The practice that led to a recent and widening discovery of “forever chemicals” in Maine land and water can be traced back to the 1970s, the legendary U.S. Sen. Edmund S. Muskie and his landmark Clean Water Act.
The hard-charging Democrat knew the effects of industrial chemical dumping. He grew up in Rumford along the Androscoggin River, once so choked by toxic foam and noxious fumes that fish could not live in it. His revolutionary 1972 legislation made dumping pollutants into rivers illegal, set wastewater standards and funded sewage treatment plants across the country.
But that solution to so many problems spawned another. What would we do with the sludge left over in the plants’ filtration systems? Maine and other states settled on spreading it over farmland as fertilizer. It started cautiously and grew into a widespread practice.
State regulators are now chasing the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — or PFAS — contained in the sludge. Their effort to test land thought to be most exposed to sludge or other waste will take until 2025. An organic farm in Unity pulled products. Well water has been contaminated in several places. Deer hunted in Fairfield are deemed unsafe to eat.
It was born out of environmental tradeoffs that will continue during the fight against the cancer-linked chemicals. While Maine has enshrined the world’s first phase-out of PFAS in most products that will take full effect in 2030, more sludge is now going to landfills that struggle to contain toxic runoff. Sludge will be contaminated as long as Mainers have PFAS in them.
“Any way you try to solve it, an industry is going to be targeted and when that happens, there are going to be implications,” said Neal Goldberg, a policy analyst for the Maine Municipal Association.
The practice began in the 1970s with treatment plants coming online. By the end of the decade, it was gaining traction as a cost-effective disposal method that was touted as beneficial to plants, farmers and the local utilities that were trying to get rid of their sludge.
“Rising costs of commercial fertilizers, need for soil conditioners, high costs of other disposal methods and environmental compatibility are all factors conducive to this disposal method,” wrote a representative of the James W. Sewall Company, an Old Town engineering consulting firm, in a 1977 Bangor Daily News column titled “Sludge is no longer a dirty word.”
A state program that encouraged sludge dumping on farms began in 1983. There have always been few other viable disposal options. Putting sludge out to sea was outlawed in 1988 after affected areas turned into dead zones. Burning and landfilling it has been expensive.
Following heavy lobbying from sludge-selling companies and wastewater treatment facilities, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency relaxed safety standards in the early 1990s, said Dana Colihan, the Maine state director for Community Action Works, an organization focused on removing pollutants from the environment.
By 1999, Maine would do the same, allowing sludge with higher levels of metal to be spread. Skepticism existed before then, though. Six years earlier, the BDN ran an Op-Ed from a man questioning Brewer’s dumping practices. It was titled “Sludge is a dirty word in Brewer.”
At that time, experts were questioning if metals, pathogens and chemicals in sludge would break down quickly in soil or move into groundwater. The dangers of PFAS itself became apparent in 1998 after the chemicals’ presence in 3M products were linked to health risks. Paper companies use them in their coating process. PFAS can also be found in waterproof clothing, food packaging and other products.
“We knew it was bad back then,” Colihan said of sludge spreading. “We know it is worse now.”
It was not until PFAS was discovered in the water supply in Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells in 2017 — and the subsequent finding of chemicals at a nearby dairy farm — that the extent of the risk began to solidify, according to a 2020 report from a state task force.
Since then, momentum toward fighting the chemicals has built. Along with the landmark PFAS phase-out, Maine passed stricter standards for drinking water. Lawmakers are considering whether to ban the practice of sludge spreading unless it tests under new state standards.
The fight is a monumental one requiring solutions that are inevitably fraught with conflict. The Maine Rural Water Association, which represents local wastewater districts, is arguing for any remedies to be backed by science before ratepayers assume significant costs. Some are still arguing that sludge-spreading can be safe if toxins are removed from the waste stream.
“We’re all playing catch-up on this issue,” said Janine Burke-Wells, the executive director of North East Biosolids & Residuals Association, which represents regional sludge sellers. “But it’s not something we should throw out with the whole PFAS issue.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the origin of a Maine law governing sludge spreading. It was not tied to a state budget enacted in 2011.