Amanda Smith and Phil Besse stand next to a 30-yard container as it fills with biosolids at the City of Bangor Wastewater Treatment Plant on Main Street. According to Smith, three 30-yard containers of biosolids are produced every day at the plant. Two of those three containers are now being shipped to Canada. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

In a three-hour briefing before the Maine Legislature’s environment and natural resources committee, officials from Casella Waste Systems — the private company that operates the state-owned landfill in Old Town — claimed the state’s looming sludge crisis has been averted.

Two weeks ago, Casella told more than 30 wastewater treatment plants that it would no longer put their sludge, which contains the more solid components of wastewater, into Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town. That meant if the facilities could not find an alternative location to send the sludge, it would be discharged into Maine’s rivers in a worst-case scenario.

Officials from Casella shed new light on what they claim was a dangerous situation at Juniper Ridge that forced the company to quickly deem it would have to divert the sludge elsewhere. The landfill was becoming unstable due to having too much wet waste, including sludge.

Juniper Ridge previously accepted 6,000 tons of sludge monthly. It now has to divert 4,400 tons each month, meaning it can accept only one-third of the sludge it did before.

Patrick Ellis, who oversees the company’s handling of sludge, told the committee that the state has avoided “environmental catastrophe” due to the company trucking the sludge to New Brunswick, but he did not offer a firm solution for how to prevent a backup of sludge from happening again in the future. Costs to local wastewater treatment plants have risen sharply.

“We are not happy we have to pass along a significant rate increase to them, but we are happy that we’ve been able to service them and avoided an actual, in my mind, environmental catastrophe of having to dump sludge into the rivers in Maine,” he said.

Last week, Casella said it was rejecting the sludge because it couldn’t get enough bulky waste to mix with the sludge to maintain a stable landfill. It cited the Maine Legislature’s passage of LD 1639, which prevented the landfill from using debris that came from other states through a Lewiston facility, as the reason why it does not have enough oversized bulky waste.

For decades the sludge was spread on farm fields as fertilizer until the Maine Legislature put a stop to the practice because toxic chemicals, called PFAS, from the sludge seeped into people’s wells. Since the restrictions on spreading sludge went into effect, many wastewater treatment plants have been sending the waste to landfills instead.

While Casella asserted that, in the short-term, sludge will not be dumped into Maine’s rivers, the company’s plan to prevent that hinges on its ability to continue shipping tons of the sludge to New Brunswick.

Up until two weeks ago, some of the sludge was being sent to facilities in Quebec, until the province’s government placed a moratorium on the shipments from Maine.

While no such action has been taken in New Brunswick, some environmentalists in the province have urged the government to institute a similar pause, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported Wednesday. It reported that Fredericton-based Envirem Organics is the only company in the province licensed to import biosolids.

Bill Longfellow, director of the Bureau of General Services within the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services told lawmakers that his agency oversees the state’s contract with Casella to operate the Old Town landfill, and that so far Casella has not violated that contract.

“The operating services agreement provides Casella with a great deal of freedom to operate the landfill,” he said. “In that regard, they made the call, as they described, to stop accepting waste due to stability issues.”

While the sludge crisis may be averted in the interim, neither officials from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection nor Casella could provide the committee with a concrete plan for alternative solutions, such as if New Brunswick stops accepting the waste.

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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...