A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
Rare infighting between officials in Bangor highlights the difficulty of a lasting solution to the state’s complicated problem with wastewater sludge.
Contaminated sludge had been building at wastewater plants after Casella Waste Systems abruptly said it had to dial back the amount of sludge contaminated with bacteria and “forever chemicals” dumped at a state landfill. A short-term fix emerged last week that will allow some sludge to continue to be dumped in Old Town while more will be trucked to New Brunswick.
But a long-term solution may require major concessions either from private industry or politicians, neither of which like to concede much.
The context: After Bangor’s city manager and wastewater plant leader issued an open letter last week calling on state lawmakers to solve a sludge crisis, the city’s legislative delegation wrote a Bangor Daily News op-ed on Tuesday saying those officials were amplifying a controversial landfill operator’s talking points.
Two recently passed laws are at the heart of the debate. Maine addressed the health crisis around forever chemicals, known as PFAS, by advancing reforms including one banning the spreading of wastewater sludge on agricultural land. Around the same time in 2022, the Legislature closed a loophole that had long allowed out-of-state waste to go into the Old Town landfill.
Both of those laws passed easily. But Casella said at the time that the latter measure would create problems by taking away a form of waste that is used to stabilize sludge to limit runoff, predicting rising costs and consequences like mining of virgin soils to put in the landfill as trash.
War of words: Since the sludge problem escalated, Casella has continued to blame those two laws for many of the issues. Bangor municipal officials referenced both in their letter, which says the Legislature should take steps to establish other avenues for sludge disposal. The city’s Democratic legislative delegation shot back by saying Casella is “trying to scare us” into accepting its preferred terms.
“We urge Bangor residents to unequivocally state that for-profit vendors should not be the determinant of our health and environment,” they said. “We will stand by the council and city officials if they choose to hold Casella accountable.”
What’s next: The sludge spreading ban is almost certainly not going anywhere given the horror stories of contamination that has ruined farms and livelihoods across the state. Republican lawmakers have set their sights on the out-of-state waste bill, with Rep. Scott Cyrway, R-Albion, saying recently that it has had “unintended consequences.”
Any solution to this problem seems like it is going to require a delicate balance that includes not completely throwing out state standards while figuring out a way to let Casella get more waste into the landfill to handle Maine sludge. It will be a delicate political balance for everybody involved.