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Environmental woes may force Brunswick landfill closure

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Environmental woes may force Brunswick landfill closure

BRUNSWICK – The Graham Road landfill, which has a long history of poor compliance with state and federal environmental standards, may be closed by the town. 

The move is being considered, in part, as a reaction to concern over deteriorating groundwater quality at the facility recently exposed by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The Town Council intends to set up a task force to look at options for the landfill, including closure.

The newest worries compound the facility's longstanding issues with ammonia discharge into the Androscoggin River that exceed federal standards.

Paradoxically, the landfill’s troubles may actually help the town qualify for DEP reimbursement if it elects to close the facility, interim Town Manager John Eldridge told the Town Council Monday. 

Eldridge estimated the cost of closing the facility could be as high as $5 million.

Town officials have until December 2015 to submit expenses to the state to qualify for repayment, meaning they would have to start the process this summer.

“Time is of the essence,” Eldridge told councilors.

Problems with the facility go back to at least 2004, when its waste water discharge license was renewed by DEP, even though it was in contravention of strict waste water standards implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2000.

Specifically, the facility’s ammonia discharge exceeds limits. Its low-tech, lagoon-based treatment system has a hard time treating the chemical during the winter, when its bacteria are less active, Public Works Director John Foster said. 

When the EPA implemented its standards, it did so by using the most technologically advanced systems, not taking into account lagoon systems like Brunswick's, he said.

Even though the facility discharges the equivalent of 3.5 gallons of ammonia into the river every day, that amount of chemicals has no bearing on the Androscoggin River's water quality, said Jessamine Logan, a Maine DEP spokeswoman. 

"It's not based on a water quality limit," she said. "It's a technology-based limit."

In a June 16 memo to councilors, Eldridge noted that other facilities on the Androscoggin are allowed to discharge ammonia at much higher concentrations than the town landfill.

“Many have agreed that this situation should not apply to Brunswick’s Graham Road Landfill,” Eldridge said. “Some have gone so far as to describe the situation as ‘bad law’ or ‘bad bureaucracy.’”

When it renewed its discharge license in 2004, the town believed it could apply for a waiver for its system. In 2010 it learned a waiver would not be available.

Since then, the town has been working with DEP to come into compliance with the federal standards, and has been lobbying the state's Congressional delegation to bring pressure on the EPA, so far to no effect.

In 2012, the DEP and town partnered on a pilot treatment program to determine if ammonia levels could be diluted.

The experiment ended this year, and although a formal report has yet to be issued, initial results “appear mixed,” Eldridge told councilors in his memo.

Unless it can secure legal relief from the EPA standards, the town will eventually be forced to deal with its non-compliance, Eldridge told councilors, either by piping its waste water to the Brunswick sewer plant for discharge, or investing in a new treatment plant, estimated to cost $1-$2 million.

Those measures will not, however, address an upward trend in the amount of contaminates in the facility's groundwater.

In an April 17 letter to the town, Linda Butler, of DEP's Solid Waste Management division, expressed concern with the increase of chemicals found in groundwater in down-gradient monitoring wells at the site.

In its review of the town's 2013 annual report, the DEP found the town exceeded only three drinking water standards, for arsenic, manganese and sodium, and a significant amount of iron.

Although the chemicals are commonly found in Maine groundwater, the report points out that iron and manganese concentrations have been steadily building over the past 10 years, illustrating "the landfill's profound impact on groundwater."

“The Department does not see any reasonable means to address the issue of groundwater contamination other than to encourage the (town) to close its facility,” Butler said in her letter.

Responding to alarm from town officials, DEP stated in a June 14 letter that the town would not be forced to close the landfill, and the department is "very willing" to work with the town to find possible options related to its operations.

Foster said the town is working to cap the parts of the landfill it isn't using to reduce the amount of waste water runoff, and is complying with the DEP's order for stricter testing. But he conceded that reversing the trend may be difficult.

If it can find a way around its problems, the landfill can probably take on another 45,000 to 50,000 tons of waste, extending its lifespan 15 years, Eldridge told councilors on Monday, although he warned the town could be penalized by future regulatory changes.

“Even if we were to solve the ammonia issue, it could be something else,” he said.

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @mcguiremidcoast.