High levels of forever chemicals have been found in most landfill wastewater in Maine – the pollutant-laden leachate that winds up sprayed on fields, transported to wastewater treatment plants around the state, and discharged into rivers and streams.

“It is clear from the 25 landfills sampled that significant concentrations of PFAS are present at landfills and in landfill leachate that have the potential to impact groundwater or surface water in the vicinity of the landfills,” according to a January report from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are called forever chemicals because they can linger in the environment for decades. Even trace amounts of these chemicals, which are used in many household items, are linked to compromised immune systems, low birth weights and several types of cancer.

The Hartland municipal landfill and the Twin Rivers Mill landfill in Frenchville had significantly higher average concentrations of the six forever chemicals that Maine regulates in public drinking water among the 25 landfills that collect and manage landfill wastewater in Maine.

Hartland topped the list with approximately 18,540 parts per trillion and Twin Rivers came in second with 13,820 parts per trillion, DEP data showed. A closed municipal solid waste landfill in Brunswick came in third, with 4,060 parts per trillion. The average concentration was 2,440 parts per trillion.

To understand these numbers, imagine an above-ground swimming pool, measuring 20 feet across, 4 feet deep, and holding about 10,000 gallons. Hartland’s concentration is akin to 18-1/2 drops of ink in that pool; Twin Rivers would be equal to 14 drops and Brunswick equal to 4 drops.


No one would drink leachate like water, of course, but for context, Maine’s interim limit on forever chemicals in drinking water is 20 parts per trillion, or 20 drops spread out over 1,000 such swimming pools. State health officials advise the installation of water filtration systems for wells above that limit.

Maine may lower its PFAS drinking water limits this year after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned that even trace amounts – so small that most PFAS lab tests can’t detect it – of two of Maine’s regulated PFAS pose significant human health risks.

There is no evidence the leachate that forms when rain trickles down through a landfill is escaping from the holding tanks, ponds or lagoons where it is stored, but then again, no one is looking – the monitoring wells set up to detect leaks are not looking for PFAS.

That is because there are no state or federal regulatory limits on per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in landfill leachate, or limits on how much of these potentially harmful chemicals can be found in the treated wastewater that is discharged into our rivers. At least, not yet.

The EPA hopes to set PFAS regulatory limits on both landfill leachate and the treated wastewater that communities and businesses are allowed by permit to discharge into our rivers and streams sometime this year, according to state officials. The data that DEP is gathering now will help the state to prepare.

“It’s a complex and evolving issue from a regulatory standpoint, so there will be standards,” said Brian Kavanah, the director of DEP’s Bureau of Water Quality. “We’re not there yet, but they’re developing it. PFAS is still relatively new in terms of regulations, evolving.”


The discharge limits could have an especially big impact. As Kavanah and his colleague, hydrogeologist Molly King, described it, the EPA will set a limit on how much PFAS can be in a river or stream before it poses an unacceptable health risk to people swimming in it, drinking from it or eating fish caught in it.

Once that limit is set, the state will divvy up the acceptable PFAS load for the lakes, rivers and streams among those dischargers. This “slice of the pie” approach, which Maine uses for other pollutants, could force dischargers to replace PFAS with safer alternatives or try out new PFAS reduction technology.

Of nine available test results taken from drinking water wells near the closed Kennebunkport landfill, one has exceeded the limits for PFAS chemicals, and the town is awaiting results on five other tests. Above, a closed landfill in Maine. Courtesy photo/Maine DEP

“It’s gonna impact many industries, not just landfills and treatment plants,” King said.

No one from Hartland or Twin Rivers Mill responded to interview requests. A Brunswick official said they wanted to talk to consultants in charge of the closed landfill before talking to a reporter. But they aren’t violating any state limit – there isn’t one – and the state isn’t asking them to do anything about it.

Meeting federal leachate and discharge standards, whatever they might be, is likely to be expensive. The state estimated the cost of bringing the leachate produced at the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town to drinking water standards at $7.2 million to $10.4 million over the first five years.

That cost will grow if EPA expands how many forever chemicals it regulates (there are 15,000 PFAS).


For example, Maine now sets drinking water limits based on just six PFAS, but it is already tracking the amounts of 22 others in the leachate samples. Add those in and Hartland still comes out with the highest average concentration, but the number jumps from 18,540 parts per trillion to 27,966 parts per trillion.


This report only tells part of the story about the role that landfills play in the forever chemical problem. It doesn’t address the more than 400 closed landfills that fall under DEP oversight that do not collect or manage their leachate. It also doesn’t account for the PFAS present in landfill gas.

The state has begun testing the closed landfills. To date, after testing around 95 of these facilities, it has collected 51 water samples that exceeded the state drinking water standard. It has installed 44 filtration systems and hooked 16 properties up to public water systems.

Most active landfills pump or haul their leachate to a treatment facility. Municipal sewer plants accept leachate from municipal landfills, and some take in industrial leachate, but often at higher rates. Some companies manage their waste internally, using industrial landfills and sewer treatment facilities.

The Twin Rivers Mill, for example, operates its own landfill and wastewater treatment facility. Eventually, however, it discharges the 8.8 million gallons of landfill leachate it produces each year along with all of its byproduct water, cooling waters, and stormwater runoff into the St. John River in Madawaska.


In Brunswick, the 2.4 million gallons of leachate that accumulates from the closed landfill each year is stored in lined treatment lagoons where it is treated to reduce or remove other regulated contaminants, but not PFAS. It is eventually discharged into the Androscoggin River.

The Bucksport Mill landfill – which is now under a closure order from the DEP – holds the 45.5 million gallons of leachate it produces each year in a pond. Town officials there have complained the landfill is unlined and that untreated leachate from the landfill flows directly into the Penobscot River.

Presque Isle sprays its leachate on fields located inside its 17-acre landfill. The town used to spread its sewage sludge on town-owned fields, too, but a $15.6 million sewer plant upgrade completed last year now allows it to dry the sludge and truck it over to a Fort Fairfield landfill for disposal.

Maine is on the front lines of PFAS legislation. Last year, after a string of farms connected to the state’s decades-old sludge-spreading program suspended production after discovering PFAS contamination in their fields and wells, Maine became the first state to ban sludge recycling.

To date, Maine has identified 56 PFAS-contaminated farms.

It also became the first state to ban the in-state sale of most products that contain PFAS, first requiring companies to register products with PFAS with the DEP, and then, in 2030, prohibiting the sale of any non-essential product that contains PFAS. It’s considering interim bans on cosmetics containing PFAS.

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