Wastewater director Doug Clark stands near a screw press that is used to dewater sludge Tuesday at the city of Gardiner’s wastewater treatment plant in South Gardiner. The facility is one of many across the state struggling with how to dispose of sludge after two recent state laws limited the options for disposing of the byproduct and increased the cost of hauling it away from the plants. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

GARDINER — Wastewater treatment plants across Maine are in a near-crisis condition as the impact of two different state laws has halted the removal of sludge, leaving it to accumulate at the plants.

As plant operators and waste haulers scramble to find short-term and long-term fixes, the cost of handling the byproducts of wastewater treatment is rising dramatically, and sewer system ratepayers across the state will bear the cost.

“I’ve lost a lot of sleep over this,” said Douglas Clark, director of wastewater for the city of Gardiner.

Driven by concerns of PFAS contamination, state lawmakers passed a law that went into effect last summer cutting off one avenue of disposing of the organic material that’s the result of treating sewage. L.D. 1911 bans land application of biosolids — also known as sludge — and the sale and distribution of compost or other materials containing sludge and septage.

A dumpster full of dewatered sludge is seen Tuesday at the city of Gardiner’s wastewater treatment plant in South Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

A second law, that went into effect on Feb. 8, imposes further limits on the handling of biosolids in Maine. L.D. 1639 restricts the materials that can go to in-state landfills, limiting the importation of construction debris — which is typically mixed with sludge to solidify it for disposal — from out of state.

This has now upended biosolid disposal in the state, prompting nearly three dozen treatment plants to have to store biosolids at their facilities and putting them in jeopardy of violating their licenses.


At the end of last week, Casella Waste Systems, which contracts with treatment plants for biosolid removal, notified its customers of a rate adjustment to cover the new costs of waste disposal.

In his letter, Patrick Ellis, director of Organic Solutions for Casella, said the company has counted on recycled construction debris to be mixed with municipal biosolids so the stabilized product can be disposed of at the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill north of Old Town. Because of the restrictions in L.D. 1639, the materials are now in short supply, limiting the volume of biosolids it can dispose of.

“In order to continue to manage your biosolids, Casella is pursuing other options for disposal which will come at a considerable increase in costs to Casella, as well as to our customers.”

Jeff Weld, spokesman for Casella Waste Systems, said Tuesday that the company needs to reduce the volume of sludge being accepted at Juniper Ridge Landfill by about 4,000 tons a month or 60% in the immediate near term and 2,500 tons or 38% in the longer term.

Chief among the current options is trucking biosolids to a landfill in New Brunswick.

“I was surprised it was going to cost so much,” Brian Tarbuck, general manager of the Greater Augusta Utility District said.


In 2022 the district, which serves Augusta, Hallowell, Manchester and Winthrop, paid Casella $108 per ton to remove waste; that cost is now $209 per ton.

“That’s quite a hit,” Tarbuck said. “We expected a small increase this year. I didn’t expect a 42% increase.”

In Gardiner, Clark said the current cost of moving sludge is $117 per ton. The extra step of trucking it to Canada will be $75 per ton, or a 64% increase.

“We’re not done yet; it’s a moving target out there,” he said.

Wastewater director Doug Clark looks down into a dumpster full of dewatered sludge Tuesday at the city’s wastewater treatment plant in South Gardiner. The facility is one of many across the state struggling with how to dispose of sludge after two recent state laws limited the options for disposing of the byproduct and increased the cost of hauling it away from the plants. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Lewiston-Auburn Water Pollution Control Authority General Manager Travis Peaslee said it would cost an extra $62 per ton to to remove waste if they accept Casella’s offer to truck their sludge up to Canada.

When L.D. 1911 went into effect last year, Peaslee said LAWPCA’s cost to remove waste increased from roughly $80 per ton to $130 per ton. Prior to 2019, the cost to remove waste was about $30 to $35 per ton.


While he couldn’t say exactly how this would impact Lewiston and Auburn residents, Peaslee said that because LAWPCA is a quasi-municipal entity, all price increases get passed on to residents who use the municipal water systems.

At the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District in Waterville, Superintendent Nick Champagne calculated the impact on the system that serves Waterville, Winslow, Fairfield, Benton and Huhtamaki Inc., at a little more than $550,000. That is not in the district’s budget.

But his more immediate concern is what will happen if the biosolids can’t be hauled away from his treatment facility.

“If we store (it) on our facility, we only have a matter of about a week,” he said, “and shorter than that if we have a significant rainstorm because we’re storing the solids in the offline tanks we use for flow equalization.”

And on Monday, Champagne learned that the New Brunswick landfill has a limit on 30 parts per billion on PFAS content in sludge it will accept.

“Our result was 34 parts per billion, so they’re not accepting our sludge, so we’re exploring alternatives, with no definitive alternative identified at the moment,” he said.


Tarbuck said the Augusta utility district has made some changes to its treatment process to store sludge on site.

“That’s not without risk,” he said. “Not only does it cost more, but we have the potential to impair Maine’s waterways and violate our license. So then, who’s in trouble for this? Well, utilities.”

Peaslee, from LAWPCA, said they received Casella’s notification late last week, the authority has been brining their sludge to covered storage at a composting facility in Auburn.

“We have maybe three weeks of storage in there and we’re hoping that buys us enough time,” to figure out LAWPCA’s next steps, he said. “When (Casella) cuts people off, it quickly impacts our processes because our processes don’t stop. They’re flowing 24/7 and these biosolids are being produced every single day.”

Tim Wade, president of the Maine Water Environment Association, said when the proposals were being considered in the Legislature, several organizations, including state health and environmental departments, all testified either in opposition or neither for nor against them because of the consequences.

“I think the folks that passed the bills really had their hearts in the right place,” Wade said. “They were also getting testimony from proponents of the legislation, especially L.D. 1911 that had been affected by PFAS in very real ways, and the emotional testimony outweighed the scientific testimony.”


Wade credited the actions of the state Department of Environmental Protection, for its work in helping to identify solutions even before L.D. 1911 became law.

A dumpster full of dewatered sludge is seen Tuesday at the city’s wastewater treatment plant in South Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

David Madore, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said Tuesday that the department understands the state’s wastewater utilities are in an untenable situation.

“They are being forced to absorb huge price increases and to avert disaster at their facilities,” Madore said. “DEP is working with all interested parties to support a variety of temporary solutions to ease this crisis, while also developing plans to prevent this situation from recurring.”

Over the weekend, DEP took action with a temporary, emergency approval to allow Hawk Ridge in Unity at Casella’s request to be used as a transfer station through the end of August to allow the sludge from across the state to be trucked to New Brunswick.

Until the ban on land application of sludge, the Hawk Ridge Compost facility in Unity had composted biosolids and sold the fertilizer. Casella continues to operate the facility at full capacity for out-of-state customers and continues to sell composted products outside Maine, Madore said.

Now local policymakers will grapple with how to pay for the costs.


Tarbuck said the Greater Augusta Utility District board met Monday night and discussed the matter.

On Tuesday, Champagne sent out a letter to his board of trustees, district members and stakeholders with copies to state legislators and Gov. Janet Mills outlining KSTD’s situation.

And on Wednesday, the Gardiner City Council is expected to hear an update.

“I’ve been in water and wastewater for 42 years,” Clark said. “I’ve never, ever seen this kind of economic impact hit all utilities, everywhere across the country, so quickly and violently. It was a one-two punch for me: the virus and those effects and the L.D.s and PFAS. It is what it is.”

Sun Journal writer Emily Bader contributed to this report. 

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