Maine was brought to the brink of a man-made environmental disaster this week — a potential catastrophe that threatens to spill thousands of tons of human waste byproduct into Maine’s waterways.
At the center of the crisis is Casella Waste Systems, Inc., the company that operates the state-owned Juniper Ridge landfill in Old Town.
Casella processes thousands of tons of sludge from municipal waste treatment facilities across the state every month, but it announced last month that it would have to reduce the amount of sludge it accepted by as much as 60 percent.
As a result, municipal officials are dealing with a sudden glut of sludge and nowhere to bring it. The emergency options available to them, like trucking the toxic material to a facility in New Brunswick, Canada, will be very expensive for ratepayers.
At an urgent hearing Wednesday, elected officials accused Casella of fabricating the current crisis in order to bring about the repeal of environmental regulations.
“It would be nice if we could shift from using the situation we’re in now with regard to municipal waste and PFAS contamination, 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 instead be partner and help us deal with these issues,” said Sen. Anne Carney (D-Cumberland).
But people familiar with the sludge crisis — and how we got here — tell the Maine Wire that Maine’s elected officials, and especially Carney, are to blame for approving “environmental justice” laws in 2022 that are now having unfortunate and entirely predictable consequences.
Although a temporary solution has been found, Maine is not out of the woods when it comes to avoiding a genuine sludge-related environmental catastrophe down the road.
The full story, beginning with the passage of two environmental laws in the 130th Legislature, is illustrative of how well-intentioned laws can have perverse and unintended consequences. And if lawmakers don’t learn the lessons of this man-made sludgepocalypse, they may be poised to repeat the very same mistakes, and soon.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Let’s start with sludge.
Sludge is a byproduct that comes from facilities that treat human waste. If your toilet is hooked up to municipal sewers, the stuff you flush ends up at one of these facilities. To treat the waste, they extract the water, strain it, add chemicals like chlorine, aerate it, and run a few other processes on the material. What emerges from that is the mud-like greenish-brown substance we call sludge.
Disgusting, right? Well unless you’re taking all of your Number Twos in a compost toilet, you’re contributing to the problem. Most of that sludge is transferred from wastewater treatment facilities to landfills, with much of that going to the Juniper Ridge landfill in Old Town.
The toxicness of sludge only grew in the human imagination when it was discovered that sludge, like millions of things Mainers use and consume everyday, has a high concentration of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, usually abbreviated as PFAS.
In brief, PFAS are large molecules used in myriad manufacturing processes, which means they’ve been found almost everywhere.
The harms of PFAS have been written about at length by environmental activists and health advocates, including reporters at various news outlets across the state.
PFAS is in sludge because PFAS is in people.
The chemicals can cause a host of severe health problems.
Famed environmental whistleblower Erin Brockovich, played by Julia Roberts in the eponymous blockbuster movie, has said PFAS chemicals may be lowering sperm counts and shrinking penises.
That means dealing with the toxins could be a matter of the survival of the human race.
PFAS, LANDFILLS, & LAWS
Enter Gov. Janet Mills, Sen. Anne Carney, and the rest of the 130th Legislature.
In 2022, lawmakers inked two bills relating to sludge and landfills, both of which Mills signed last April.
The first was LD 1911, a bill that banned the use of sludge on farms.
For several years, sludge was used as fertilizer on farmland, which inadvertantly poisoned the land with PFAS. Several farms, notably in Fairfield, were found to be contaminated with PFAS after using sludge as fertilizer. Ditto for nearby woodland critters.
LD 1911 made it so only approved landfills, like Casella’s, could accept the sludge, and sludge-related products could never be used as fertilizer. As a result, Casella’s intake of sludge at Juniper Ridge increased by 15 percent, i.e. over 1,000 tons of sludge per month. Many other landfills in Maine did not accept increased levels of sludge following the bill’s enactment.
Most everyone agrees that PFAS-laced sludge shouldn’t be spread on Maine farmland, but the consequence of LD 1911 was that after the law took effect in August, Juniper Ridge had a sludge surplus.
At the same time, lawmakers also approved LD 1639, a bill sponsored by Carney that stopped construction debris from being brought into Maine, processed, and deposited in Maine landfills.
Environmentalists rallied around the idea of stopping companies, primarily in Massachusetts, from exporting their waste to the Pine Tree State.
But that law had the unintended consequence of reducing Casella’s ability to safely incorporate sludge into its landfill, which is part of the reason why the company had to stop accepting deliveries of sludge from waste treatment facilities.
The supply of sludge went up beginning in August because of LD 1911, then the ability to process sludge went down in February because of LD 1639, and that’s where the current crisis comes from.
If it’s not frustrating enough that the entire crisis was created by the legislature, then consider also: it was not only entirely predictable, it was predicted.
