Maine lawmakers question agency selection for leachate assessment

A legislative resolution signed by the governor in May requires that a study of leachate treatment options at two state-owned landfills — Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town/Alton and Dolby Landfill in East Millinocket — be completed this year. Photo by Marina Schauffler.

As the latest round of PFAS legislation took shape last winter, members of the Penobscot Indian Nation realized the proposed ban on the land application of sludge and sludge-based compost, LD 1911would redirect much of the state’s PFAS-contaminated sludge back into the state Juniper Ridge Landfilllocated in the old town near the Penobscot Reserve.

The tribe supported this legislation, said Daniel Kusnierz, water resources program manager for the Penobscot Indian Nation, but sought to ensure that landfill leachate – rainwater that seeps into waste – is treated for PFAS before being released into the Penobscot River.

In response to concerns from the Penobscot Nation and the Maine-based nonprofit Defend our healthRep. Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville) sponsored a bill to ensure PFAS treatment occurs on leachate generated at Juniper Ridge Landfill and Dolby Landfill, another state-owned facility located in East Millinocket.

Following extensive working sessions and discussions, members of the Legislative Assembly’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted to amend the bill to an emergency solution, requiring the Office of General Services (BGS) of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services to conduct a study evaluating the best ways to reduce PFAS in the leachate from these two landfills through on-site or off-site treatment. The study, due to be delivered to the Legislative Assembly in January, is to assess the feasibility, timing and “anticipated associated costs to the state or landfill operators” of onsite and offsite leachate treatment options. .

Other states have undertaken similar evaluations of the most promising and affordable approaches to treating PFAS leachate. In 2019, Vermont asked landfill owner Casella Waste Systems to undertake a study under contract leachate treatment options and costs, which was carried out by a national engineering firm. The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation then hired a different national company to examine and evaluate these recommendations.

In Maine, the parameters of the study process were not discussed, Zeigler said, with the legislature “allowing the agency in good faith to publish it (to bid).”

Last month, lawmakers were surprised to learn from the Maine Monitor that BGS had received a study proposal from Cumberland-based Sevee & Maher Engineering. nearly three weeks before Governor Janet Mills signed LD 1875, and the company’s discussions with the office had begun, according to his cover letter, two weeks prior. The proposal was then turned into a contract to complete the study, the office confirmed. While the tax memo for LD 1875 indicates that the office anticipated a cost of $50,000 to $75,000, the proposal capped a time and materials budget at $111,000.

Sevee & Maher Engineering has long-standing ties to both active landfills, raising concerns among lawmakers about the study’s objectivity. It has a contract with the state to operate, monitor and maintain Dolby Landfill, dating back to 2018, and the state paid $1.96 million, according to the office.

At Juniper Ridge Landfill, where Casella is responsible for operating and closure/post-closure costs, Casella East Region Engagement Manager Shelby Wright wrote that “Casella has a current and long-standing agreement with Sevee & Maher for engineering services.”

In an email response to questions, the office spokesperson wrote that it “engaged Sevee & Maher Engineers to conduct the research study as they have extensive experience in the operation and maintenance of landfills and waste water, and are currently under contract renewed each year with the State providing the landfill”. and state wastewater treatment engineering for Dolby Landfill operations. The office did not respond whether it perceived a conflict of interest in hiring a party that has existing financial contracts at the two landfills. A director of Sevee & Maher referred Maine Monitor questions to the office.

“It is important that we get a good study so that the best process for removing PFAS from Juniper Ridge leachate is used,” Zeigler wrote in an email. “If there is an irregularity in the process, we will address the issue when the study comes to us in the Legislative Assembly. The most important thing is that we start the process to protect the Penobscot River.

Senator Richard Bennett (R-Oxford), another member of the committee, expressed concern about the lack of tenders and potential conflicts of interest, wanting to know “why they were qualified, how they been chosen”.

Sevee & Maher’s choice of office also involved Kusnierz of the Penobscot Nation. “It’s not quite right,” he said. “I can understand you wanting to have someone who knows the installation, but I thought it would be an independent specialist.”

“Generally the consulting industry doesn’t publicize their knowledge…because they can’t charge for that time, and that doesn’t help them competitively,” said Jean MacRae, professor of civil engineering. and environmental at the University of Maine. . “So, as in many situations where specialist knowledge is involved, it is difficult (and more expensive) to have a truly independent opinion on the matter.”

This project was produced with support from the Doris O’Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship, awarded by the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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