Towns and cities along the Kennebec River are finding that their public drinking water has been contaminated with toxic chemicals. The Capitol building in Augusta, the veterans hospital at Togus, and thousands of homes and businesses in central Maine are connected to pipes filled with water with varying levels of manmade per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, often called forever chemicals.
The Bangor Daily News traced how PFAS can end up in the drinking water of thousands in Skowhegan, Augusta, Manchester, Hallowell, Chelsea, Farmingdale, Gardiner, Randolph and Pittston, through a cycle that ties together the ways of water, industry and waste. The Kennebec River offers a case study in the remarkably complicated PFAS crisis unfolding in Maine.
Landfills send their PFAS-infused runoff to treatment plants; treatment plants then release PFAS-filled wastewater into the river and truck their PFAS-tainted sludge back to landfills; the river is a source of drinking water; and drinking water with PFAS gets sent back down the drain to treatment plants, which repeat the cycle.
“This is the most complicated thing we’ve ever encountered by far,” said Brian Tarbuck, the general manager of the Greater Augusta Utility District.
His facility is in the unique position of both discharging treated wastewater from area towns into the Kennebec River and also drawing up drinking water from large riverside wells fed by the Kennebec River. It is one of the few plants that has tested everything: the finished drinking water, the river, the sludge resulting from the wastewater, the waste coming into the system and the treated waste leaving the system. It all has PFAS.
Recent testing of public drinking water systems, required this year under a new state law, is shedding more light on the extent of the contamination and prompting questions about what should be done to stem the flow of chemicals into the river. Water and wastewater facility operators stressed they are only beginning to learn the extent of the problem and their options for responding to it but that reconfiguring wastewater plants could cost tens of millions of dollars for each facility.
One facility, however, is planning to be the first to remove and potentially destroy PFAS that end up in its wastewater. The Anson-Madison Sanitary District will soon begin on-site piloting to test different technologies to remove the chemicals.
“It’s a health hazard. It needs to be dealt with. You can’t ignore it,” said Dale Clark, the facility’s superintendent.
Much is at stake. There is high confidence that PFAS exposure is associated with increased risk of kidney cancer in adults, decreased infant and fetal growth, and decreased antibody response in adults and children, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. There is moderate confidence in associations between PFAS and increased risk of breast cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease and other illnesses.
The organization recommends that people with a history of “elevated exposure” get their blood tested for PFAS.
The news of PFAS in public water supplies has alarmed some local residents who said they have stopped drinking it, even if PFAS levels currently meet interim state standards. They want more information about where the chemicals are coming from.
‘Up above us’
As a long-time farmer, Orris Tim Hewett has tried a number of ways to improve his soil health. So when the Skowhegan wastewater treatment plant offered farmers treated sewage sludge to spread on their farm fields, transferring the nutrient-rich organic matter to the land, he agreed. He was one of four main farmers in Skowhegan to receive state permits to deposit the biosolids resulting from the town’s domestic sewage on area fields between 1989 and 2018. He had no way to know the material contained PFAS chemicals.
“The state’s the one that told us it was all good,” Hewett said. But it turns out “they didn’t know if it was safe. They shouldn’t have told us it was all good.”
The chemicals can spread through groundwater. Slightly down the hill from one of Hewett’s cornfields on Notch Road, the only road along which he was licensed to spread, the chemicals turned up in a family’s private well. They were also discovered in the wells of an old home maintained by Hewett’s family, but not in samples of his corn and grass, he said. He didn’t spread the sludge near his own home.
Several miles away, where Skowhegan residents connect not to wells but the public water system, PFAS has been discovered, too. At 2 parts per trillion it’s the lowest level that can be detected using current technology. But that knowledge hasn’t put everyone at ease, and people said they want to know where the chemicals are originating.
Given that water flows downhill, the sources of PFAS would “have to be coming from up above us,” Hewett said.
Follow the river north of Skowhegan to Norridgewock. The town is home to the state’s only commercially owned landfill, Crossroads Landfill, which is owned and operated by Waste Management Disposal Services of Maine. It accepts trash from many sources, including within and outside the state.
The Kennebec River in Skowhegan is pictured Aug. 12, 2022. The river contributes to Skowhegan’s public water supply, which recently tested at 2 parts per trillion for PFAS chemicals. Credit: Erin Rhoda / BDN
There are PFAS in the landfill as evidenced by testing of its leachate last year, which came back at 2,680 parts per trillion for PFAS, among the highest results in the state. Leachate is a liquid that forms when water runs through a landfill.
It’s not surprising to find PFAS in a landfill given how many products with the chemicals are thrown out — from non-stick cookware to carpeting. But what happens to the leachate can affect people’s drinking water. Once Crossroads collects its leachate, it sends it to two places to be treated and combined with wastewater: the Anson-Madison Sanitary District up the river and Sappi North America’s wastewater treatment plant down the river in Skowhegan.