Jeff Hanley, the former Republican lead on the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, said the situation currently unfolding was obvious when the bills were passed, and he warned his fellow committee members that exactly this situation would happen.
“Because of these idiotic laws and all these boneheads making laws to make themselves feel good, we’re now at the edge of an environmental disaster,” said Hanley, who was termed out of the legislature last year.
Hanley worked for 20 years at Sappi, including 7 years in landfill management, but he said his expertise was ignored by Carney and other lawmakers when it came to passing laws concerning landfill management.
“I’m only high school educated, so I don’t know anything. They’re all much smarter than me. So they went ahead and passed feel-good legislation,” he said.
“Course, it might not feel too good soon.”
Carney, who has degrees from Haverford College, Harvard University, and the University of Maine School of Law, used LD 1639 to enshrine in Maine law the principle of “environmental justice,” which the law describes as “the right to be protected from environmental pollution and to live in and enjoy a clean and healthful environment regardless of ancestry, class, disability, ethnicity, income, national origin or religion.”
That’s the feel good part Hanley was talking about.
LD 1639 was also sold as an attempt to close a “loophole” that allowed out-of-state construction debris to be brought into Maine, recycled, and later used as a bulking agent for landfill sludge.
Another feel good aspect: Why should those flat-landers from Massachusetts dump their garbage in Maine anyways?
Another win for environmental justice!
In practice, though, the law limited the ability of ReSource Waste Services, a Lewiston-based company, to provide Juniper Hill with processed construction materials that Casella used to stabilize the Old Town landfill. Sludge is totally unstable by itself, so keeping it safely stored in a landfill requires a bulking agent, i.e. the construction debris. The bulking agents from construction debris are particularly effective at stabilizing sludge. Without enough of the bulking agent from debris or other sources, building a landfill is like “building a pyramid of jello,” said Hanley.
Casella’s available oversize bulking agent decreased by 14 percent once Carney’s law took effect.
Because Casella is not legally required to accept sludge, and because they can no longer deal with the increased volume of sludge safely, they started limiting shipments from municipal waste treatment facilities in February, which in turn has caused a backup of sludge at the facilities.
Like Hanley, Casella warned precisely this scenario would be the result of passing LD 1639.
Casella representatives said passage of LD 1639 would “cause a reduction in the ability to dispose of wastewater sludge at the state-owned landfill.”
Casella added: “If a replacement source can’t be found, the facility would have to limit the amount of sludge accepted for disposal which could prove devastating for [the] Nine Dragons [paper mill] and municipalities across the state that rely on the facility for disposal of wastewater sludge.”
Before the 130th legislature got involved, the sludge arrangement made everyone money: Massachusetts-based entities paid ReSource to accept the construction debris, ReSource employed 40 Mainers to process the debris, and Casella got paid to accept ReSource’s recycled materials, which were then used to secure the landfill. All of this activity generated fees for the state while ensuring that the hazardous waste was stably stored at the landfill.
But lawmakers, convinced of the moral imperative that Maine no longer accept construction debris from Massachusetts, passed LD 1639 without offering an alternative plan to deal with the sludge — in the short-term or the long-term. And they set the date for it to take effect very quickly, this February.
With Casella no longer accepting sludge shipments at its Old Town facility, waste treatment facilities across the state are also taking extreme steps to store the backed-up sludge.
Farmington, for example, has a dumpster full of sludge awaiting processing. But other treatment facilities are, for the most part, relying on waste water storage tanks. The problem with that, though, is those tanks could potentially overflow into Maine’s waterways, a danger that could be exacerbated by a massive rain event.
“One of the most troubling things is that some of these waste treatment facilities have no storage capacity for sludge. They’re storing the sludge in overflow tanks, surge tanks. Monstrous tanks,” said Hanley.
“But they are used primarily to collect stormwater during heavy rain. If we have a big rain storm, these surge tanks can’t be shut off. They’ll overflow into the rivers,” Hanley said.
“You’re going to have a lot of sewage treatment plants in Maine that are going to be in very dire circumstances if we have a big spring run off,” Hanley said.
Rep. Mike Soboleski (R-Phillips), a Republican currently on the environmental committee, was more optimistic than Hanley about Maine’s capacity to deal with the current sludge abundance and the emergency steps municipal facilities are taking.
In recent days, Soboleski has been immersed in sludge, figuratively speaking. He’s talked with state officials and representatives from Casella, and he’s visited wastewater treatment facilities in Lewiston, Farmington, Waterville, and Augusta to inspect how waste treatment facilities are coping with the sludge deluge.
Although Soboleski was not in the legislature at the time, he said LD 1911 had to happen given what the state has learned about the dangers of PFAS. But he acknowledged that the two laws contributed to the current sludge glut without providing a forward thinking plan.
