Maine lawmakers told that 'catastrophe' is averted, but sludge disposal challenges remain
Representatives for Casella Waste System told lawmakers on Wednesday that the potential crisis over disposal of municipal sludge at state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill has "stabilized," but that short- and long-term challenges remain.
"We expect to by the middle of next week we will essentially be back to the status quo of those facilities no longer being backed up and material being removed on a regular basis,” said Patrick Ellis, director of organic solutions at Casella. “So in terms of a short-term emergency that was caused by the instability of the landfill, I think we are past that at this point.”
Officials with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, meanwhile, said agency staff have identified additional materials that could allow Casella to resume larger-scale sludge disposal at Juniper Ridge. But DEP Commissioner Melanie Loyzim also acknowledged that Maine needs more permanent solutions to a waste disposal problem that extends beyond Maine’s borders.
"In terms of long-term options, we have been chasing down bulky material to try to deal with a today and tomorrow problem,” Loyzim said. “Obviously, we also need to have a plan for the long term. That is a conversation that the DEP has been having with many of the wastewater districts."
It's been roughly two weeks since Casella Waste Systems dramatically reduced the amount of sludge it would accept at Juniper Ridge Landfill because of stability concerns at the facility. Casella officials insist the recent crisis stems from two new laws that affected the flow of sludge and other waste to Juniper Ridge, which the company has a 30-year contract to operate for the state.
The first law prohibited sludge from being spread on land because of concerns about PFAS pollution, leading to an increase in landfill disposal. The second law decreased the flow of the bulky waste from other states that Casella says must be mixed with the liquid sludge for stability.
That decision sent shockwaves across Maine as sludge began building up at wastewater treatment plants. Managers at the plants warned of looming environmental disasters if trucks didn't start hauling it away.
Ellis told members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee that the company has made temporary arrangements to haul much of that to facilities in New Brunswick and elsewhere, although small amounts are going to Juniper Ridge now that the stability concerns have been addressed. But Ellis said that volume remains dramatically lower than just a few weeks ago and he cautioned that trucking to New Brunswick could be a temporary solution.
The province of Quebec recently imposed a moratorium on biosolid importation from other states partly in response to sludge, or biosolids, in Maine that were potentially contaminated with the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.
Municipal wastewater treatment plants are also paying significantly more money to dispose of that waste because of the transportation costs.
"We're not happy that we have to pass along that significant rate increase to them but we are happy that we are able to service them and avoid an actual environmental catastrophe of having to dump sludge into the rivers of Maine. We’ve avoided that and we don’t think we are going to get close to that situation again. But that is keeping fingers crossed that New Brunswick doesn’t close the border in a way that Quebec did," Ellis said.
It was clear during Wednesday's committee briefing that some lawmakers were skeptical that Casella had done enough to find alternative so-called "bulking agents." Among them was Sen. Anne Carney, a Cape Elizabeth Democrat who sponsored the bill essentially cutting off Casella's ability to deposit out-of-state bulky waste at Juniper Ridge.
Prior to passage of Carney’s bill, L.D. 1639, Casella had been utilizing a loophole in state law that allowed it to “bulk up” the sludge with construction and demolition debris that originated in Massachusetts but was recycled or processed at a facility in Lewiston.
"The purpose of that legislation was to make sure we retained room in our state-owned landfill for the needs of the people of Maine, for example in this situation where we do have an extreme need for landfill space,” Carney said. “It would be nice if we could shift from using the situation we are in now with regard to municipal (sludge) and PFAS — instead of using it as an excuse and leverage to try to get rid of really important public policies that prevent pollution and contamination in our state — if Casella could pivot and be a partner and help us deal with these issues."
Casella representatives pointed out that they cautioned that same legislative committee last year that passage of the two bills dealing with PFAS in sludge and out-of-state waste would impact Juniper Ridge’s ability dispose of sludge.
Staff at the Maine DEP have also been scrambling to address the crisis in recent weeks. Part of that involved trying to find alternative disposal sites.
But Loyzim agreed with Casella that there's simply not enough capacity across New England to handle sludge. She said DEP staff has identified two lumber mills in northern Maine that can provide 300,000 cubic yards of wood waste to Casella to mix with sludge at Juniper Ridge. Loyzim there are also processes to dry or digest sludge as well as technologies to remove the forever chemicals known as PFAS.
Speaking afterward, Loyzim said it was good news to hear that Casella felt it could resume normal pickup and disposal of sludge, albeit it different locations. But she said “we want to look at some backup just in case that doesn’t continue to be the case.”