Main Street in Downtown Camden. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

A disagreement over how much the town of Rockport should pay to send wastewater to neighboring Camden’s treatment facility is coming to a head and Rockport may soon have to come up with an alternative plan for where to send a portion of its sewage.

The Camden Select Board voted unanimously Monday night to give Rockport 30 days to pay approximately $145,000 town officials say is owed in sewer fees. The board also indicated they will pursue court action if the money is not paid.

But Camden didn’t stop there. Rockport now has 90 days to come up with a plan for how the town will stop sending wastewater to Camden. If that plan is not followed, Camden officials indicated they could shut off the wastewater flow from Rockport pipes.

“I’m personally saddened that we’re not able to come to an agreement with Rockport but it is what it is and sometimes it’s better to go separate ways,” Camden Select Board Member Sophie Romana said during Monday night’s discussion of the matter.

For about three decades, the towns have operated under an interlocal agreement in which Rockport ― which does not have its own wastewater treatment plant ― sends a portion of the  wastewater it generates to Camden. Rockport sends the remainder of its wastewater to Rockland.

Under the 1990 agreement, Rockport pays the same rate as anyone in Camden would for use of the system.

However, neither Rockport nor Camden are happy with that and negotiations on a renewal of the agreement, which expired in 2020, have broken down.

Rockport wants to pay less, since they don’t feel like the handling of their wastewater requires the same aspects that Camden does. But Camden thinks Rockport should both pay the same rate and send less wastewater to the town.

“Rockport wants an incredibly discounted rate at the expense of Camden ratepayers, and Camden wants less wastewater to be sent from Rockport. The Camden Select Board has no interest in year-in-year-out haggling with Rockport over their wastewater rate, when [the select board] don’t even want this wastewater to be sent to Camden in the first place,” Town Manager Audra Caler said.

In a press release issued Wednesday, Rockport Town Manager Jon Duke likened the tactics Camden is taking to “extortion.”

In the last several years, Rockport has asked Camden to explain why its wastewater users are billed for Camden needs that have nothing to do with the treatment of Rockport’s waste ― such as culvert replacements on a Camden Road.

Rockport has also asked why the rate has doubled since 2016, according to the release.

Duke said Rockport has gotten no response to these questions.

“The only response? Take it or leave it,” Duke said in the statement. “Or better yet… take it or we will cut the pipe, let wastewater back up and create an environmental and public health disaster of Camden’s own choosing. For what purpose? Because Camden refuses to consider ANY change to its wastewater rates. Not one penny different.”

Neither a new proposed interlocal agreement presented by Rockport in October, nor attempts to involve the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to assist in remediation efforts resulted in a response from Camden, according to Duke.

Caler said Monday night that while Rockport believes it has negotiated in good faith, they have focused solely on an outcome that would result in a lower rate for Rockport users. This disregards the premises on which the towns entered into the agreement 30 years ago, according to Caler.

“I think at the end of the day we don’t have the same values anymore. They want to get their rates as low as possible and we have environmental concerns that we need to address and protect our resources,” Caler said.

Once treated, all of the wastewater that goes through Camden’s plant is released into Camden Harbor. As a result there have been water quality problems in the harbor, Camden Select Board Member Alison McKellar said.

In recent years, Camden has also had stormwater inflow and infiltration issues in its wastewater system that have resulted in sewer overflows into the harbor. There have not yet been overflows at the pump station where Rockport’s wastewater is currently sent, Caler said, but that could change in the future if sewer expansions being eyed by both towns take place.

The cost of treating wastewater is also slated to rise, Caler told board members. Beginning this year, Camden’s wastewater permit from the DEP will require the town to chlorinate its wastewater year-round, instead of just during warmer months, adding costs to the process.

In a letter to Caler, Duke asked for a meeting of the administering committee established under the terms of the interlocal agreement. This committee is supposed to be made up of two members of each town’s selectboard, however, Caler said it hasn’t met or formed in at least a decade. Rockport has also asked that an independent rate study be conducted, funded jointly by both towns and the DEP.

“Our hope is that we can sit down and actually have the conversations that we should have had a year ago. Real honest conversations, I think that’s what needs to happen,” Duke said.  

A Maine DEP spokesperson said the agency is aware of the situation and will be in contact with the towns to discuss it.

The approximately $145,000 due from Rockport represents sewer bills from the last two fiscal quarters. Caler said Rockport paid a portion of the $75,000 that was due on November 31, 2021, but have not yet paid the $77,000 bill due Feb. 28.

Caler said disconnecting the wastewater flow from Rockport is “an absolute last case resort that they have all the power to prevent by just paying what they owe.”

Rockport recently conducted a study to look at the feasibility of establishing its own wastewater treatment facility, and also sewer infrastructure upgrades. While the study found that establishing its own facility would be doable, Duke said that would require funding and voter approval. It might take years to enact.

“We’re making plans for all eventual possibilities. I think the most important thing is that Rockports’ desire is to sit down and work this out and it always has been. If Camden refuses to sit down until the money is paid, then we will take all steps necessary to ensure wastewater is treated and processed according to Maine DEP, regulations and EPA rules and we will take all steps necessary to secure that,” Duke said.