BRUNSWICK — The steady stream of brown water that runs out of a lagoon at the town’s Graham Road landfill disappears quickly into the Androscoggin River. The flow is no bigger than a kitchen faucet that has been left on.
But this tiny trickle of leachate, or waste water that has seeped through the landfill or run off the surface, has consistently caused problems for the dump.
Operators have struggled for years to properly monitor what’s in the water and keep pollutants under the legal limit. What’s more, the landfill’s waste water discharge permit expired two years ago, and the dump has operated without one ever since.
Now the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is taking enforcement action, with the hope of resolving the continuing permit violations.
But the biggest problem of all may be figuring out how to make a 1980s-era landfill, the only one in Maine that dumps its leachate into a river, comply with 2011 environmental regulations.
When the Brunswick landfill was built in 1984, it was designed with a low-tech waste-water treatment system.
When it rains, the water seeps through the landfill, mixes with liquid in the decomposing trash, and trickles into a lagoon the size of a basketball court. Over the course of about 100 days, the water will pass through two additional, smaller lagoons. Along the way, microbes eat the organic matter in the waste water. By the time it is discharged into the Androscoggin River, most of the pollutants will be gone.
This system worked well until 2000, when the EPA enacted new standards for landfills. When the Brunswick landfill renewed its new waste water discharge permit in 2004, the standards were much more strict than ever before.
Almost immediately it became apparent that the landfill was going to have trouble consistently complying with at least one new category on its license: ammonia. The nearly 30-year-old waste-water treatment system at the landfill wasn’t designed to remove ammonia, and cold winters exacerbated the problem, according to Matt Hight, the DEP waste water compliance inspector assigned to the landfill.
But it wasn’t just ammonia. The leachate also occasionally contained too much E. coli, a bacteria often found in feces; total suspended solids; and biochemical oxygen demand, a measure of how much oxygen the pollutants in the water will consume, according to notifications sent by the DEP to the landfill between 2004 and the present.
None of the violations were severe enough to compromise water quality in the Androscoggin; the approximately 20,000 gallons of leachate discharged each day is tiny in comparison to the river’s total flow. But they still violated DEP standards, meaning the landfill was not using the best available technology to clean the waste water.
In addition, landfill operators weren’t monitoring for pollutants in the leachate as often as they were supposed to. Some of those missed monitoring periods can be explained by weather, according to a letter to the DEP from the town’s environmental consultant, Randy Tome of Woodard & Curran. In the summer, monitoring can be impaired when the flow from the lagoons dries up, while in the winter the lagoons freeze over.
But other times, Director of Public Works John Foster admitted, landfill staff were too busy to monitor, or were out sick and their replacements didn’t know how to do the monitoring.
As problems arose, Foster tried to address them. He added chlorine tablets to the water to deal with the E. coli, and hydrogen peroxide to introduce more oxygen, and stopped draining the septage from the employee bathroom septic tank into the lagoons. He also tried to limit the amount of water seeping into the landfill by covering unused portions.
But the ammonia problem has persisted, and DEP staff and Foster all say that the fundamental issue with the lagoons is that the technology is outdated.
“It’s very low-tech,” said Linda Butler, who works in the solid waste management division of the DEP. “Brunswick’s treatment was functioning and acceptable against the standards of the time, but things change.”
When the landfill’s waste water discharge license expired in November 2009, town staff missed the deadline to apply for a renewal. Foster said Woodard & Curran neglected to inform them the deadline was approaching. Foster submitted a renewal application a few weeks late, but the DEP has still not granted the landfill a discharge permit.
Part of the reason no new permit has been granted is due to the landfill’s history of permit violations, and its unique status as the only landfill in the state that discharges to surface water, Hight said.
In addition, Foster was attempting to apply for a variance to the EPA’s landfill waste-water discharge limits on the grounds that the Brunswick dump is fundamentally different from the landfills the agency considered when making its new rules.
But the EPA denied Foster’s request, leaving the landfill without a license and still discharging into the Androscoggin – a violation of state environmental law.
“Every day that they discharge is technically a violation because they’re discharging without a permit,” said Bill Hinkel, who oversees waste water discharge licensing at the DEP.
Operating without a license compounded the landfill’s earlier permit and monitoring violations, and prompted the DEP to send Foster a notice of violation in May.
As a result, he voluntarily entered a consent agreement with DEP to negotiate any monetary penalties and work out how to solve the landfill’s problems.
Environmental consultant Randy Tome said addressing the landfill’s problems, especially the excess ammonia, could be costly.
“It’s very difficult to treat (ammonia) within a lagoon system, particularly in cold climates,” he said. “… It won’t work with the system they have really no matter what we do.”
Other Maine landfills, like the ones in Bath and at ecomaine in Portland, send their leachate to waste-water treatment plants, something Tome said would be expensive and impractical in Brunswick because the plant is nearly eight miles away from the nearest plant and not on a sewer line.
Because the consent agreement process has just begun, Tome doesn’t have concrete solutions to the ammonia problem. But he said that any major overhaul of the landfill system will have to take into account the plan to close the facility in 15 to 20 years.
To get back in compliance with state and federal environmental law, the town will have to address the problems.
But the limited life span, combined with the fact that the landfill’s discharge permit violations do not reduce water quality in the Androscoggin River, make Tome think that a costly solution might be a hard sell.
“All of these options are expensive, and because there’s no real benefit to the environment (to addressing the permit violations),” he said, “it’s kind of a hard pill to swallow.”
The largest of the three lagoons at the Graham Road landfill in Brunswick holds 1.8 million gallons of leachate, or landfill waste water.
The second and third lagoons at the Graham Road landfill in Brunswick hold 700,000 and 400,000 gallons of leachate, respectively. The smallest lagoon drains into the Androscoggin River.