PFAS in Maine: What to Know About Wastewater Contamination


Maine is a state well-known for its natural resources and strong agricultural heritage. For generations, Mainers have taken pride in preserving the natural environment throughout their state. Wastewater treatment systems play a large and important role in maintaining the state's public health and environment. Unfortunately, as in most regions across the United States, PFAS contamination has become an increasing challenge in Maine. Often called "forever chemicals," PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made chemicals that have been linked to various health issues including birth defects, certain cancers, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, preeclampsia, and more. Due to their widespread use in manufacturing as well as many consumer products, these chemicals tend to accumulate in wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) are not responsible for producing PFAS but may have challenges removing the contaminants, especially as they work to maintain compliance with current and potential upcoming regulations.

In this blog, we will discuss the challenges of PFAS in wastewater treatment plants with a focus on state regulations, actions the State of Maine has taken to help, and how some utilities have responded proactively to restore environmental and financial resources. Finally, we will share some steps that wastewater systems can take now to assess their PFAS risks and explore options to recover costs, all while getting ahead of potential upcoming regulatory action.

PFAS Contamination in Maine: A Growing Concern

Compared to other common water contaminants, PFAS compounds present a unique challenge for Maine wastewater systems. Their chemical properties make them highly resistant to biodegradation, causing traditional wastewater treatment methods to be ineffective in PFAS removal. What's more, the chemicals can persist in the environment and accumulate for years or even decades, meaning that what may appear to be a small issue today may grow into a major problem in the future.

What is the Impact of PFAS in Maine on Wastewater and Biosolids?

Although utilities do not produce or use PFAS, they are "receivers" of these chemicals as contaminated wastewater flows into treatment plants from local households, manufacturing facilities, and other waste streams. Utilities are likely to bear the responsibility of PFAS removal from wastewater, despite the fact that they originate from upstream producers. The cost of removal is significant: A 2023 report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that costs to remove and destroy PFAS   from municipal wastewater will range between $2.7 million and $18 million per pound, depending on facility size.

Sludge Management & Disposal Issues

The wastewater treatment process separates waste from water, producing a semi-solid material known as sludge. For decades, a state-approved program provided WWTPs with the opportunity to distribute sludge and biosolids to Maine farms for use as fertilizer. However, if wastewater is contaminated with PFAS prior to entering the plants and it is not treated for it, the sludge produced may contain harmful concentrations of PFAS. To mitigate this risk, Maine passed legislation in 2022 prohibiting the land application of sludge generated from municipal, commercial, or industrial wastewater treatment plants. While this change ensures that potential contaminants are no longer inadvertently added to local farmland, WWTPs affected by PFAS are now left with the responsibility to dispose of sludge from wastewater treatment. Furthermore, if PFAS is detected in the sludge, this waste must be handled carefully to prevent further contamination of the environment surrounding the disposal site. Specialized disposal requirements for PFAS-laden sludge can result in high costs that may exceed the budgets of wastewater systems.

Because PFAS manufacturers failed to warn customers and the government of the health risks associated with exposure to the chemicals, the full extent of contamination was not discovered until many years after sludge was first used as fertilizer. In some cases, PFAS contaminants in municipal, private, and school drinking water wells have been attributed to biosolid applications that occurred decades earlier. Due to the persistent nature of these contaminants, Mainers in affected areas are still grappling with the consequences of pollution caused by manufacturers.

The high cost of managing and removing these persistent chemicals is likely to become a burden for water and wastewater systems, local governments, schools, and even residents. Fortunately, progress is being made to help mitigate the effects of contamination and reduce costs for those affected.

Is PFAS in Wastewater Regulated in Maine?

Maine's response to contamination concerns has made the state a national leader in the establishment of PFAS state regulations for wastewater and drinking water. The recent developments underscore the urgency of preventing further pollution and ensuring effective remediation, prioritizing clean water, human health, and the environment.

Latest Maine PFAS Regulations

The State of Maine has enacted several new laws addressing PFAS in recent years, with others expected to be finalized soon. The updates range from the development of standards for PFAS concentrations in drinking water to prohibiting the use of sludge as fertilizer. Below are three recent actions that apply to wastewater and drinking water management:

  • In June 2021, Maine passed legislation establishing an interim drinking water standard of 20 ng/L (equal to 20 parts per trillion) for six specific PFAS contaminants, alone or in combination. The state's Department of Health & Human Services is currently working towards finalizing maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for these PFAS.
  • In June 2021, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection was given authority to order the cleanup of PFAS-contaminated sites or seek compensation from responsible parties to pay for that clean up. A limited exemption from liability was included for state or local government entities, publicly owned treatment works, and public water systems.
  • In April 2022, sludge application was prohibited, as well as the sale and distribution of compost and other materials containing sludge and septage. In addition, this action established that sampling and reporting of effluent data for PFAS in Maine may be mandated by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for those who discharge wastewater into State waters.

