Maine may soon pause the enforcement of an “environmental justice” policy passed in the last legislature after the new law resulted in a human waste glut at municipal waste treatment facilities, higher costs for cities and towns, and brought Maine perilously close to an environmental disaster — exactly as Maine’s largest landfill operator said it would.
The law, which stems from Sen. Anne Carney’s (D-Cumberland) LD 1639, aimed to stop the flow of garbage from out-of-state into Maine, with supporters saying that Maine should not be a dumping ground for other New England states.
But Maine’s largest landfill operator, Vermont-based Casella Waste Systems, warned before Carney’s bill became law that there would be unintended consequences.
Specifically, Casella said cutting off its supply of oversized bulky waste from out-of-state would reduce its ability to safely process human waste, known as sludge, at the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill in Alton.
ReSource Waste Services, a Lewiston-based company, was the primary company impacted by LD 1639. ReSource ran a symbiotic business with the Casella prior to the bill’s passage: ReSource would take construction debris from all over New England, process those debris, and send a portion of the oversized bulky waste to Alton, where the Juniper Ridge Landfill is located. Casella’s landfill engineers would then combine the oversized bulky waste from ReSource with sludge from wastewater treatment facilities to create a stable landfill.
At the same time lawmakers in Augusta cut off the supply of landfill-stabilizing construction debris, they also passed a separate law, LD 1911, which prohibited certain other uses of human sludge in order to mitigate the spread of PFAS on Maine farmland. This resulted in Casella having to introduce a higher volume of sludge into the landfill.
At the same time the Legislature reduced Casella’s ability to safely process human waste, they increased the amount of human waste Maine was relying on Casella to process.
Casella said last year that this one-two punch from policymakers would force them to reduce the amount of sludge they could accept and take costly measures to avoid a landfill collapse, like shipping the sludge to Canada.
Lawmakers didn’t believe Casella or didn’t listen.
Both the House and the Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve the bill.
Gov. Janet Mills signed it into law in April 2022; the restrictions took effect early this year.
And, just as Casella predicted, problems ensued.
Beginning in February, Casella reduced the amount of sludge it would accept at the Juniper Ridge Landfill.
Instead, they began shipping the material to a company in Canada. Loading and shipping nine trucks full of human waste per day on a 400-mile round trip comes at a cost. That cost increase was passed along to all municipalities in the form of an LD 1639 surcharge. The suspension of activity at the Nine Dragons paper mill in Old Town reduced the sludge input by about three trucks per day, but it only lessened the pressure on Casella to deal with large amounts of sludge without oversized bulky waste to stabilize the landfill.
In some cases, city waste disposal costs have more than doubled, driving conversations in the current Legislature about rethinking LD 1639 and the outright ban on bringing oversized bulky waste into Maine.
On Monday, lawmakers on the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources considered a concept bill from Sen. Russell Black (R-Franklin) that would put a two-year pause on the provisions of LD 1639.
In practice, that would mean ReSource and Casella could renew the operation that allowed for the importation of bulky, landfill-stabilizing waste.
Rep. Mike Soboleski (R-Phillips) has worked extensively since the onset of the sludge crisis to advance a compromise deal that would reduce costs for municipalities, end the shipments to Canada, and restore Casella’s ability to safely process sludge.
In the last few months, he’s toured ReSource’s facility in Lewiston, as well as wastewater treatment facilities all over the state, and he’s corresponded with Gov. Janet Mills’ office to find a compromise.
Soboleski said that in return for the two-year pause, Casella has agreed to phase down the LD 1639 Surcharge and end the shipments to Canada. Over those two years, Casella will have more time to develop a landfill management arrangement that doesn’t use imported oversized bulky waste.
Under the developing bipartisan agreement, he said Casella will be limited to just 25,000 tons of oversized bulky waste — a provision backed by Carney that will appease supporters od LD 1639. That’s also an amount of bulky waste Casella believes will be sufficient to allow it to end the shipments to Canada.
“The governor wanted to hear that, if we passed this bill, that we would immediately deal with the Canada situation and reduce the LD 1639 surcharge,” he said. He said he believes the governor and many Democratic lawmakers will back the proposed compromise.
But the compromise has done nothing to resolve the enmity between Casella and some members of the Legislature.
In March, when the sludge back up began, lawmakers held emergency hearings to address the situation.
During those hearings, Carney accused Casella of using the sludge backup as a pretext for blocking pro-environment policies that hampered its business model.
“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,” Carney said.
On Monday, Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford) reiterated and amplified the view that Casella is a malign actor.
Bennett submitted testimony excoriating Casella’s business model, its owners, and what he called monopolistic practices.
“It is the company’s business strategy to create a vertically integrated regional monopoly that gives it power to charge its customers exorbitantly,” said Bennett.
Bennett said Casella, a publicly traded $4.7 billion company, recently posted a 12.2 percent increase in year-over-year quarterly revenues, and he chided the company’s CEO, John W. Casella, for receiving a large salary.
“Instead of coming up with solutions, Casella has decided to hold our communities hostage,” Bennett said.
Bennett also blasted Casella for refusing to turn over key details of its business that would help lawmakers determine whether large rate increases on municipal customers were justified.
“In 2004, Casella entered into a 30-year contract with the State’s General Services Administration to operate this landfill,” said Bennett. “Our right to know did not end with the signing of this contract.”
The Legislature should not be considering a pause on LD 1639, Bennett said, but should instead be reconsidering its relationship with Casella.
Jeff Weld, director of communications for Cassella, pushed back on Bennett’s comments in a written statement to the Maine Wire.
“Senator Bennett’s comments are unfortunate, and clearly demonstrate that he did not take the time to review the materials that were submitted to the [Environment and National Resources] committee outlining all that has taken place to solve this issue, and the reality that the exportation of Maine Sludge to Canada, while proving more costly than landfilling it with the appropriate bulking material, is the most cost-effective for Maine ratepayers,” Weld said.
“The reality is that handling and transportation costs are significantly more than would be necessary to manage those materials in Maine,” said Weld.