AUGUSTA — Wastewater treatment plant operators across Maine are scrambling to meet a tight deadline imposed by the Mills administration to begin testing municipal sludge for so-called “forever chemicals” before the sludge can be used as fertilizer.

There is growing national concern about the health impacts of a class of chemicals – known as PFAS – that were commonly used in everything from Teflon cookware to microwave popcorn bags and firefighting foam. In Maine, debate over PFAS has broadened to include sludge following the case of an Arundel dairy farmer who says his crops, land and milk have been contaminated, taking away his livelihood.

Municipal wastewater treatment facilities as well as private companies are now under pressure to meet an April 12 deadline to file PFAS sampling and testing plans for sludge intended for use as “biosolids” fertilizer on farms or as garden compost. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection also set an initial testing deadline of May 7.

Some in the waste treatment and biosolids industries appeared to have been caught off-guard by the testing mandate – and reaction ranged from reluctant acceptance to alarm and criticism.

“I’m not opposed to testing, but if we really wanted to protect the public from these materials, I question whether focusing on biosolids is a sound use of our resources,” said Mac Richardson, superintendent of the Lewiston-Auburn Water Pollution Control Authority, which has operated one of the state’s largest sludge reuse programs. “Maybe we ought to be talking to the fire departments in all of the towns” that have firefighting foam containing PFAS.

“May 7th is going to come quick, so we are going to get it out as soon as we can and go from there,” said Leonard Blanchette, general manager of the Brunswick Sewer District.

The per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals collectively known as PFAS have been used so widely since the 1940s that they are detectable in human and animal blood around the globe. PFAS chemicals make frying pans nonstick, repel grease on pizza boxes, make carpet stain-resistant, allow clothing to shed water and enable military firefighters to smother flames from burning jet fuel.

But the strong chemical bonds that create those sought-after qualities in consumer products also mean PFAS stick around in the environment and “bioaccumulate” in the human body. A growing number of studies suggest PFAS – particularly the phased-out varieties PFOA and PFOS — also are damaging human health.

Sludge is dumped Monday at the wastewater treatment plant in Portland. The Portland Water District’s spokeswoman said the new DEP requirement for chemical testing felt “a little rushed.” Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

PFAS have been linked to cancer, thyroid disruption, low birth weights, higher cholesterol levels as well as changes in the reproductive and immunological systems of lab animals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a 70 parts per trillion “health advisory level” for drinking water and is developing official safety standards.

The highest-profile PFAS contamination cases have often centered around industrial sites or military airfields, such as Maine’s former Brunswick Naval Air Station and the former Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. Maine Gov. Janet Mills recently announced the creation of a task force to study PFAS contamination in Maine.

But the conversation has expanded to sludge in Maine amid public health advocates’ and media attention on high PFAS levels in milk from an Arundel dairy farm as well as in a Kennebunkport, Kennebunk and Wells Water District well on his property.

Farmer Fred Stone applied sludge from two local towns to his hayfields for decades but also briefly spread sludge and “bioash” from a paper mill, raising questions about the source of the contamination.

“The department sampled drinking water, groundwater, surface water, soil, manure, hay, feed and milk at this farm,” reads the March 22 DEP memo to licensed biosolids or composting facilities. “Although not conclusive, results of this testing indicate that the land application of wastewater treatment plant sludge/biosolids may have contributed to the contamination of this farm with PFAS compounds.”

The DEP memo gave wastewater treatment plants and companies that handle biosolids three weeks to submit sampling and analysis plans for PFAS to the DEP and 6 1/2 weeks to begin testing. There are currently 41 facilities licensed by the DEP for “agronomic utilization” of sludge, as well as more than 60 sites licensed for land application of biosolids.

DEP records show that the Lewiston-Auburn Water Pollution Control Authority distributed 22,000 cubic yards of biosolids or compost during the past three years. Authority superintendent Richardson called the DEP memo “somewhat of an overreaction at this time” because most Americans are likely exposed to PFAS through their own household products, dust laced with the chemicals or drinking water.

