The company NB, which receives waste from Maine, says it will not show up in provincial farms and gardens
The company, which brings sludge from Maine sewage treatment plants to New Brunswick, says people in the province don’t have to worry about “forever chemicals” showing up in their garden compost in significant amounts.
Envirem Organics, a compost and environmental remediation company, says it applies strict standards to what type of waste it accepts — and even then, it can’t distribute the Maine sludge to farms and won’t use it in the compost bags for retail sale.
“We don’t bag municipal biosolids,” Envirem CEO Bob Kiely said in an interview.
He said all waste from Maine municipal systems is destined for Envirem’s work to clean up contaminated sites, where some strains of bacteria in the waste can help break down pollutants like petroleum.
Also, Kiely added, Envirem has established its own standard for acceptable levels of PFAS — perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — which peer-reviewed studies have linked to some cancers, reduced fertility, low birth weight and other effects.
Envirem accepts waste with a maximum of 20 to 30 percent of the PFAS levels permitted in guidelines being developed by the federal and New Brunswick governments, Kiely said.
He called it “very low values, in parts per billion, that are only emerging because labs have evolved.”
The New Brunswick government confirmed that Ottawa is considering adopting standards for PFAS that would apply to imported biosolids.
Envirem took the spotlight last week after it was announced that Casella Waste Systems was transporting 2,200 tons of waste from Maine municipal sewage treatment plants to New Brunswick.
The Casella landfill, north of Bangor, has overcapacity due to a new Maine ban on applying municipal biosolids or sewage sludge to farmland in the state.
Quebec recently imposed a moratorium on mud imports into the province for agricultural application.
Maine’s ban was prompted by concerns in the state about high levels of PFAS in agricultural produce.
Kiely, who helped found Envirem and has been its CEO since 2010, said “almost all” of those concentrations were not due to Maine municipal sewage sludge, but rather to several large paper mills in the state that were using PFAS at concentrations that no longer exist.
These values were measured in parts per million, a thousand times more than parts per billion.
“This was due to an industrial pollutant leaking into the municipal system. This is not your typical municipal biosolid,” Kiely said.
“That’s not current, that’s historical when other types of PFAS were used.”
Kiely’s claim was disputed on Tuesday by Sarah Woodbury of Maine’s Defend Our Health, an activist organization campaigning to ban sludge spreading in the state.
“That’s not 100 percent right,” she said.
Woodbury said that after some initial findings that farms were contaminated with PFAS, the state Department of Environmental Protection imposed a maximum standard for the chemicals in sludge used in agriculture.
The state review found that 95 percent of the samples were higher than the state’s allowable thresholds — and that sludge came from both industrial and municipal sources, Woodbury said.
“The argument that the contamination comes from industrial sludge is wrong. DEP’s own data shows that is wrong.”
Any exposure is “unacceptable,” says the activist
In 2021, media reports in Maine said 164 PFAS-contaminated wells were located near crops fertilized with mud from the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District, whose largest source of wastewater was a Waterville paper mill that used the chemicals.
The district spread the sludge on farms as part of a now-defunct state program that aimed to reuse waste rather than send it to landfill.
Woodbury also disagreed with Kiely’s claim that Envirem’s own PFAS limits ensure levels are below any potential risk to human health.
She pointed out that the US Environmental Protection Agency unveiled tough new regulations on PFAS levels in drinking water on Tuesday.
“Any level of exposure is unacceptable in our view,” she said.
‘They are everywhere’
Kiely said PFAS in municipal water systems would be “a very bad thing,” but said the chemicals are part of everyday life at low levels.
“PFAS are ubiquitous… They’re unfortunately everywhere in society, but they’re being reduced, particularly among industrial users,” he said.
“They keep going back while we phase out product,” he said. “The values keep going down. … The worst were banned.”
He said all compost in Envirem products is subject to federal regulations.
“We test and these levels are very, very low, almost undetectable. These now come from small towns with no potential industrial pollutants. There is no risk today of high PFAS levels originating from these sludges.”