AUGUSTA — A bill that would all but eliminate the practice of spreading sewage sludge as farm fertilizer saw its first legislative hearing Monday, as the state and wastewater facilities seek amendments to the proposal.

The bill, LD 1911, would stipulate that sludge could not be spread on land or used in composting unless it tested under the state’s screening levels for multiple types of PFAS compounds. It would also require the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to update its existing screening levels by 2023.

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been used for decades in a vast array of consumer goods, including nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpeting and fabrics, waterproof clothing and grease-resistant food packaging, but have been linked to a host of health problems, including cancer, kidney malfunction and immune system suppression.

PFAS contamination in Maine has been linked to spreading sludge — the solid byproduct from municipal wastewater treatment — which has been used as an alternative to fertilizer since the 1970s. However, recent discoveries of elevated levels of the compounds at and around farm locations in Arundel and Fairfield have set off a series of new state policies and legislation.

State Rep. Bill Pluecker of Warren, who introduced the bill, told the Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Monday that while Maine began addressing the issue of PFAS contamination in 2019, the policies left “two large loopholes that are allowing contaminated sludge to still be applied to land in Maine.”

One, the bill argues, is a rule that allows sludge that tests high for at least one type of PFAS to still be spread as long as the soil meets screening standards. Pluecker said Monday that it essentially amounts to “polluting clean soil with dirty sludge.”

“(It) is not a solution, especially as we continue to identify health concerns for PFAS at lower levels,” he said in his testimony.

Several people on Monday pointed out that when the DEP began testing sludge from wastewater facilities, initial results showed that over 95% of the material exceeded screening levels for at least one of the compounds. Many argued that as the DEP conducts a new round of testing, it’s likely the scope of PFAS contamination will increase.

The Maine Legislature passed a series of bills last year to address the issue, including lowering the legal limit for PFAS in drinking water, and requiring the Maine DEP to test every site where sludge has been spread.

Since then, the DEP has prioritized the state’s sites into four tiers to designate a schedule for testing. According to the department, the sites identified in Tier 1 were those where at least 10,000 cubic yards of sludge had been applied to fields within half a mile of homes. Lewiston and Auburn were among the Tier 1 municipalities.

The Sun Journal last week spoke to officials at the Lewiston Auburn Water Pollution Control Authority, who said the facility has continued to conduct limited land applications based on the state’s “cumulative capacity calculation.”

Travis Peaslee, LAWPCA general manager, said “if the soil has capacity then they approve continued land application,” which has been the case for two LAWPCA-owned farms on Penley Corner Road in Auburn, he said.

Wastewater treatment facilities like LAWPCA and the Portland Water District testified against the proposal, listing several concerns.

Peaslee’s written testimony said that while the facility strongly supports testing and remediation efforts, it does not agree with the “prohibition of biosolids and compost land application if the DEP determines it safe to do so.”

Peaslee also said that wastewater facilities like LAWPCA have financial concerns, given the amount of sludge material already being redirected to landfills, as well as the 2023 timeline for new standards. The DEP testing at farm sites is expected to run through 2024.

Carrie Lewis, general manager of the Portland Water District, said the bill would “undo this long-standing regulatory practice associated with the use of screening standards” and will “eliminate yet another management outlet for biosolids statewide, by driving more biosolids to landfills, which do not have the resources or capacity to accept these increasing amounts of biosolids.”

Pluecker said data from the state-owned Juniper Ridge landfill shows that about 7% of material landfilled in 2020 was sludge.

“If sludge currently composted or land applied was proportionately sent to Juniper Ridge, the number will rise to about 10%,” he said. “While we are concerned about capacity too, this can be managed.”

Paula Clark, director of material management for Maine DEP, testified at length on the bill Monday.

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She said that while the DEP is “in full support” of the bill’s intent, “the time frame imposed for its implementation would not allow for adequate consideration of important data and information that is currently being developed to support rule-making.”

Clark said the department recommends a “phased approach” for the prohibition on land applications, with the DEP proposing to “develop a plan and associated time frame” to eliminate the land application and distribution of sludge and sludge-derived compost that exceeds PFAS screening levels.

She said data from the state’s new round of testing is being evaluated to be included in an initial report.

Asked by committee members about the amount of sludge still being spread, Clark said there were four treatment plants and 11 composting facilities that reported to the DEP in 2020.

Several committee members said they were also concerned with the composting practices, which according to Pluecker, allows sludge to be “mixed with other compostable waste before being sold to farmers, landscapers, and even at retail to home gardeners.”

He said that while the end product may meet the screening standards, “farmers and gardeners are likely to spread compost material year after year on the same sections of their land, building up PFAS over time.”

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Clark argued that the state simply needs more time on multiple fronts, including assisting municipalities in implementing new practices.

One committee member said even by 2023, “that’s two more seasons that someone is going to plant their tomatoes in potentially contaminated compost.”

Also submitting testimony Monday were representatives from the Maine Farmland Trust, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, a range of environmental organizations, and Maine residents who have been impacted by PFAS contamination.

Laura Orlando, an adjunct professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, who has studied wastewater and sewage sludge for 30 years, said “the solution to pollution is not dilution.”

She said the current policies are “not fully measuring the extent of contamination.” Because PFAS compounds do not easily break down, levels can simply increase over time, she said.

“We need to turn off another PFAS tap,” Heather Spaulding, deputy director of MOFGA, said. “We fear we’re only scratching the surface.”


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