Potential Upcoming Federal Regulation

The EPA has already taken preliminary steps to classify PFOS and PFOA, two PFAS compounds, as hazardous substances under CERCLA. In the event that the proposal is finalized, WWTPs across the country may be required to make substantial changes to comply with the updated standards.

Impact of New Regulations on PFAS Treatment Cost

While the latest regulatory developments may encourage action to remove PFAS, they may also result in a sharp increase in the cost of managing PFAS in Maine. If the hazardous waste designation for PFOS and PFOA is finalized, wastewater systems with detections of those compounds may experience budget concerns due to the cost of maintaining compliance. Not only would systems likely need to invest in new treatment system updates, but they would also need to manage the cost of hazardous waste disposal for the sludge produced from treatment.

How is the State of Maine Taking Action Against PFAS?

Recognizing the challenges that contamination has caused, the State of Maine has created several initiatives to help support those affected and research new PFAS treatment options for wastewater.

State Testing of PFAS Treatment Technologies for Landfill Leachate

In May 2022, Maine legislative action was passed directing The Department of Administrative and Financial Services, Bureau of General Services (DAFS) to conduct a study of a range of technologies for treating leachate collected at state-owned solid waste landfills. The Bureau has since published a report from this study describing the most effective methods found.

Litigation Against PFAS Manufacturers

In March 2023, Maine's Attorney General Aaron Frey announced the filing of two lawsuits against PFAS manufacturers DuPont, 3M, and others, seeking to recover all costs to investigate, clean up, restore, treat, monitor, and otherwise respond to the contamination of Maine's natural resources. The lawsuits allege that manufacturers have been aware of the public health and environmental risks of their products for decades. They allege that the manufacturers promoted their products as safe and appropriate for widespread use in Maine, despite their knowledge that the chemicals were toxic.  

While this lawsuit addresses many of the State's concerns, many water utilities, wastewater systems, and municipalities are also choosing to file lawsuits to seek to recover their own costs for contaminated water.

Case Study: York Sewer District's Proactive Approach

York Sewer District in Maine is setting an example for wastewater systems affected by contamination. After sampling of wastewater effluent and biosolids (sludge) from the District's wastewater treatment plant detected PFAS, York sought help from SL Environmental Law Group to file a lawsuit against 3M, DuPont, and other PFAS manufacturers in October 2023. Removing PFAS from wastewater, or the additional costs of disposing of biosolids containing PFAS, can cost millions of dollars per year, and the District is determined not to make its ratepayers shoulder the cost. Because PFAS chemicals and products were only produced by a limited number of manufacturers in the U.S., the claim seeks to hold those manufacturers accountable for environmental cleanup costs.

While federal regulations of PFAS discharged in wastewater have yet to be enacted, York Sewer District is taking a proactive approach to maintaining the health of ratepayers and the environment. By getting a head start on cost recovery strategies now, the District may be able to avoid concerns over finances and regulatory compliance later.

"At York Sewer District, we are proudly working to hold polluters accountable. Our ratepayers are our top priority. Like so many across the State of Maine, York Sewer District is concerned about the impact of these chemicals to our health, infrastructure, and finances."

    - Phil Tucker, York Sewer District Superintendent

Learn About Maine Wastewater Cost Recovery Options

While Maine is dealing with significant PFAS challenges, the steps taken by the state and individual utilities are helping to manage and reduce contamination. Many different tools and strategies will be required to handle PFAS comprehensively, and they will all come at a cost. New regulations at the state and federal levels may require utilities to spend millions per year on the design and build of new treatment facilities, operational costs, and ongoing monitoring to maintain compliance.

By taking a proactive approach, your utility can explore contaminant management options as well as cost recovery strategies, making important decisions that could help prevent greater issues later on. Water contamination litigation enables you to seek to hold manufacturers accountable for pollution while protecting your utility's rights. If you have questions about your system's PFAS situation and the cost recovery options available, please contact us at SL Environmental Law Group. We are here to help every step of the way.