A compactor drives over trash at the Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town, Jan. 19, 2022. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

An Old Town landfill that’s taking in more wastewater sludge contaminated with forever chemicals is asking the state to also let it take in another kind of waste that it combines with the wet sludge to contain it.

The Juniper Ridge Landfill has asked the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to let it accept 82,203 tons of oversized bulky waste this year, 5,555 tons more than it was allowed to accept last year. Bulky waste includes items that are too big for standard trash bins, such as refrigerators and couches.

The landfill’s operator, Casella Waste Systems, said it needs the additional oversized waste because it’s expecting more wastewater sludge that’s no longer applied to farmland because of contamination from so-called forever chemicals, also known as PFAS. Casella combines the large waste items with the sludge to give the substance some structure and ultimately preserve Juniper Ridge’s infrastructure, Casella spokesperson Shelby Wright said.

As Maine comes to grips with the extent of PFAS contamination that has built up over the years, landfills are increasingly the final resting place for wastewater sludge contaminated with the forever chemicals that don’t break down. The chemicals have been used in consumer products such as non-stick cookware, waterproof clothing and food packaging. 

Juniper Ridge has seen the amount of wastewater sludge sent its way more than double over the past five years from 36,713 tons in 2017 to 90,069 tons last year, according to Casella’s request to the Department of Environmental Protection for the elevated waste limit.

During that period, the landfill has also taken in more of the oversized waste it combines with the sludge, regularly exceeding its limit, according to the request document.

Casella described the oversized waste as “a viable and consistently reliable bulking material for sludge that results in improved stabilization and lower hydrogen sulfide gas production than [construction and demolition debris].”

It has to file a request with the Department of Environmental Protection each year to set its limit on oversized bulky waste. The department has 90 days to act.

Sludge — a byproduct of the wastewater treatment process — was spread over farmland as fertilizer across Maine for years. Now, the practice has been paused as high concentrations of PFAS chemicals have been discovered at more sites of past spreading. 

In Unity, Songbird Organic Farm has become an example of the consequences of the spreading of the harmful sludge, years after the fact. Owners Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis recently discovered that their well water, farmlands and produce all tested positive for high levels of the chemicals. 

Since then, the farm has pulled its items from shelves and stopped production. A handful of other farms have followed suit.

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While Juniper Ridge and other landfills take in more sludge that’s no longer being spread on fields, the landfills can’t contain all of the PFAS that end up there. Their runoff contains the chemicals, and the wastewater facilities that treat it then discharge the substance into rivers. Any PFAS they manage to remove ends up back in a landfill as sludge, and the cycle starts again.

In the state’s first round of testing landfill runoff — called leachate — for PFAS, every landfill that has produced results so far has shown some concentration of the so-called forever chemicals, with the highest concentration so far at a landfill that handles waste from a papermaker that specializes in food packaging. 

Despite the known presence of the chemicals in the leachate, wastewater treatment centers aren’t required to treat the water for PFAS or deploy any sort of filter to capture the chemicals, leading to the continued cycle of the PFAS going into the landfill and out again — and many of them being released into rivers. 

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...