A piece of construction equipment sits near a fence at the site of the Davis Brook CSO tank project in Bangor on Friday. The city is in the midst of more than $60 million of work that includes installing a 3.8 million-gallon underground tank on the city’s waterfront to collect raw sewage and stormwater when the sewer system is overwhelmed.

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill signed into law last month will offer a boost for painstaking, expensive work that’s been underway in Maine for decades to reduce the amount of untreated sewage and other dangerous wastewater flowing into rivers and streams.

Over the next five years, the amount of federal funding that pays for major upgrades to outdated sewer systems so they no longer release untreated sewage and other waste into rivers when they’re overwhelmed by heavy rain, flooding and snowmelt, will double.

A sign detailing the Davis Brook CSO Storage Tank project is attached to a fence surrounding the work, in Bangor, Dec. 10, 2021. (Sawyer Loftus | BDN)

The infusion of cash marks the first sweeping federal investment in wastewater work in decades, coming as those wastewater systems have to contend with more frequent heavy rainfall and resulting floods.

In Maine, the money will arrive about three decades after the state started eliminating so-called combined sewer overflows from about four dozen sewer systems across the state that released stormwater, untreated sewage and untreated industrial waste into neighboring rivers and streams when they became overwhelmed.

Today, Maine is down to 34 sewer systems that have those occasional overflows, including a number along the Penobscot River, such as Bangor, Brewer, Hampden, Orono, Old Town and Bucksport. 

And work is underway to further reduce that number. 

In Bangor, for example, the city is in the midst of more than $60 million of work that includes installing a 3.8 million-gallon underground tank on the city’s waterfront to collect raw sewage and stormwater when the sewer system is overwhelmed. That wastewater will then flow to the city’s wastewater treatment plant when water volumes return to normal.

Communities can also eliminate sewer overflows by restructuring their systems to channel dangerous water away from less dangerous stormwater, rather than combining the different kinds of wastewater before they flow to the treatment plant.

Some need new or overhauled treatment plants to expand their capacity so they don’t become overwhelmed as easily to the point where they’re releasing untreated sewage.

“We’ve got several big treatment plant projects that have to be completed,” said Mike Riley, coordinator of the combined sewer overflow abatement program at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. “The price tags are large for treatment plants — $50 million, $60 million. This additional funding that we’re going to be getting through the bipartisan infrastructure bill is going to help close the gaps.” 

The work of upgrading sewer systems can be slow-going and easily ignored, said Darren Olson, vice president of a Chicago engineering firm and co-author of the American Society of Civil Engineers 2021 infrastructure report card, which gave the U.S. and Maine “D+” grades for wastewater infrastructure. 

The infrastructure bill will provide a $55 billion funding boost for drinking water and wastewater work, Olson said. Although the increase won’t solve all of the nation’s problems, it is the biggest federal wastewater investment in years, he said. The work to eliminate combined sewer overflows will flow to states like Maine through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

“This will push more money from the federal government down to the states, which will then allow the states to distribute that money to local sewer districts or municipalities for projects through this existing program,” Olson said. “These are existing funding mechanisms that are used widely throughout the United States, that they’re just essentially adding more money to.”

The federal bill offers an opportunity for another round of significant updates to wastewater in Maine not seen since Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, said Jean MacRae, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maine.

“It is an old problem and one that needs more investment,” she said. 

There was an initial sprint of federal funds sent to fix wastewater problems after the Clean Water Act, but that funding had dried up by the 1990s, MacRae said.

“Technology is just getting more expensive,” she said. “So it’s that much harder, I think, to go back and look at the original infrastructure, and deal with that because people are trying to meet the next regulation.”

Growing costs are part of the problem, as is the need for communities to keep spending money even after they’ve made major upgrades, Olson said. 

“This isn’t the end game. We haven’t reached the end zone,” he said. “We’re right now just making progress and entering into a new, good field position, But we need to continually reinvest in our infrastructure.” 

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...