“That had to happen, the problem is dealing with the sludge now,” he said.
Soboleski said he’s confident the state will come up with a solution before the amount of sludge goes beyond crisis levels. Likewise, he’s confident that Maine’s treatment facilities aren’t at risk of a major environmental incident, so long as policymakers, state officials, and Casella act quickly — and Maine avoids a big rain storm.
“There’s a solution in the works,” he said. “We need to get away from using construction debris as a bulking agent and use more natural resources,” he said.
Jeff Weld, Casella’s Director of Communications, said the villainization of the landfill operator by activists, lawmakers, and some in the media has unfairly characterized the steps Casella has taken this year to prevent a genuine environmental catastrophe.
“They want to paint us as a villain. It’s just not the case,” said Weld. “If they understood the time, effort, and care that our people have put into this problem then they would realize it’s just completely false.”
Weld took issue specifically with lawmakers who have questioned Casella’s motives in refusing to accept additional sludge. He said the company’s decision was in the best interest of everyone in the state, as an unstable landfill could have caused serious health and environmental problems.
“The landfill was clearly unstable. They had to shut it off,” he said. “The interesting question asked yesterday was, do you have data to back up the instability.”
“In real time, in the real world, you’re not going to get a landfill engineer out here to spend seven days collecting data on this,” he said. “We’ve seen landfills collapse, people have died. These are real time decisions made by people in real time with real expertise. To insinuate that they’re making these decisions based on politics is just not true.”
Weld said lawmakers could have avoided the current crisis by prolonging the date at which LD 1639 took effect. In eliminating the out-of-state bulky waste so quickly, lawmakers were effectively forcing Casella to consider more costly short-term options to safely store the sludge, costs that are then passed along to municipalities and, ultimately, ratepayers.
“You have activist legislation being jammed down the pathway, and people aren’t listening to the people that are doing the work,” said Weld.
Right now, that short-term solution looks like truckloads of human waste — up to 90,000 gallons per day — streaming over the border to a facility in New Brunswick, an expensive temporary arrangement. If that became the new normal, so would the doubling — or more — of municipal sewer bills.
So Casella and policymakers are both looking for a more sustainable long-term fix. In response to Soboleski’s point that Casella should consider using natural resources as bulking agents, Weld said that that arrangement would also come with tradeoffs, not all of them obvious.
Wood chips are less effective as a landfill bulking agent than construction debris. Where 3.5 truckloads of sludge can be stabilized by one truckload of oversized bulky waste, he said it takes six truckloads of wood chips to have the same result for a truckload of sludge.
“Now you’re eating up landfill capacity,” said Weld.
Switching to wood chips, in addition to the increased costs and environmental impact on forests, would undermine one of the key goals of LD 1639, which was to ensure Maine’s landfill capacity was being used efficiently.
“LD 1639 was designed to maximize landfill capacity for Maine, not for Massachusetts, but you’re going to use more landfill space by using natural products,” he said. “Creating one problem in replacement of another problem is not a solution.”
On the cost of wood chips, there has been some suggestion that the state government could help offset the higher cost for mulch paid by Casella, but ultimately those increased costs are still falling on taxpayers and ratepayers. And Casella noted in their legislative testimony about the bill that switching to wood mulch would cause the price of that product to increase massively, which could have downstream effects for other industries in the state.
So what’s the long-term solution to avert the sludgepocalypse and ensure Maine is never again knocking on the door of sludgemageddon?
That’s still an open question, and the answer isn’t readily apparent.
On Feb. 24, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection granted Casella temporary permission to store some sludge at its Hawk Ridge Composting Facility in Unity. But that will not account for the total sludge volume that needs to be dealt with on a longer term basis.
Currently, Casella has reduced the amount of sludge Juniper Ridge will accept by roughly 4,000 tons per month, a 60 percent decrease, in order to avoid a crisis. Over the longer term, if Maine’s laws remain as they are, then the company anticipates it will accept 2,500 fewer tons of sludge than pre-LD 1639 levels.
In other words, the long-term reality is that Juniper Ridge will process 38 percent less sludge than before the 130th legislature got into the business of micromanaging landfills, which could lead municipal waste facilities across the state to once again face a costly, and potentially dangerous, sludge problem.
Weld said with the closure of end-site landfill facilities like Juniper Ridge across the north east, the best hope for dealing with the sludge crisis in a lasting way is the development of new technologies, like anaerobic digestion, a process that uses microorganisms to breakdown waste.
But those technologies are a ways off from realistically helping Maine cope with its sludge crunch.
For Weld, whatever solution policymakers arrive at must respect the fundamental reality that waste management occurs within an economic system that is responsive to economic incentives.
“There is no environmental sustainability without economic sustainability,” he said.