Neither place filters out PFAS from the wastewater. Then all the wastewater is discharged into the Kennebec River, which is a source of drinking water for thousands of people. Current environmental regulations do not require wastewater treatment facilities to remove PFAS from their effluent, which is the wastewater leaving a facility.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection permits the Anson-Madison Sanitary District to discharge up to 5 million gallons per day of treated wastewater into the Kennebec River, though Clark said the facility has been operating at about 10 percent capacity since its biggest waste contributor, Madison Paper Industries, closed in 2016.
Meanwhile, the state has approved Sappi, the mill known for its glossy magazine- and brochure-quality paper, to dispense nine times more — 46.5 million gallons of wastewater per day — into the Kennebec River. That’s the most of any wastewater plant along the river. In addition to processing the leachate from Crossroads Landfill, Sappi has its own from its on-site landfill. Testing there last year showed concentrations in its leachate ranging from 112 to 3,131 parts per trillion for PFAS, and Sappi is approved to dispose of it in the river, according to its state permit.
A Sappi spokesman declined to answer questions about whether the company has plans to filter out PFAS from its wastewater or whether it believes wastewater has contributed to PFAS contamination in public drinking water, citing pending litigation. Sappi, nearby mill Huhtamaki and a number of other paper companies are facing a mass tort action asserting that their use and disposal of PFAS poisoned people. Sappi has previously denied being the source of contamination.
The Anson-Madison Sanitary District and Sappi are far from the only facilities sending wastewater downstream. Treatment plants in Norridgewock, Skowhegan, Waterville and Augusta also have approval to discharge wastewater into the river. Not all have tested their effluent, but they have tested the solids, called sludge, generated from the wastewater process and discovered PFAS in it.
Huhtamaki, which is facing a lawsuit in California claiming its Chinet paper plates contain PFAS, has been the largest single contributor of wastewater to the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District in Waterville. The sludge from the wastewater plant was historically spread on farm fields in Fairfield and surrounding towns, and the chemicals have turned up in high concentrations in private wells. But the treatment facility also is allowed to dispose of 12.7 million gallons of wastewater per day directly into the river.
It’s a circle. PFAS in drinking water can get into wastewater not only when it runs down the drain. In Skowhegan, the water district is likely the biggest contributor to the town’s wastewater treatment system because all the dirty, unusable water it doesn’t send to people’s taps goes into the sewer system, said Brent Dickey, superintendent of Skowhegan Water Pollution Control. That’s water the town now knows has PFAS.
Historically, the sewer system in Skowhegan allowed the waste solids to be applied on local farmland. Then the chemicals appear to have seeped into nearby private wells such as Garrett Quinn’s.
This spring, testing of Quinn’s well revealed PFAS were present at 353 parts per trillion, 18 times higher than the state standard. A nearby farmer, Hewett, had spread sludge on fields near Quinn’s home on Notch Road in Skowhegan. Quinn had anticipated the results, even switching to bottled water ahead of time.
Still, “I was disappointed. I was upset. I was a little bit angry,” Quinn said.
His children drank that water. So did his dogs. His family used to enjoy the apples grown in their backyard that may now be tainted. But he doesn’t blame any farmer who spread sludge with PFAS in it. They didn’t know.
Much of the PFAS in the wastewater in central Maine is likely coming from bigger operations, not everyday domestic activities such as washing waterproof clothing or flushing human waste containing PFAS down the toilet, said Jean MacRae, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maine.
“The most likely sources are industrial, so Sappi and the landfill,” she said. Like municipal wastewater treatment plants, “the landfills also don’t control what comes in, but they have leachate that they need to deal with. For the 70 years we’ve been using these things, PFAS have been put into the landfills.”
Indeed, state testing in 2019 discovered that PFAS levels were highest in fish that were caught downstream from industrial sources along the Kennebec River, such as Sappi and the Waterville and Augusta wastewater treatment plants.
‘Like a hurricane’
Water districts rely on the Kennebec River to ensure their residents have enough to drink. In Skowhegan, Maine Water Co. pulls from the river and sends it on to 3,735 residential, commercial and governmental connections. (Nearby, Anson, Madison and Norridgewock do not get their public water from the river.)
To the south, communities rely on the Kennebec River to help fill their deep, riverside gravel-packed wells. Tarbuck, with the Greater Augusta Utility District, likens how the wells work to digging a hole on the beach and seeing it fill up with water.
Those wells then pump drinking water to roughly 6,000 connections in Augusta and Manchester, through the Greater Augusta Utility District; 875 connections in Hallowell and parts of Chelsea and Farmingdale, through the Hallowell Water District; and 3,400 connections in Gardiner, Randolph, Farmingdale and part of Pittston, through the Gardiner Water District.
Each public water system has discovered PFAS at varying levels, with Hallowell hit hardest, though the PFAS levels — at 17.4 and 18.8 parts per trillion — in its drinking water have not exceeded the state’s interim standard of 20 parts per trillion.
The Hallowell Water District also made a startling discovery this year when it decided to test the river itself for PFAS and discovered levels higher than the state’s drinking water standard. Samples from different places in the river, taken at different times, showed the chemicals at 16.3, 23 and 21.7 parts per trillion, said Zach Lovely, the district’s superintendent.
