Brunswick sees financial gain in failing landfill

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BRUNSWICK — In an effort to trim the budget, the Town Council has decided to allow more waste to be deposited at the town landfill.

The Graham Road landfill has a history of non-compliance with environmental regulations. Its low-tech waste-water treatment system has continuously failed to meet federal standards for ammonia discharge.

On April 29, Town Manager John Eldridge issued a memo to councilors informing them of a possible contract negotiation with Pine Tree Waste to reduce the charge for curbside residential trash collection as a part of the contract extension process.

According the memo, Pine Tree would allow the cost reduction in return for a discounted tipping fee for non-residential waste at the landfill.

The proposal was unanimously approved May 18 by the council, which authorized Eldridge to move forward with the deal.

“I commend you for finding a creative way to reduce our budget,” Councilor Jane Millet said.

This year, expenditures for rubbish collection went up 4.2 percent. In the 2015-2016 budget, they are expected to increase by 1.6 percent.

“Everyone is aware we have issues with our landfill,” Eldridge said before the vote.

Yet despite the facility’s history of non-compliance, town officials maintain that the additional waste will not invite additional regulatory pressure. 

Waste-water pollution

The landfill currently treats its waste water through three descending lagoons: As water trickles down from the landfill, the organic matter it contains is consumed by bacteria in each body of water.

This system was built in 1984. In 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency passed stricter standards for waste water coming from landfills.

The newer limits are technology-based, on best available treatment technologies, and not on water quality, Director of Public Works John Foster said.

The landfill actually discharges less ammonia into the Androscoggin River than the Brunswick Sewer District, which is in compliance with regulations, he said.

“I feel (the regulations don’t) recognize a small treatment facility like we have,” he added.

Nevertheless, the facility has continuously discharged ammonia at levels higher than the EPA standards since 2000.

In 2012, the town began working with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to study what technology could be implemented to bring the landfill back into compliance.

The town installed a bioreactor at the site, which the DEP and the Brunswick Sewer District then operated and monitored.

The purpose of the study was to see how effectively the reactor could oxidize the ammonia in the water.

The landfill has consistently had problems with high ammonia levels during the winter, because the cold weather slows down the biological activity of the bacteria breaking down the organic matter in the water.

At the conclusion of the study, published in November 2014, DEP found that while not completely reducing ammonia below levels in the coldest months, the “treatment process could be maintained … in an uninsulated above-ground treatment system.”

DEP recommended that the town look into scaling up the pilot plant or finding a way to truck or pipe water to the BSD’s waste-water treatment plant

For now, the town is still looking into both options.

“We are concerned the data collected so far is not sufficient to proceed to a full-scale design” of the pilot project, Foster said. “We understand we must develop and implement a plan to bring our effluent discharge into … compliance.”

The pilot plant is still running at the landfill, although no sampling is being done.

According to data from the EPA’s enforcement and compliance history database, the landfill has been in significant noncompliance with the Clean Water Act for three of the last four reporting quarters.

In the quarter ending December 31, 2014, the landfill was discharging ammonia at a level 267 percent above EPA standards. For the quarter ending March 31, which is still unofficial, the level was 369 percent above EPA standards.

Groundwater contamination

But the landfill may have to close even before a solution to the waste-water issue is found.

In a 2013 review of the town’s annual report, the DEP found that Brunswick exceeded three federal drinking water standards, and linked the contamination to the landfill.

“The (DEP) does not see any reasonable means to address the issue of groundwater contamination other than to … close the facility,” Linda Butler, of DEP’s Solid Waste Management Division, said in a letter to the town.

She later clarified that DEP is not requiring the facility to close, but is willing to discuss all possible options with the town.

If the town does decide to close the facility, it might be eligible to seek reimbursement funds from the state.

“The state would reimburse 75 percent of Brunswick’s closure costs,” Butler said.

The original deadline for closing the landfill in order to qualify for reimbursement was December 2015. A recent bill, however, accepted by the state House of Representatives on May 12 and awaiting Senate approval, would extend that deadline to December 2025.

In an interview last week, Foster said he believed the facility has a life expectancy of about another 10 years. He said he does not believe the additional waste resulting from the reduced tipping fee would have “any significant impact” on that life expectancy.

Foster said the discount would result in an additional 100 to 150 tons of waste at the site. He said the landfill has seen much higher levels of trash disposal in the past.

“None of the commercial haulers that service commercial businesses in Brunswick bring their trash to us (anymore),” he said, because the disposal fee for Brunswick is higher than in other places.

Lowering Brunswick’s fee will bring some of that traffic back to the landfill.

On Tuesday, Eldridge said the problems the landfill faces are based on “minute environmental standards,” and not site capacity.

While the future of the landfill is uncertain, he said, it definitely will not close this year.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.