The cost of Maine’s forever chemical crisis is about to hit many sewer users in the wallet.

Sewer bills could go up $20 to $40 a year in some southern Maine communities within the next year as municipal sewer districts face rising costs of landfilling the sludge that’s generated by wastewater treatment plants. This spring, Maine banned the reuse of sewage sludge as fertilizer or compost because it has trace amounts of dangerous forever chemicals.

Sludge is dumped at the wastewater treatment plant in Portland in 2019. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“There’s going to be sticker shock,” said Phil Tucker, superintendent of the York Sewer District. “We are not the source of the problem. We didn’t make these chemicals, but we are expected to get rid of them, to manage it, and that’s going to be expensive.”

And those costs are only expected to rise as disposal rules get more strict, landfill space runs short at the few in-state facilities equipped to accept sludge, and sewer districts begin to install million-dollar dryers at their treatment facilities to reduce the volume of sludge they produce.

Septic tank owners may be next – state lawmakers have ordered the state Department of Environmental Protection to come back in January with a plan on how to manage the septage pumped from the private tanks around the state if they decide to ban its reuse as fertilizer or compost, too.

The looming cost to homeowners in public sewer districts is the latest impact of an expanding crisis that has contaminated agricultural fields and drinking wells, closed farms and left some fish and game unsafe to eat. Maine is now spending $20 million a year investigating the scope of the problem.


In April, Maine adopted a law that banned the spreading or composting of industrial or municipal sludge after farms where sludge had been spread through a state-licensed program – some dating as far back as the 1970s – began to test positive for high levels of harmful forever chemicals, or PFAS.

The long-lasting per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals that are found in industrial waste and common household items like cosmetics, non-stick cookware and fast-food wrappers build up in the water, soil and human body over time and pose a significant health risk to people.

Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned even trace amounts of two of the oldest PFAS chemicals can pose significant human health risks, compromised immune and cardiovascular systems, decreased fertility, low birth weights, and several types of cancer.

According to Maine DEP, all municipal sludges tested had at least some level of PFAS detected.

With the secondary fertilizer and compost market now closed, municipalities must truck their sludge to one of a handful of landfills in Maine licensed to accept it. Some are even sending it to Canada. In Maine, only the state-owned landfill, Juniper Ridge in Alton, is big enough to accept large sludge shipments.

In York, the district that Tucker oversees, the average sewer customer pays about $770 in user fee and debt service combined. He is predicting a $40 a year fee hike in the next round of bills. About half of it will be used to cover the rising sludge disposal costs, which have doubled from last year’s $150,000.


“The state has set aside money to help farmers impacted by PFAS, but in the same breath, the state has forced us to find alternatives for our biosolids with no help at all,” Tucker said. “Our cheapest option is Canada, but it’s not cheap. It’s an unfair, unfunded mandate, that’s what it is.”

Scarborough has seen its sludge landfill costs increase from $89 per ton to $130 per ton over the last year. As of 2023, the cost of sludge disposal at Juniper Ridge will increase to $154 per ton. In total, the district’s sludge disposal costs have doubled from $200,000 to $400,000, said David Hughes, superintendent of the Scarborough Sanitary District.

Overall, Scarborough is predicting a 20 percent rate increase, or about $84, for the average residential user, who is now paying about $420 a year, Hughes said – about 7 percent of which is directly attributed to the rising cost of landfilling the district’s municipal sludge.

Some environmental groups have accused Juniper Ridge’s operator, a subsidiary of Casella Waste Systems, of holding plant operators hostage, jacking up prices after the new law left operators with nowhere else to turn, but Hughes disagreed.

Without a secondary market as compost or fertilizer, Casella must find space for an increasing amount of sludge at the same time that Maine is cracking down on how landfills must handle materials that may contain PFAS to avoid leaching into the water system.

Another law adopted this year that bans landfills from accepting out-of-state bulky waste is contributing to the rising costs of landfilling sludge, too, Hughes said. Wetter wastes like sludges must be “bulked up” or mixed with other materials so they don’t pancake and undermine the structural integrity of the landfill. Juniper Ridge must now buy bulky waste it was once paid to landfill in order to have a bulking agent and safely accept municipal sludge, Hughes said.


Portland Water District’s sludge management costs have gone up 37 percent, or $700,000, since 2020, according to Scott Firmin, director of the district’s wastewater services. He is expecting another $300,000 increase in August, and a similar cost hike in 2023.

The Portland Water District does not directly bill consumers for sewer use, but the higher sludge disposal costs will show up in what it charges the six communities that it accepts waste from – Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland, Gorham, Portland, Westbrook and Windham.

Those communities will have no choice but to raise user fees to cover the higher costs, Firmin said.

These are just a few of the operators impacted by rising sludge treatment and disposal costs.

The Maine Water Environment Association reports operators across Maine are experiencing significant cost increases and operational challenges to sludge management, according to Emily Prescott, the group’s government affairs committee co-chair.

Operators like Firmin note the PFAS problem will only get worse, and thus more expensive to address, as long as manufacturers continue to make new products that contain these harmful chemicals and consumers continue to buy and use them.


Maine is moving toward prohibition. Next year, U.S. manufacturers must identify all PFAS added to products, although it is unclear if that will prevent them from using imported components not subject to the same ban. By 2030, manufacturers must phase out the use of PFAS entirely.

Until then, however, new sources of PFAS will be entering Maine, and Mainers, every day.

“If you want treatment plants to solve this, it’s going to be costly, it’s going to take time, and it’s going to require new technologies,” Firmin said. “The smarter, cheaper solution is to eliminate the source, because if it’s not in a product, it won’t get into you, and if it’s not in you, it won’t wind up here.”

Maine has dedicated and proposed more than $100 million over the past two years to address PFAS.

Maine is believed to be the first state to ban sludge spreading, which remains a commonplace agricultural practice across the United States, and was one of only a dozen states at the time to adopt drinking standards more stringent than ones recommended by the U.S. EPA.

It also created a $60 million relief fund for farmers impacted by PFAS contamination to help cover revenue lost from not being able to sell contaminated milk, livestock and crops, soil and water testing, water filtration systems and even land buybacks and farm relocation.


The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has begun hunting for forever chemicals at hundreds of licensed sludge dispersal sites across the state, but it will take years to work through the ever-changing list of more than 700 properties.

Sewer system operators like Hughes – who thinks sludge that has tested clean for PFAS should still be allowed to be used as fertilizer – say most of the contamination identified so far can be traced to spreading of industrial sludge, not municipal, but that has yet to be confirmed.

The DEP has prioritized the list of 700 test sites based on the type and amount of sludge spread at the site and its proximity to housing. About 50 sites in 34 towns fall into its highest risk category. To date, DEP has begun investigating about half of these high-risk cases.

Some Maine farmers asked the state to ban sludge spreading and help clean up the contamination that past use has left behind. But others opposed the ban, calling it a knee-jerk reaction that will bankrupt them as fertilizer prices skyrocket and drive Maine food prices up.

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