A group of sewage treatment operators, farmers and landfill operators are urging lawmakers to reject a proposed ban on land application of sludge.
After years of sounding the alarm over contamination with the so-called “eternal chemicals” known as PFAS, environmental and health activists as well as some farmers are now pushing to end the long-standing practice in Maine of using treated municipal sludge as fertilizer. And if recent votes on other PFAS-related bills are any indication, they seem to have the momentum. Lawmakers have tightened health standards on industrial chemicals now linked to cancer, kidney disease and a growing list of problems. They have also set aside tens of millions of dollars to clean up contaminated sites.
But David Hughes of the Scarborough Health District said Thursday that eliminating the option of spreading treated sludge on land will double his sludge disposal costs. Hughes supports an alternative version of the bill that would set a PFAS limit for all types of sludge — including septic tank waste — before it can be applied to land.
“In closing, what I really want to say is don’t let the bad practices of the past stop the sound, science-based good environmental practices of today,” Hughes said at a conference. release by a group calling itself the Maine Work Boots Alliance.
The groups are lobbying lawmakers to reject an outright ban on the land application of treated sludge, which the industry also refers to as biosolids. The group includes sewage treatment facilities, the Maine Farm Bureau and Casella, the waste management company that operates the Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town, as well as the Hawk Ridge Composting Facility in Unity.
Courtney Hammond, a farmer from Harrington in Washington County, said he hasn’t personally used sludge on his farm fields. But he heard from other farmers worried about losing access to an inexpensive but highly effective material for improving nutrients in their soils. Hammond, who sits on the board of the Maine Farm Bureau, warned that farmers are already paying higher costs for everything, and losing access to that extra fertilizer could drive more farmers out of business.
“If they export this material to other states, even to Canada, and they use it there for the same purposes as we do here in Maine, we are going to import this food from these places where surveillance does not exist. t as strict,” Hammond said. “What we’re asking of you is just a common-sense approach to let science catch up to this problem,” Hammond said.
But supporters of a ban on sludge spreading say the science is increasingly clear that even tiny levels of PFAS can be dangerous. And they argue that the alternative version of the bill backed by Casella and the sewage treatment plants would actually weaken existing standards in Maine.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is investigating more than 700 sites in the state that were licensed to apply sludge now considered to be at higher risk of PFAS contamination, often because some of the sludge came from an industrial source. Several farmers in the state have publicly disclosed PFAS contamination linked to sludge.
One of them is Adam Nordell, who along with his wife, Johanna Davis, has suspended all production on their organic vegetable and grain farm in Unity. Sludge was spread on the land they now farm decades before they bought it, and their well water contains hundreds of times more PFAS than the state says is safe. Nordell said he, his wife and infant son all also had industrial levels of PFAS in their blood.
Nordell watched Thursday’s press conference outside the State House. Afterwards, he said he was discouraged to hear people arguing for the continued spreading of sludge on land and the sale of compost made from sludge, given what he and many others farmers live.
“I’m distressed by this,” Nordell said. “Now is not the time to ask for an increase in the thresholds for PFAS coming out on the soils of our farms. As I have said before, our farm is incredibly contaminated due to the historical spread of land. And I just think that clean farmland looks incredibly valuable – it looks like an invaluable resource, and to think that we would be expanding land on clean land at this point is beyond what I can comprehend.
The bill, LD 1911, is expected to be voted on in the plenum and the Senate next week.