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 on March 1, 2023. According to Smith, three 30-yard containers of biosolids are produced every day at the plant. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Thousands of pounds of sludge laced with human waste were piling up in wastewater treatment facilities across the state at the end of February.

The treatment plants know how to manage the sludge, which is made up of the more solid components of wastewater: They put it in a trailer and wait for it to be picked up by the trash company Casella Waste Systems and sent to Maine’s state-owned landfill, Juniper Ridge, in Old Town. But at the end of February, Casella stopped taking the sludge, pushing wastewater facilities to the brink.

The Scarborough Sanitary District was “one day away from an environmental disaster,” David Hughes, its superintendent, said in an email to state legislators Feb. 28. “Tomorrow, if I don’t have my trailer dump[ed] with 30 tons of solids hauled out of [here] I will either have to dump the sludge onto the ground or discharge untreated wastewater into the ocean.” 

Go Deeper in the Sludge Crisis

Casella, which runs Juniper Ridge, abruptly stopped accepting sludge from wastewater facilities on Feb. 23, telling state officials that the loose material was causing the landfill to become unstable. It represented a defeat for state government, as officials had worked for weeks to avert a crisis. They couldn’t because Casella exercised its control over the landfill’s operations, reflecting how little say the state has over its own landfill. 

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection tried throughout February to find solutions for Casella, such as pinpointing other locations for the sludge or other materials to help stabilize the landfill. But the state faced a private business partner that had no obligation to listen. 

Instead of collaborating and discussing potential solutions, Casella pursued its own plan and continued to push for one longer-term solution: to overturn a law passed last year that restricted Casella’s ability to get stabilizing waste for the landfill.  

That’s according to more than 1,000 pages of emails, notes and memos exchanged between the state, Casella and others in the weeks before the landfill drastically cut back on its sludge intake. News media widely covered the sludge stoppage, but the records obtained by the Bangor Daily News through a public records request provide the first look at the showdown happening behind the scenes.

“Casella has a great deal of autonomy on how it manages the state-owned landfill per the operating agreement between them and the State,” said one state official in an email Feb. 22. “It has been a controversial subject for a long time but it is really coming to the forefront right now with the sludge issue.”

The records also make clear that there is still a problem: too much sludge and not enough places to put it. 

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

Under a new law, there is less available bulky waste, which Juniper Ridge had used to stabilize the sludge added to the landfill. Without the bulky waste, Casella said it had to take less sludge. Compounding the problem, other landfills in Maine are not required to accept sludge, which left wastewater treatment plants in an impossible situation.

The wastewater treatment plants were left to either find somewhere else to send the sludge or pay increased fees to Casella to have their sludge trucked to Envirem Organics in New Brunswick, Canada. 

While Maine’s sludge crisis first made headlines at the end of February and beginning of March, the records obtained by the BDN show the state knew weeks, if not months, earlier that sludge could pile up and threaten Maine’s waterways. 

In late December 2022, Casella told the Bureau of General Services, the state agency that oversees much of Juniper Ridge’s operations, that it would likely need to reduce in February the amount of sludge the landfill was accepting, said Sharon Huntley, a spokesperson for the bureau. 

But the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the agency that would have to deal with the environmental fallout of Casella’s decisions, wasn’t told about the issues until the first week of February 2023. 

According to notes from an early February meeting between the two state agencies, Casella told state officials it would be reducing the amount of sludge going to the landfill by 40 percent to ensure the landfill remained structurally sound.

Over the next three weeks, various state officials took tours of the landfill and discussed emergency measures that would allow Casella to temporarily hold Maine sludge at Hawk Ridge, its composting facility in Unity. 

But by late February the situation became untenable, as wastewater treatment plants began getting notices that they were going to be charged substantially more for Casella to take their sludge, if it could be taken at all. Many raised alarms.

“I am sure this comes as no surprise to you but we are now being threatened with additional substantial price increases,” said Travis Peaslee, general manager of the Lewiston-Auburn Water Pollution Control Authority, in an email to Melanie Loyzim, commissioner of the DEP. 

“Casella will bring a trailer tomorrow, but that only buys us a little bit of time before our solids inventory threatens violation of our permit; and thus a public health and safety concern,” wrote Nick Champagne, superintendent of the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District in Waterville. He detailed how the New Brunswick facility would not accept his sludge because it had too high a concentration of “forever chemicals” called PFAS.

Casella did everything within its power to prevent having to turn away sludge, said Jeff Weld, a Casella spokesperson, in a statement. The risks to the landfill weren’t hypothetical, Weld said, citing an incident at the Greentree Landfill in Kersey, Pennsylvania, six years ago when part of the landfill collapsed in part due to sludge placement.

