BRUNSWICK — The Graham Road landfill now has a license from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to do what it’s been doing illegally for the past year and a half: discharging waste water into the Androscoggin River.
Now town and DEP staff are working with a consultant to fix the landfill’s other environmental problem: the leachate that seeps out of the dump or runs off the surface after a storm still consistently contains too much ammonia – a violation that has plagued the dump for years.
But according to Public Works Director John Foster, a solution is unlikely to be simple, inexpensive or easy to implement.
The core issue at Graham Road, Foster said, is not the ammonia violations, but how to bring the 1980s-era landfill into compliance with 21st century environmental regulations.
The landfill has had trouble with ammonia levels ever since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enacted new standards in 2000.
The problem is unlikely to go away anytime soon because the landfill’s low-tech waste water treatment system – the only one in the state that discharges into a river – simply wasn’t designed to process ammonia. And although the town is working with a consultant to find a solution to the problem, it needs 4 1/2 years to study, design and implement a new treatment system.
“We just kind of tried to space it out over time so it would be a methodical approach,” said Foster. “We didn’t want to go in and tell them we’d have an answer in six months when we didn’t.”
Maybe not within six months, but the DEP was expecting the town to fix its ammonia problems faster than Foster expected.
In a Sept. 2 letter, John Glowa, who works in DEP’s enforcement division, told the town that “the five-year schedule for the facility upgrade to be debugged and commissioned is unnecessarily long.” The agency expected the town to decide on a solution within 18 months and implement it another 18 months after that.
In a Sept. 19 letter back to the DEP, Town Manager Gary Brown reiterated the town’s desire for a longer period to study all the treatment options before deciding which one to pursue.
“We feel it is in our best interest to evaluate all of our options to before committing to a particular action,” Brown said.
DEP and the town are still negotiating. Whatever they decide will have to keep in mind the plan to close the landfill in 15 to 20 years, and strike a balance between the dump’s life expectancy and the need to address the continuing ammonia violations.
“We’re looking at spending a fair amount of money, and we want to make sure we’ve looked at all our options and we go into this eyes wide open,” Foster said.
But the town’s environmental consultant, Randy Tome of Woodard & Curran, said an expensive treatment plan could be a hard sell to tax payers because the volume of leachate is so small it does not negatively impact the water quality of the river, according to the DEP.
The landfill produces about 20,000 gallons of leachate a day – the equivalent of letting a kitchen faucet run all day into the river.
The waste water discharge license the landfill received in August replaced the one that expired in 2009, when Foster said town staff missed the deadline to re-apply.
In the interim, the landfill was in violation of Maine law by continuing to discharge into the river without a permit.
In addition, over the past seven years, the town received several letters from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection notifying it of excess ammonia and other pollutants.
The continuing violations, combined with the landfill’s expired license, prompted the DEP to send Foster a notice of violation in May. Since then, the town and the DEP have been negotiating the schedule and details of a plan that will address the ammonia problem.