To learn where the chemicals in its deep wells are coming from, the water district tested multiple exploration wells at varying distances from the river. The results showed the chemical makeup was similar to what was found in the river, just more diluted the farther away samples were taken, Lovely said.
The information “points toward the river as our most likely source, but we don’t have enough data to understand the variability in the river concentrations, how it translates to the ranges we’re seeing in the production well,” Lovely said.
Four miles south, results were far lower for the Gardiner Water District, at 2.36 and 4.38 parts per trillion. While PFAS could enter the river at many points if groundwater is contaminated with them, “I think wastewater is probably the biggest factor,” Superintendent Paul Gray said.
Testing in Augusta points to a similar hypothesis. The Greater Augusta Utility District sampled both the Kennebec River and the water from its two wells near the river last year and came back with similar results: 12.63 parts per trillion for PFAS in the river, and 12.47 parts per trillion for PFAS at its riverside station.
“There’s some theory that the PFAS we’re seeing in our groundwater wells is coming from the Kennebec River,” Tarbuck said.
The whole situation “has just hit like a hurricane,” he said, and few are prepared for remediation solutions. It could cost $50 million for his facility to filter out the chemicals from wastewater, he said, which is more than the plant is likely worth.
It is easier to remove PFAS from drinking water, not wastewater, using granular activated carbon or certain resins, he said. These are the types of solutions he plans to test on a small scale before deciding how to proceed on a larger scale if required to by final regulations.
“Everyone knows a way to treat it, but no one really knows how well that treatment is going to work, how long it’s going to work, and how much it’s going to cost,” Tarbuck said.
The leader of one wastewater treatment plant decided in 2019 to look for those answers. Clark, with the Anson-Madison Sanitary District, is hoping to know more soon about what will work best to remove PFAS from the facility’s effluent, as it will begin testing different technologies in September. Given the likelihood that it will be the first facility in Maine to filter PFAS out of wastewater, it plans to help other treatment systems find solutions, too.
Left to right, Dale Clark, superintendent of the Anson-Madison Sanitary District, checks the systems at the wastewater treatment plant in Madison on Aug. 12. Anson-Madison Sanitary District’s clarifier tank is situated near the Kennebec River in Madison. In the tank are mechanisms to allow the solids within wastewater to settle and then be removed for further treatment. After going through a treatment and drying process, dried sludge at the Anson-Madison Sanitary District is deposited into a trailer to be trucked to Crossroads Landfill in Norridgewock. Credit: Erin Rhoda / BDN
State and federal leaders have supported the sanitary district’s efforts, Clark said, and he has secured $10 million out of $30 million needed.
Until larger changes are made, the facility will continue to pump out PFAS-infused wastewater. The facility’s influent, which is the waste entering its system, has tested at roughly 100 parts per trillion for PFAS, Clark said, and he assumes most of that is getting into the river.
“We want to make sure we’re doing our part to make it clean,” he said. “It’s just a huge problem that we all need to deal with, step up and take care of this problem.”
Crossroads Landfill plans to help the Anson-Madison Sanitary District both financially and technically “as they work to address this statewide issue,” said Garrett Trierweiler, a spokesperson for parent company Waste Management. But in his view, “the best area of focus is to put a ban to limit the use of these chemicals, so they do not get in the [municipal solid waste] and biosolids to start with.”
MacRae, with UMaine, agreed. “Any company that produces a synthetic chemical should at the same time be able to prove a way to destroy the chemical,” she said.
The drinking water being pulled from the Kennebec River meets the state’s temporary standard. But the federal government recently complicated the picture by warning that people might see negative health effects over time by drinking water with far lower levels of PFAS.
In June the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set its advisory level for drinking water below what current technology can even detect: 0.004 parts per trillion for one specific compound, PFOA, and .02 parts per trillion for another, PFOS. These levels are not enforceable like the state’s standard is.
But now many people now don’t know what is considered safe water to drink, said Roger Crouse, general manager of the Kennebec Water District, which sends water from China Lake to 8,700 customers in Waterville, Winslow, Fairfield, Vassalboro and Benton, and sells water to Maine Water Co. for customers in Oakland.
“You can’t measure that low, which further complicates the situation and makes it extremely difficult for the public. It makes it extremely difficult for the utilities,” Crouse said.
The Kennebec River does not filter into China Lake, but the lake still has PFAS, Crouse said. There are theories as to where the chemicals are coming from — perhaps from leaking septic tanks or past spreading of sludge onto area fields — but it’s still not known, he said. Levels have ranged from 6 to 9 parts per trillion.
The unknowns are one reason why Fred Godin of Skowhegan stopped drinking and cooking with his water after learning PFAS are in Skowhegan’s public water supply. He switched to bottled water instead.
“I know the test levels are below the allowable limits, but we are in need of a bit more info before we switch back,” he said.
Godin is now retired from working at Sappi and comes from a long line of paper makers, including his father and his father’s father before him.
“What I have been hearing about PFAS seems to put a lot of the blame on the paper industry,” he said. But there is evidence that “they are one of many contributors to a very large problem that we all have a role in.”
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