The city of Bangor's wastewater treatment plant on Main Street is pictured on July 28, 2014. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Maine sewer districts are seeing their disposal costs for wastewater sludge rise as a new state ban on spreading the substance on farmland takes effect later this year.

Gov. Janet Mills signed legislation in April banning the spreading of wastewater sludge as compost on farmland. The new prohibition stops the spreading of a substance that has been shown to introduce high levels of so-called forever chemicals, or PFAS, into Maine crops and groundwater. But it also ends a practice that wastewater treatment plants have relied on for decades to dispose of their primary byproduct and recoup some costs.

Now, landfills are the primary way of disposing of wastewater sludge.

Towns and cities are encountering the increased costs now as they plan their budgets for the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1. Either sewer district ratepayers or property tax payers will bear the brunt of the increase.

In Sanford, wastewater disposal costs will rise an estimated 433 percent next fiscal year, as it switches from turning its sludge into compost to disposing of it in a landfill, said Andre Brousseau, superintendent of the Sanford Sewerage District. 

“Everything in the past year has gone up, and it’s just not a good time to raise rates,” he said. “But we were forced to cover those costs.”

That large jump is likely to translate into a 12 percent increase to Sanford residents’ sewer rates, Brousseau said.

In Bangor, the city is anticipating that its sludge disposal costs for the coming budget year will be 71 percent higher than two years ago, said Amanda Smith, the city’s director of water quality.

“It’s close to a quarter-million-dollar difference or increase, so that’s pretty substantial,” Smith said.

The city was bracing for an increase, but didn’t have final numbers from the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town, where Bangor will now truck all of its sludge, until the day Smith was set to present her department’s budget to the City Council. Those higher numbers sent city officials back to the drawing board to figure out how to close a budget gap.

Similarly, Orono is preparing for an increase in its sludge disposal costs, according to fiscal year 2023 budget documents. The town is budgeting for an increase of $29,745 for the coming fiscal year and expects other changes in the future, Town Manager Sophie Wilson said.

Juniper Ridge is raising its rates for disposing of sewage sludge following the statewide ban on sludge spreading and another piece of legislation that passed that bars the landfill from accepting waste that originates from outside the state, depriving the company of one revenue source, said Jeff McBurnie, director of compliance for Casella.

The increased rates help offset revenue losses to Casella from both bills.

The ban on sludge spreading means that Casella can’t accept sewage sludge at its Hawk Ridge Compost facility in Unity and turn it into compost that it can sell.

Now, Casella can only accept the sludge at the Old Town landfill, putting further stress on a rapidly filling landfill that is running out of space, McBurnie said. 

“Part of the issue is now we’re putting more pressure on the landfill to juggle waste because they have a finite amount of material they can bring in, and sludge is a more complicated material,” he said. 

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In the Bangor area, not every community will experience large cost increases this year.

Brewer has a contract that expires in 2026 with a company that disposes of the city’s wastewater treatment sludge that has fixed annual cost increases.

Similarly, Old Town will avoid seeing a large increase, as it receives a discount from Juniper Ridge as its host city.

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Sawyer Loftus

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...