With some of Maine’s wastewater treatment systems using parts that date back to the Civil War, state officials welcomed $29.7 million in federal loans and grants announced this week to maintain municipal sewage systems and even build a new one – but one official called those needed projects just “the tip of the iceberg.”
Maine towns estimated they need more than $1 billion for wastewater projects in the next 20 years, according to a 2012 assessment by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
Realistically, that money is necessary in the next decade, said John True, environmental engineering services manager at the DEP. Maine received a failing grade from American Society of Civil Engineers in an evaluation last year of the nation’s wastewater infrastructure.
But Maine’s need for funds dwarfs what’s available, said Virginia Manuel, director of the state branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development. “In a way, this is like the tip of the iceberg in terms of impact in Maine,” she said of Tuesday’s announcement about the federal money.
Many of Maine’s systems are from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and some have components made out of brick and granite that date back to the Civil War. The very oldest systems, while sturdy, are often outdated and tend to be replaced only when they fall apart, True said.
Most of the funds are going to replace sewer mains, pumping stations and aeration basins, which help break down organic matter.
Projects paid for by the funds could reduce sewage overflow that can spread waterborne illnesses and hurt wildlife by depriving lakes, rivers and the ocean of oxygen, according to USDA officials.
Some projects could also help business by improving infrastructure, they said.
“There is a very big-picture benefit to something as simple as a sewer line,” said Manuel. For example, the town of Hartland is receiving $1.6 million it will use for its treatment plant, benefiting a local tannery near the Sebasticook River that relies on the town to treat its effluent, she said.
The federal government is giving nearly $387 million to 116 recipients in 40 states and Puerto Rico to replace sewage mains, pumping stations and aerations basins that help break down sewage organically.
In Maine, facilities in seven towns, cities and a district are receiving grants and loans. Oxford is receiving the largest chunk of funding in the state, with $23.7 million going to a new wastewater treatment and collection facility.
True said Maine gives out about $40 million in loans for wastewater projects through its own State Revolving Fund Projects, which use federal and state funding combined with interest from its own loans to offer low-interest grants.
Still, he said Maine, along with other states, lack funds for all the projects that need attention.
“There isn’t enough money to go around to pay for it,” he said.