The Penobscot Times

Old Town landfill shows how tough Maine’s ‘forever chemical’ problem is to solve

Twin Rivers Paper Company in Madawaska is licensed to release 15 million gallons a day of treated papermaking-related waste into the St. John River, including the liquid runoff from the mill’s state-licensed, special waste landfill.

In November, testing revealed that the mill’s landfill runoff had a higher concentration of “forever chemicals” than the runoff from any other Maine landfill that had done testing under a state law passed last year.

But the mill isn’t alone. Every landfill that has produced results so far from the first of five rounds of state-required testing of landfill runoff shows some concentration of the so-called forever chemicals, also known as PFAS, that manufacturers have used for decades in products such as grease-resistant food packaging, waterproof clothing and non-stick cookware, according to Maine Department of Environmental Protection data.

Most samples had several times more PFAS than safe drinking water. Twin Rivers’ sample, for instance, had 22,662 parts per trillion parts water, more than a thousand times Maine’s PFAS standard for safe drinking water of 20 parts per trillion. The company said in a statement Friday that it has pivoted to the development of PFAS-free food packaging — one of its main products — and is committed to being a responsible “environmental steward.”

The first round of testing at Maine landfills shows how closely the state’s PFAS contamination problem is linked to its papermaking history. So many of Maine’s state-licensed landfills exist because of the nearby paper mills that used them. Many of those mills closed years ago, but the PFAS contamination in their landfills persists.

But the landfill testing also shows how hard Maine’s PFAS contamination problem will be to solve. The landfills are likely the final resting place for the chemicals that pose long-term health and environmental risks. But landfills can’t contain all of the PFAS that end up there. Their runoff contains the chemicals, and the wastewater facilities that treat it then discharge the substance into rivers. Any PFAS they manage to remove ends up back in a landfill as sludge, and the cycle starts again.

In the Bangor area, millions of gallons of the runoff, called leachate, each year end up in the Penobscot River from the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill on the Old Town-Alton line, after it’s treated at the nearby ND Paper mill in Old Town. The mill’s wastewater treatment facility isn’t required to remove PFAS.

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