it to Canada. In Maine, only the state-owned landfill, Juniper Ridge in Alton, is large enough to accept large shipments of sludge.
In York, the district overseen by Tucker, the average sewer customer pays about $770 in user fees and debt service combined. He predicts a fee hike of $40 per year in the next round of bills. About half of this amount will be used to cover rising sludge disposal costs, which have doubled from $150,000 last year.
“The state set aside money to help farmers affected by PFAS, but in the same breath the state forced us to find alternatives for our biosolids without any help,” Tucker said. “Our cheapest option is Canada, but it’s not cheap. It’s an unfair and unfunded mandate, that’s what it is.
Scarborough has seen its sludge landfill costs increase from $89 per tonne to $130 per tonne over the past year. Beginning in 2023, the cost of sludge disposal at Juniper Ridge will increase to $154 per ton. In total, the district’s sludge disposal costs have doubled from $200,000 to $400,000, said Scarborough Health District Superintendent David Hughes.
Overall, Scarborough is planning a 20% rate increase, or around $84, for the average residential user, who now pays around $420 a year, Hughes said – of which around 7% is directly attributed to the increase in the cost of landfilling municipalities in the district. mud.
Some environmental groups have accused the operator of Juniper Ridge, a subsidiary of Casella Waste Systems, of holding plant operators hostage, driving up prices after the new law left operators nowhere to turn, but Hughes disagreed.
Without a secondary market like compost or fertilizer, Casella must find space for an increasing amount of sludge at the same time Maine is cracking down on how landfills must handle materials that may contain PFAS to avoid leaching into the system. ‘water.
Another law passed this year that prohibits landfills from accepting bulky waste from out of state is also contributing to the rising costs of landfilling sludge, Hughes said. Wetter wastes such as sludge should be “fluffed up” or mixed with other materials so they don’t clump together and undermine the structural integrity of the landfill. Juniper Ridge must now purchase bulky waste it was once paid to landfill in order to have a filler and safely accept municipal sludge, Hughes said.
Portland Water District’s sludge management costs have increased 37%, or $700,000, since 2020, according to Scott Firmin, director of sanitation services for the district. He expects another $300,000 increase in August and a similar cost hike in 2023.
The Portland Water District does not charge consumers directly for sewer use, but the higher sludge disposal costs will show up in what it charges to the six communities from which it accepts waste – Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland, Gorham, Portland, Westbrook and Windham.
These communities will have no choice but to raise user fees to cover the higher costs, Firmin said.
These are just a few of the operators impacted by rising sludge treatment and disposal costs.
According to Emily Prescott, co-chair of the group’s government affairs committee, the Maine Water Environment Association reports that operators in Maine are experiencing significant cost increases and operational challenges related to sludge management.
Operators like Firmin note that the PFAS problem will only get worse, and therefore more expensive to solve, as long as manufacturers continue to make new products containing these harmful chemicals and consumers continue to buy and use them. .
Maine is heading towards prohibition. Next year, U.S. manufacturers will have to identify all PFAS added to products, though it’s unclear whether this will prevent them from using imported components not subject to the same ban. By 2030, manufacturers must completely eliminate the use of PFAS.
Until then, however, new sources of PFAS will enter Maine and the Mainers every day.
“If you want treatment plants to solve this problem, it’s going to be expensive, it’s going to take time, and it’s going to require new technology,” Firmin said. “The smartest and cheapest solution is to eliminate the source, because if it’s not in a product, it won’t get into you, and if it’s not in you, it won’t end up not here.”
Maine has dedicated and offered over $100 million over the past two years to combat PFAS.
Maine is believed to be the first state to ban sludge spreading, which remains a common agricultural practice in the United States, and was one of the only states at the time to adopt stricter consumption standards than those recommended by the US EPA.
It also created a $60 million relief fund for farmers affected by PFAS contamination to cover income losses due to the inability to sell contaminated milk, livestock and crops, soil and water, water filtration systems and even land buyouts and farm relocations.
Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection has begun searching for forever chemicals at hundreds of approved sludge disposal sites across the state, but it will take years to sift through the ever-growing list of more. of 700 properties.
Sewage operators like Hughes – who thinks sludge that has been tested clean for PFAS should still be allowed to be used as fertilizer – say most of the contamination identified so far can be attributed to the spreading of industrial sludge, not municipal, but this has not yet been done. be confirmed.
The DEP prioritized the list of 700 test sites based on the type and amount of sludge spread on the site and its proximity to homes. About 50 sites in 34 cities fall into its highest risk category. To date, DEP has begun investigating about half of these high-risk cases.
Some Maine farmers have asked the state to ban sludge spreading and help clean up contamination left behind from past use. But others opposed the ban, calling it a knee-jerk reaction that will bankrupt them as fertilizer prices soar and drive up food prices in Maine.
New tax relief program for older Mainers surprises and worries many