Dewatered sludge from screw presses falls from a conveyor belt into a trailer Friday at the Greater Augusta Utilities District’s wastewater treatment plant in Augusta. Rising costs of operating the system have led to a 30% rate increase expected to go into effect in July. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

GARDINER — It takes Bill Rosser just a minute to locate his sewer bill from the city of Gardiner to see how much he and his wife Morgan Peirce pay.

“What is it, $40?,” Rosser said. “Sewer bill, right here. It’s $105 quarterly.”

For Rosser, 41, and Peirce, 38, who moved to Gardiner and bought their first house two years ago, the bill seems pretty inconsequential.

“We’re coming from the most expensive place on earth,” Rosser said, noting they moved from California.

But their sewer bill, along with sewer bills for tens of thousands of other homeowners across the state, is going up starting July 1 as officials in cities, towns and sewer districts reckon with the impact of the state’s sludge disposal crisis.

Since March, the cost of hauling away sludge, the semisolid byproduct of wastewater treatment, has skyrocketed for about 30 wastewater treatment plants across the state served by Casella Waste Systems as Casella is now trucking to landfills in New Brunswick rather than the state-owned Juniper Ridge landfill just north of Old Town.


Sewer plant operators are passing on the increased trucking costs to ratepayers.

In communities across the state, people will see their sewer bills rise anywhere from 4% in Gardiner to 30% in Augusta this summer — up to $10 a month — with further hikes likely down the line.

The increases come at a time when inflation has already been straining household budgets, with higher-than-usual costs for electricity, gasoline, food and other basics.


In February, Casella, which operates Juniper Ridge under contract with the state, announced it needed to cut the amount of sludge accepted there by more than half in the short term because it lacked sufficient bulky waste to stabilize the sludge for safe storage. Among its options was taking the sludge across the border into Canada.

At that point, sewage plant operators  were already bracing for increased costs as the result of a ban on land application of sludge, a state-licensed practice that had been commonplace until contamination by per- and polyfluorinated substances ignited fears of health risks from exposure to the so-called forever chemicals in consumer products that are found in waste streams.


A pair of Ishigaki screw presses used to dewater sludge are seen Friday at the Greater Augusta Utilities District’s wastewater treatment plant in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

A second law that went into effect in February bans the importation of bulky waste and construction debris from out of state.

In communications with sewer plant operators, Casella said it would charge an additional per-ton fee for transporting sludge to New Brunswick. While operators had the option to reject the rate adjustment, doing so would terminate the agreement, leaving them without a contractor to haul away their sludge.

In an email, Jeff Weld, director of communications at Casella Waste Systems, said hauling costs are variable and subject to a number of factors that would cause them to change.

“They generally change with the cost of fuel and other costs incurred through trucking, all of which are facing significant inflation,” Weld said. “Those costs that Casella incurs are passed on to customers through an equitable and transparent floating fee that takes all variables into account monthly, rather than a fixed surcharge. Casella computes the fee based on the total number of tons that it bypasses from the state-owned landfill each month.”

While it’s hard to calculate the exact impact of the change, Tim Wade, president of the Maine Water Environment Association, offered up this estimate recently.

“In rough estimate numbers, 250 wet tons of sludge per day are produced in Maine, and the average disposal cost went from $75 to I believe right now we’re knocking on $200 per ton,” he said.


That brings the daily disposal costs from nearly $19,000 a day to $50,000.


In Gardiner, where Rosser and Peirce live, the proposed rate increase is 4%, which will be applied to both components of their sewer bill, the base rate and water usage. It follows a 4% rate increase last year, and in each of the four years before that.

Gardiner elected officials got their first look at the proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 in mid-April, when the budget document was distributed to city officials.

Gardiner’s municipal wastewater system is operated as an enterprise fund, which means it’s supported by user fees, so when the costs to operate the system go up, those costs are passed on to ratepayers. In the upcoming budget year, proposed spending at the wastewater treatment plant is expected to be a little more than $1.9 million. To pay for that spending, city officials are proposing to use $100,000 of fund balance in addition to the rate increase.

John Commons holds a sample of dewatered sludge taken from one of the screw presses Friday at the Greater Augusta Utilities District’s wastewater treatment plant in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Douglas Clark, superintendent of Wastewater Treatment, said the city charges $105.85 per quarter for the base rate, which includes water usage up to 1,200 cubic feet of water and $12.15 per 100 cubic feet of water used above that base level.


“The average bill in Gardiner in seems to be around $203 quarterly,” Clark said. “That will go up to $211.20.”

With two children ages 5 and 2, Peirce and Rosser use a fair amount of water routinely.

“Especially in the winter time, with the kids going out in the snow,” Rosser said. “I didn’t realize we’d need to wash a snow suit three times a week for five days of school. Somehow, there’s a lot of mud in the winter.”

The laundry demand continues in the summer with towels and bathing suits from swimming along with the usual dirt generated from playing outside.