On Feb. 23 Casella reported that Juniper Ridge was unstable. That’s when the state stepped up efforts to find other disposal locations. 

Birds sit and fly above the trash at the Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town on Jan. 19, 2022. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

At first, the state provided wastewater operators with a list of other facilities in Maine that might take the sludge, including Crossroads Landfill in Norridgewock and the Hartland Landfill. But landfill operators quickly said they either had no capacity for sludge or weren’t going to take it. 

State officials contacted at least 15 facilities across the country to see if they could take Maine’s sludge, but they found there was either no space or the cost was prohibitive. 

“Bottom line is that sludge can longer be land applied, there’s very little landfill capacity in Maine or the rest of New England to take the sludge, and so options and time are running out,” said Susanne Miller, the DEP’s director of remediation and waste management, in an email to staff March 1. “Many wastewater treatment plants are frantically trying to find a home for sludge as it is literally piling up.” 

State officials spent days, as shown through more than 30 pages of emails, looking for bulky waste, such as wood chips, ash or rail ties, to send to Juniper Ridge to help stabilize the landfill so it could accept more sludge. As promising tips came in about towns that had debris on hand or sawmills looking for a way to dump wood scraps, Loyzim, the DEP commissioner, forwarded the information to Casella. 

In response to suggestions and offers from the state, Casella representatives said it would “prefer” clean wood chips if it had to use alternative materials. Even more ideally, the company said, would be for the state to allow a Lewiston construction and demolition facility operated by ReSource Waste Services to import thousands of tons of bulky materials that it could landfill.

That wasn’t possible after LD 1639, passed last year, prohibited out-of-state waste from coming to Maine to be processed by ReSource. Casella had unsuccessfully lobbied against the bill.

Casella has frequently faced suggestions that it use alternative bulking materials, such as wood chips, said Weld, the Casella spokesperson. But the use of alternative materials is often touted by people who have “no practical knowledge or ability to manage the materials,” Weld said.

“In reality, we would need at least twice the amount of wood chips as compared to [oversized bulky waste], consuming significantly more landfill capacity,” Weld said. “If the goal of LD 1639 is to preserve that capacity for Maine waste, this would have the opposite effect.” 

Weld said the company wants more time to source alternative bulking materials and suitable oversized bulky waste to help prevent a sludge crisis in the future.

Top state regulators and officials in the governor’s office expressed frustration at perceived roadblocks put up by Casella.

The state understood that, to some extent, there were “legitimate concerns” about the landfill’s structure, according to an email from Miller, with the DEP. But the state remained skeptical of Casella’s position that its only option was to accept a particular type of bulky waste from ReSource. State officials speculated that Casella was not open to alternative solutions because it would affect the company’s bottom line.

“All landfills have limits on how much sludge they can accept,” Miller said. “The question is whether the extent of the impacts to [Juniper Ridge] from LD 1639 are as great as Casella makes it out to be…”

In another email, from Feb. 28, Miller expressed even more frustration, saying, “Casella appears to keep finding reasons for not using the materials we keep finding for them.” 

Casella “seems like they are purposely trying to make things more challenging,” said Thomas Abello, from the governor’s office, in an email that same day to Loyzim.

Biosolids are moved along a conveyor and sent down a chute into a container below at the Bangor Wastewater Treatment Plant on March 1, 2023. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

On March 1, Loyzim wrote in an email to an employee that she only wanted to communicate with Casella in writing “so all the information they give is on the record.” 

Loyzim went on to say she was not convinced Casella was willing to find a solution to the crisis.

“We’ll see if they truly are open to using whatever will work, or if they will refuse available materials because of associated revenue when they’re already building all their costs into huge rate increases to the wastewater treatment plants,” Loyzim said.

As the state worked to find materials for Casella, the company was in turn contacting wastewater treatment plant operators to urge them to tell state officials the only solution to the crisis was a change to LD 1639, signed into law nearly a year ago. 

“And finally, if the governor’s office is offering you the opportunity to speak to Tom Abello, I’d take them up on that offer. The governor has already heard from Casella,” Clark James, director of operations for Casella Organics, said in a Feb. 27 email to Champagne.

“I think that hearing from one of the state’s largest wastewater utilities about the potential impacts to ratepayers, including large industrial customers like Hu[h]tamaki, as well as the real, day-to-day logistical challenges that we’re facing as a result of these ill-conceived pieces of legislation, will carry far more weight and hopefully stimulate some political action.”

The DEP denied the BDN’s request to interview Loyzim. But David Madore, deputy commissioner of the DEP, said in a statement that the department is continuing to work to find better ways to dispose of sludge. 

He did not answer questions about whether he believed more could have been done sooner to prevent sludge from being turned away from Juniper Ridge, or whether or not he believes Casella is responsible for the near disaster.

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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...