Phil Besse shakes the separaters on a machine used in the dewatering process of waste at the Bangor Wastewater Treatment Plant on Main Street on March 1, 2023. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Bangor is looking to state legislators to develop an alternative way for the city to dispose of its biosolid waste — which contains bacteria, chemicals and human excrement — after the company running the state-owned landfill abruptly stopped accepting the sludge last month.

Bangor City Councilors met with the legislative delegation and local lawmakers Monday to review the city’s precarious sludge disposal situation.

While lawmakers gave updates on what the state and committees are working on to solve the long-term problem, no one offered alternative ideas for the city’s immediate sludge disposal needs.

The Bangor wastewater treatment plant cleans the equivalent of 7.5 million flushes from Bangor, Hampden and Hermon every day, said Amanda Smith, the water quality management director for the Bangor Wastewater Treatment Plant. The city’s treatment and disposal method hasn’t been interrupted in the 56 years the treatment center has been in operation.

On Feb. 23, Casella Waste Systems told more than 30 wastewater treatment plants, including Bangor’s, it would no longer put their sludge into the Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town and cited two laws — LD 1639 and LD 1911 — for the abrupt stop.

LD 1639, which was signed into law in April 2022 and went into effect in February, prohibits out-of-state bulky waste from entering Maine. Casella said it relies on that bulky waste, which could be anything from discarded furniture to large appliances, to stabilize and support the structure of landfills. Since it’s receiving less bulky waste, Casella can’t take as much sludge, the company said.

Meanwhile, LD 1911 prohibits biosolids from being applied to the land over concerns about PFAS — harmful forever chemicals that have been linked to various health issues — in the sludge that would leach into the soil. This gave communities no other option but to send their sludge to the landfill.

Sen. Stacy Brenner, D-Scarborough, who serves as Senate chairperson for the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said the committee has asked Casella for data regarding how many tons of bulky trash the company needs to manage in-state waste at Juniper Ridge.

The state has data that shows the amount of construction and demolition debris that’s produced in-state should be enough to manage the sludge that goes to Juniper Ridge, Brenner said. If this is true, the Legislature could help pay for communities to send that bulky waste to the landfill as a short-term solution.

Brenner also said sludge could be dried before it goes into the landfill so it takes up less space and doesn’t have stability issues that require bulky waste.

In the long term, Brenner said the Department of Environmental Protection plans to return to the Environment and Natural Resources Committee in January 2024 with long-term solutions to the state’s sludge problem.

Casella is working to develop their own long-term solutions for sludge management that don’t involve landfilling, composting or spreading it over the land, Brenner said.

Casella’s sudden cutoff of accepting sludge sent plants across the state scrambling to find alternative disposal options.

The following day, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection allowed Juniper Ridge to accept one-third of the sludge it previously did.

Bangor now sends one-third of its sludge, which contains the more solid components of wastewater, to Juniper Ridge. The remaining two-thirds of the city’s waste gets shipped to New Brunswick, Smith said.

Three years ago, it cost Bangor about $400,000 annually to dispose of its sludge through a mix of composting and landfilling, Smith said. Now, the cost of removal has skyrocketed to $1.2 million.

For nearly a month, this has been the temporary solution but the city worries because there is no plan B in place and Canada or Juniper Ridge could close their doors to Bangor’s sludge altogether.

This would force the city to store its own waste in the facility. The plant can store from one to two weeks’ worth in dry weather. In wet weather, that capacity shrinks to just one or two days, Smith said.

“My question is: If Casella lets me down and tells me they can’t pick up, where can I put it?” Smith said. “That’s the short-term solution we’re looking for.”

If the city’s treatment center ran out of room and no alternative solution was found, Bangor would be forced to send untreated sewage into the Penobscot River — a worst-case scenario.

“We’ve spent the last 55 years cleaning up the Penobscot River,” Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, said Monday. “This would be a devastating setback.”

Baldacci said that once a solution is found, the state needs to consider how to end Casella’s reign as the sole source for sludge disposal in Maine.

“Casella is a monopoly and right now they could trigger a public health emergency at the drop of a hat,” Baldacci said. “We can’t be at the whim of a monopoly with this much impact.”

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...