“Our main water use is laundry and dishes,” Peirce said.

While this increase won’t have the biggest impact on their bottom line, it is one of many costs that has been on the rise, along with electricity, gasoline, food.


“With all the rising costs, it feels like a thousand tiny paper cuts,” Peirce said, who noting that she works part-time. “It doesn’t feel like the wages have gone up at the same rates as costs have.”


In other communities, the impact will be different.

Officials at the Greater Augusta Utility District forecast costs for the upcoming calendar year in the fall. When the district’s board endorsed the recommendation to raise sewer fees by 30% in January, it knew that the higher rates would be needed to pay for the rising costs of operating the system.

“The cost of construction and materials needed by utilities has increased faster than consumer inflation and the workforce has diminished, making it very expensive to conduct day-to-day business,” said Brian Tarbuck, general manager of the utility district.

Brian Tarbuck, general manager of the Greater Augusta Utility District, leads a tour of the former gravel pit in 2014 that is the district’s east side well complex off Riverside Drive in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

This rate of increase, which is expected to go into effect in July, is unusual. It would increase the monthly bill for a typical residential customer from about $31 to about $40.


That’s before the bills for transporting sludge were increased. In February, GAUD paid about $38,000 more and in March, during which the system generated more sludge, it paid $65,000.

“The (rate) increase will just not cover as much of the anticipated costs that we forecasted back in the fall,” Tarbuck said. “That’s not uncommon with forecasting so far in advance as pricing is dynamic across all sectors.”

While no additional rate increases are expected for the rest of the year in the Augusta-based district, users are likely to see the increased cost of hauling sludge drive up their bills next summer.

Sewer rates in Wilton have gone up 15%, to help pay for the increased costs of sludge disposal.

The impact on rates is not limited only to the treatment plants that Casella Waste Systems serves. The York Sewer District opted to change sludge haulers in 2022, switching from Casella to New Hampshire-based Resource Management Inc.

Changing sludge haulers now is not an option for wastewater treatment plants.


Charley Hanson, one of the owners of Resource Management, said no companies are currently accepting new contracts, including his, which is nearly at capacity.

“Our line item for sludge disposal two years ago was $150,000. Our proposal (this year) is $400,000,” said Philip Tucker, the sewer district’s superintendent. “It’s become the second-highest line item in our budget.”

The average residential sewer bill in York is about $600 per year. It’s divided into two categories, debt service and usage. The increase on debt service is proposed to be 5% and to cover the costs of operation and maintenance, the increase is proposed to be 7.5%, which follows a 7% increase a year ago. District officials are still working to see whether that number can be decreased. The public will have a chance to weigh in at a public hearing in June.


Because of the situation, Tucker, of the York Sewer District, said the district has made changes in how it handles sludge, which in some cases has resulted in sludge being stored on site briefly. That has created some odor issues, prompting the district to buy an odor-control system for more than $350,000, and install covers on outdoor tanks at a projected cost of $500,000. The district has submitted a $3 million proposal to U.S. Sen. Angus King, and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree for congressionally designated funding, to help defray costs to ratepayers.

Tucker said his professional network extends across the United States, and no one in it envies Maine and its sludge disposal problem.


But beyond that, he said one aspect of the situation has been wholly overlooked: the impact on the climate by not sequestering carbon through land application or composting.

“It’s now going to landfill and creating methane — arguably one of the most dangerous greenhouse gases,” he said.

Right now, somewhere between 12 to 15 trucks a week are hauling sludge from Maine to New Brunswick, he said, at about 30 tons per load.

“I feel like we are just trading one evil for another,” Tucker said. “We don’t entirely grasp what the dangers of PFAS are, but we absolutely know what the danger of greenhouse gas emissions are and there’s no turning the clock back on that.”

On Monday, Wade, Tucker and other wastewater officials were headed to Washington, D.C., for Clean Water Week, during which state organizations visit their federal representatives to talk about issues, solutions and funding.

While the state’s sludge situation stems from changes in state law, Wade said, wastewater officials are interested in making sure that federal representatives are aware of the impact of federal regulations as they consider the impact of PFAS.


“We may not know the full effect on rates for a few years yet. We’re still looking ourselves for technology-based solutions, and we’re still waiting for regulators to provide (PFAS) standards which will dictate what we need for solutions for effluent and solids, handling and treatment,” he said.

If the solution for handling biosolids and effluent is new technology, municipal officials and sewer district operators will have to find a way to pay the costs of that as well.

“Will we be able to figure out something regionally or semi-regionally, or will these be individual treatment processes that each plant will have to do upgrades, figure out how to fund and site?” he said. “Some of these technologies are rather large.”

In Gardiner, Peirce said she and Rosser and their kids moved to Gardiner to be a part of the small-town community.

“I am totally on board with the social contract idea of we will pay whatever we need to pay in taxes and bills to be part of a system that’s working,” she said. “I just feel grateful that someone is handling it.”

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story