On Feb. 24, The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded $17 million to Maine to support the upgrade of its water utilities. The grant comes from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF), and it is part of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which will reward $50 billion for nationwide water infrastructure upgrades by 2026.
“The increased funding provided by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will be put to good use across the state to upgrade Maine’s wastewater infrastructure. This infrastructure is critical to protect the waters of the state, protect public health, and support our economy,” Melanie Loyzim, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said in a press release.
Senators Susan Collins and Angus King and Representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden echoed Loyzim’s enthusiasm for the support. The legislators praised the plan for ensuring the long-term success of towns across the state. From updating backlogs to preparing for the impacts of climate change, the funds will facilitate improvements for all Mainers.
The federal support comes at an important time for the state’s infrastructure. Particularly for underserved municipalities, water treatment facilities have struggled and are in need of funding to make crucial upgrades and recover from rising operating costs. Maine’s wastewater system is especially vulnerable at the moment due to the impacts of recent legislative changes.
Last summer, the state passed L.D. 1911, which banned facilities from using and selling biosolids, or sludge, as fertilizer to local farms. Many farmers had happily accepted the compost for their land, but rising awareness of and concern for Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS) levels in the sludge alarmed many.
PFAS were deliberately designed to be high-profile industrial chemicals that are heat, oil, grease, and water resistant. The group of chemicals can be found in a number of everyday products like nonstick pans, water-resistant jackets, cleaning products, and more. They do not degrade easily, and therefore, leave traces throughout the world. In 2023, Maine became the first state to begin the process of banning PFAS in all products, but the chemicals will continue to exist in the environment for many years to come.
Maine’s state government took a proactive approach with its strict PFAS policy. When water-treatment sludge is used on farms, the chemicals infiltrate food systems with adverse impacts on the population. While L.D. 1911 was a step in the right direction for solving the PFAS problem, more issues arose in its wake. Now, wastewater treatment plants are struggling with excess sludge. The state instructed plants to dump their waste in designated landfills. Transportation costs, however, and high demand has caused disposal rates to skyrocket. Plants are now forced to either face higher costs or let the sludge build-up on-site.
“We expected a small increase this year. I didn’t expect a 42% increase,” Brian Tarbuck, General Manager of the Greater Augusta Utility District, told the Kennebec Journal. In his district, the cost of removing waste rose from $108 per ton to $209 per ton.
Water treatment facilities across Maine face similar threats from the crisis. In Waterville, the water treatment plant is facing a $550,000 hit from the rising prices, a number outside of the city’s budget.
This past summer, Maine took a step in the right direction to protect its citizens from the dangers of PFAS. While the ban will hopefully improve the health of the state’s constituents, it lacks a long-term solution for relocating the toxic sludge. Currently, water treatment plants are struggling with rising costs and waste disposal. Hopefully, the EPA’s aid will benefit Maine’s water treatment centers and water infrastructure, creating a sustainable future for the state’s utilities.
~ Adrian Visscher `24