Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan tours a wastewater treatment facility in Saco on Monday. He is accompanied by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, left, who hosted Regan. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Maine’s coastal infrastructure is facing unprecedented danger from rising sea levels, the top environmental leader in President Joe Biden’s administration said in a visit to Saco on Monday.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan’s visit to the York County city’s wastewater treatment plant came as it faces significant risks of flooding from the effects of climate change.

The current facility isn’t equipped to deal with the rising sea levels coming in from the nearby Saco River, especially in heavy rain or snow events. Calamity could arrive if the facility was overloaded and had to shut down, said Howard Carter, the director of the wastewater facility. It could even close nearby beaches.

A $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill passed late last year includes nearly $70 million going to Maine communities in 2022 with more arriving in the years after. A portion of that money will be earmarked for building a new wastewater facility in Saco.

Regan’s visit to Saco highlights the ramifications of modernizing the city’s infrastructure, as well as that of other communities in coastal Maine, amid the debilitating effect of climate change. More than two-thirds of voters passed a referendum for the city to borrow $50 million in bonds to upgrade the facility back in November.

The facility in Saco serves more than 12,000 residents and nearly 400 businesses. Yet, many people don’t know where their local wastewater facility is until something goes wrong, said Carter, who also said the facilities are often called “buried assets” within their communities.

Assistance from the feds and state comes amid concerns as sea levels continue their rise. Locals have already gotten a preview of what that could be like. In December 2019 a combination of melting snow, significant rain and a high tide led to water overflowing at the plant.

Howard Carter, director of Saco’s wastewater treatment facility, speaks after a visit from Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

“It’s quite easy to imagine a recipe for financial and environmental disaster,” Carter said.

Regan, hosted by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, first toured the facility, asking several questions of Carter along the way.

Afterward, he noted that many New England communities have infrastructure that is over a century old. He said that the federal funds would allow communities like Saco and others to be “resilient to the impacts of climate change.”

“The risk of raw sewage overflowing in the Saco River is a threat to the community,” Regan said.

Pingree, who chairs a subcommittee that oversees EPA funding, said the bipartisan infrastructure bill that she strongly pushed was more timely than ever given the significant effects of climate change.

“Saco was already taking action to upgrade the plant,” Pingree said. “But there’s no way a city like this, with 20,000 people, could do it without federal law.”

Additionally, the various risks brought by climate change will only be elevated by new greenhouse gas emissions that are causing a hotter planet in the first place. Regan said the administration was prioritizing lowering those as well, but that it was possible to fight off the worst effects of climate change in the meantime.

“His eyes are also focused on resiliency,” Regan said of Biden. “And what we need to do to live with some of the things that we are currently seeing now.”

Saco’s mayor and city manager attended the event, as did several members of the state legislature, including Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford.

Fecteau said the climate crisis could put Maine’s entire economy at risk, from impacting its beaches to potential loss of the numerous services provided by Saco’s plant as well as other wastewater treatment facilities across Maine.

“We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to take our future into our own hands,” Fecteau said.