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Wayne Boyd is the general manager of the Juniper Ridge Landfill.
A recent article in the Bangor Daily News highlighted the concentration of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in liquids (leachate) collected within the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill. As the general manager of Juniper Ridge, I’m on the frontlines everyday working to manage the impacts of PFAS in our state and protect Maine’s environment from the negative impacts of modern society, such as PFAS. I understand the challenges these chemicals pose, and hope readers will find my experience to be helpful.
PFAS can be found in every American household. These chemicals are in everyday products like non-stick cookware, wrinkle-free and water-repellent clothing, cosmetics, lubricants, paint, pizza boxes and popcorn bags. These items have been shown to contribute to the concentration of PFAS in landfills and, ultimately, the PFAS in landfill leachate.
To be clear, the producers of PFAS and the managers/receivers of PFAS are not the same. Wastewater treatment facilities and solid waste landfills do not produce PFAS, and they do not use or profit from it. However, both are faced with the crucial and difficult task of managing PFAS when products containing PFAS are disposed of, and in cleaning water to preserve Maine’s rivers and streams.
Juniper Ridge also receives wastewater treatment residue, or “sludge,” from all over Maine. It all contains PFAS, due primarily to these chemicals passing through our bodies as waste or being rinsed down our drains. Historically, this material was treated and processed into two types of “biosolids:” Class A, which are highly processed and treated to essentially having no pathogenic bacteria and limited odor generation; and Class B, which undergo lesser processing and are treated to having bacteria similar to soil. For decades, these biosolids were used as fertilizer for horticulture and agricultural purposes.
When PFAS contamination, which was most likely caused by industrial sludge, was discovered at one farm ( Stoneridge in Arundel), a moratorium was instituted in March 2019 to temporarily suspend the land application of biosolids. With guidance from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, this practice resumed, but not before testing for PFAS in biosolids was instituted and risk evaluations were conducted demonstrating that the practice could safely continue.
Even so, the state has sought to reduce the land application of biosolids. But there are limited options. There aren’t facilities in Maine that can incinerate biosolids and the ones in New England that could are full. And that wouldn’t solve the problem because incineration may disperse PFAS into the air.
Increasingly, more biosolids are sent to Juniper Ridge for disposal. The amount has doubled in the last five years. Landfills can take some of the biosolids previously used as fertilizer, but they can’t take all of it. A landfill won’t remain structurally viable if it takes too much. Moreover, as we look for solutions to effectively manage PFAS, we must take into account that the Penobscot River — and the ability to safely fish in the river — are central to the Penobscot Nation’s heritage.
Juniper Ridge manages incoming sludge and municipal solid waste as safely and effectively as possible. More than 90 percent of the PFAS disposed of in modern landfills stays there. So, while it is true that some PFAS do travel into the wastewater stream through leachate, the vast majority of these chemicals are sequestered, and we should all take comfort in that fact.
Until we can permanently remove PFAS from the waste stream, composting and placement in a landfill are the only options we have. These options must be carefully balanced.
In the meantime, the best thing we can do is remove PFAS from products and materials we use in everyday life. A phase-out of production would be a positive step, as are measures such as Maine’s prohibition of fire-fighting foam containing PFAS. Ultimately, it makes better sense to look for ways to remove PFAS at the source, rather than waiting until a product’s end of life.