Richardson estimated that each PFAS test will cost about $1,000 and noted that the EPA has yet to approve testing methods except for drinking water.

“I’m confident that we will meet the deadline, but I’d be foolish to predict what the outcome of that testing will be,” Richardson said.

A representative for the largest private company that handles biosolids in Maine, Casella Organics, said the DEP order “has caused significant concern” in the industry and is “already creating management problems” for sludge.

“I don’t want to call it a crisis, but it is certainly one of the biggest impositions we have ever had, and I have been doing this for over 20 years,” Jeff McBurnie, director of permitting and regulatory affairs at Casella Organics, told lawmakers last week. “It’s really a challenge. And the timing is terrible because …. our inventories are peaked because we are getting ready to supply.”

For decades, biosolids were touted as a “beneficial reuse” of sludge that provides farmers with low-cost nutrients for their soils while helping municipal treatment plants avoid landfilling costs. According to data from the North East Biosolids & Residuals Association, a New Hampshire-based trade organization, 60 percent of wastewater solids nationwide are applied to soils.

The practice has always been controversial, however, because even treated sludge gives off odors and can contain lower levels of pathogens as well as toxic contaminants such as mercury, lead and arsenic. Treatment plants in Maine must periodically test for those contaminants, among others, and must now add PFAS to the list.

Michelle Clements, spokeswoman for the Portland Water District, said the new DEP requirement felt “a little rushed” and that her organization would prefer a more thorough process. While the Portland Water District landfilled more than 18,000 wet tons of sludge last year, compared with 7,000 wet tons for composting, she questioned the impact on landfills if facilities lost the option of spreading biosolids on fields.

The Portland Water District has conducted limited, voluntary testing for PFAS in drinking water twice in the past, most recently in 2013. The tests found trace amounts in the water during the first test but no detectable levels in the 2013 tests, Clements said.

“I think it’s important that one of the reasons we haven’t done the testing is that there were no federal standards,” Clements said.

Twenty-five miles north, PFAS have been on the radar at the Brunswick Sewer District for years because of firefighting-related contamination on the former Brunswick Naval Air Station. But that concern was restricted to the closely monitored groundwater plume – until earlier this month, said Blanchette, the district’s general manager.

Even before the DEP memo, officials at the Brunswick Sewer District began discussing tests for PFAS in materials coming into and out of the facility because of the attention on the Arundel farm. Sewer district officials directed staff via emails to explore testing options for waste and to “get it done” as soon as possible.

“If we find there is potential contamination, we may do further water tests at locations throughout town to help identify the source of pollution,” Robert Pontau Jr., the Brunswick Sewer District’s assistant general manager, wrote in an email to other staff. “That is only if we find there is a problem.”

While Brunswick sends much of its sludge to Casella Organics, the district has previously spread biosolids on a Bowdoinham farm. That site has groundwater monitoring but the tests haven’t looked for PFAS.

“We don’t know until we do the testing,” Blanchette said.

The PFAS issue also will be closely watched by treatment plant operators outside of Maine, given the widespread use of the chemicals.

The North East Biosolids & Residuals Association released a 10-page “information update” last week that delved deeply into the history of the Arundel case. While the DEP did not come to a firm conclusion on the source of the PFAS in Arundel — whether from biosolids or paper mill waste — the organization said tests on other farm fields where biosolids were spread suggest that municipal sludge was “unlikely to have created the relatively high PFOS levels” found on the farm.

“We are reviewing Maine DEP’s new requirements for testing of biosolids and fully support their efforts to protect public health, which is what our members in the municipal water quality profession do every day,” said Ned Beecher, the organization’s executive director.

________________________

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 7:25 p.m. on April 3, 2019, to correct that the Portland Water District conducted limited voluntary testing of drinking water – not sludge or wastewater – on two previous occasions.

Related Headlines


Comments are not available on this story.