What Happens If Bangor Can’t Treat Its Wastewater? That’s What’s Worrying City Officials
If you live in Bangor, do yourself a favor and watch this quick video on our Wastewater Treatment Plant. Yes, it's a bit dated (just look at one of the computers in the background of one of the interviews and you might not even recognize it as a computer, it's that old!) but it is a good introduction to what the purpose of the plants are, and why they're important.
Just as that video is truly outdated, so are some of the major components that keep these plants functional.
And that is a problem. An expensive problem that's slated to take a while to fix.
As you may have heard in that video, from the former Regional Director of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Edward M. Logue, P.E.:
"Wastewater treatment facilities play a critical role in protecting the waters of the state, both from an environmental and a public health point of view. The treatment that these facilities provide, for discharges and communities and industries, maintains a high level of water quality both for fishing, swimming, and other uses. "
These plants play an essential part in keeping our city going and our waterways cleaner than they have been in decades.
As I understand it in a nutshell, the plants take the biological waste we produce in our homes and businesses, and separate it out at the treatment plant into a liquid component and a sludge-like component. The liquid is treated in a multi-step process to make it safe again and released back into the waters of the Penobscot River. The sludge-like component, comprised of all the solid material removed from the wastewater, is then transported and disposed of off-site.
Historically, we've been able to send our sludge to Canada, but an issue arose when PFAS, those pesky forever chemicals, were detected in that material.
According to Mainewater.com, the problem with PFAS is this:
"PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a large group of man-made chemicals that have been manufactured and used around the world since the 1940s for many industrial and consumer purposes including the coating of fabrics, nonstick cookware, food packaging, and firefighting foam.
These chemicals can accumulate over time and have been found in both the environment and the human body. They do not break down easily in the environment or the human body and are sometimes called 'forever chemicals'."
If aging equipment and the presence of forever chemicals were the only issues we faced at a city or state level, that would be enough. Unfortunately, it's not.
Events that took place in other parts of the US, particularly to do with the train derailment and the resulting contamination in Ohio, are starting to have a trickle-down effect on how and where cities and municipalities can treat their wastewater.
Since Bangor and a few surrounding communities can't send the rest of the waste to Canada because the PFAS levels are too high, we've been having it hauled off to Juniper Ridge Landfill, according to city officials. Aside from the issue of capacity, which is a real concern, the sludge that's sent to Juniper Ridge needs to be mixed with the right components to keep it safe, and those components, due to the situation in Ohio, are now very hard to come by.
Tuesday evening, City Councilors heard some pretty unsettling details from the Director of Water Quality Management, Amanda Smith, at their regularly scheduled infrastructure meeting.
"I'm here to update you just on what's transpired in the last week. It seems to be literally changing by the minute. I was getting updates on my way over here...I don't have a lot of good news, at this point. There are a lot of people throwing everything that they have at this problem, trying to find a solution. I had a meeting with DEP again yesterday afternoon and they have been exhausting resources from here to Ohio, to Arkansas. They're running into dead ends everywhere. That's the message that I'm getting from them."
Smith then proceeded to explain what could potentially unfold in Bangor, and what the concerns and timelines would look like if the City were not able to continue to properly treat its wastewater due to either the aging infrastructure, a lack of available space to dispose of the sludge, or the running out of resources to properly dispose of waste components locally, as a result of the environmental catastrophes in other states.
If we can't resume shipping it out of the country, and space at Juniper Ridge starts to his max capacity, Bangor's going to face a real problem that could come on pretty quickly, especially if the weather gets wet or warms up.
"Depending on the weather, we would probably have 2-and-a-half weeks, good cold weather, dry weather, before we ran into permit violations. That could change down to a day with wet weather. When I say violating our permit, I'm talking about the wastewater coming in and not being treated to the quality that it needs to be before it's discharged back into The Penobscot."
"So we have the issue of water quality. By not meeting those standards, that means it would be passed through to the river...not just PFAS, but all of the other pollutants that we know are in there; Mercury, lead, high biological oxygen demand content, things that really degrade water quality which is the entire purpose of the treatment plant."
And she went on.
"But if you think about our treatment plant as two different plants. We have the 1960s plant on the front end. We have the newer, 1993 plant, which is all biological. What would happen is within a couple of weeks, a major part of our primary treatment plant would fail. Those are our sludge thickeners because they would fill up. Because if I can't remove solids...They're big mixing tanks, like your grandmother's beater going around in the batter. They're only designed to have a certain amount of feet of solids in there before they fill up. They would fail, each of them. Those tanks combined are about half a million dollars of infrastructure, and there would be no way to stop that from happening. There's no way I can divert that if I can't remove solids from the system."
Smith says that's all counting on good weather. If those systems break, it's not only expensive but incredibly time-consuming and the negative effects would simply continue to compound.
Councilors had plenty of questions about what could be done proactively to prevent such a disastrous predicted outcome, and also educate the public on what is going on.
It was suggested that the City draft a position letter to try to engage other municipalities to work together on this project to come up with solutions, as it will definitely impact the entire state if the worst-case scenario comes to be.
It was also suggested that legislators, at a city and state level step in and apply pressure and try to obtain a stay of execution for a couple of laws that have recently been passed, to do with PFAS levels, that are taking options of transporting this sludge to other potential sites off the table.
On Wednesday, the city released an open letter asking legislators to take immediate steps to avoid the crisis.
This is an issue that has the potential to impact people statewide, and very quickly both in our wallets and in our environment.
The councilors are worried about this with good reason. And if you haven't yet, you may want to get yourself up to speed on what could be coming down the road.
To check out exactly what was said at the meeting, you can check it out in its entirety here.