Maine’s environmental protection agency won’t sign off on any major development projects in Milford until the town makes progress in removing untreated sewage from its stormwater runoff into the Penobscot River.
The message from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection comes as Milford has fallen at least three years behind in reducing the flow of untreated sewage into the river during storms, periods of high snow melt and other events that overwhelm the town’s sewer system.
But to fix the problem, Milford needs to work with neighboring Old Town, and that cooperation hasn’t happened yet, according to Maine DEP officials. Since Milford does not have its own wastewater treatment plant, its wastewater and stormwater flow into other communities for treatment, including Old Town.
Milford and Old Town are among 31 communities around Maine that still have water systems that combine wastewater and stormwater. Those communities pump millions of gallons of the murky, untreated water into lakes, rivers and streams each year, according to Maine’s environmental protection agency.
The state has spent billions of dollars over the past two decades to eliminate these combined wastewater systems, as they present a danger to public health and the health of the waterways into which they flow, said Mike Riley of the DEP’s water quality management division.
Each community with a combined system, known as a combined sewer overflow system, must have a plan in place to get rid of the system, Riley said. In Milford’s case, the DEP hasn’t approved a plan from the town since 2018 because of its lack of progress in removing sewage from stormwater, he said.
The state agency hasn’t received any formal applications for major development in Milford, but Riley said the town has discussed a development that would add 20,000 to 40,000 gallons of wastewater per year to its system.
Part of the DEP’s review for major developments includes looking at whether proposed projects will add more wastewater, and how communities plan to compensate for it, Riley said.
“If you’re going to add new wastewater to the active [combined sewer overflow] system, you need to make sure that, number one, the community is working on their abatement plan and is on schedule with that,” he said. “Milford is not on schedule with it, which is the problem.”
Milford administrative assistant Sarah Commeau told select board members at their most recent meeting last week that the Department of Environmental Protection hadn’t accepted the “no action” plan the town had submitted.
Officials in Milford and Old Town weren’t available for further comment.
“Milford can’t be solving their issue in isolation, as their problem may be impacted by the community they discharge into,” Riley said. “It just adds complexity. There are two entities involved, instead of just one.”
The DEP has suggested in the past that the two municipalities join forces, but that collective work hasn’t happened yet, he said.
“I don’t think it’s uncommon for two communities across the river to kind of butt heads at times,” Riley said. “We look at the regional systems that have been able to be put in place, and they work well. And this would be an opportunity for another one of those to work well, but there are just too many hurdles right now.”
Combined sewer overflows have been a challenge in more than just Milford.
Down the Penobscot River in Bangor, construction crews are in the midst of installing a 3.8 million-gallon underground tank to collect raw sewage during times of heavy rain and snowmelt. The project is among the infrastructure improvements the city has pledged — which will cost more than $60 million — to make under a consent decree with the federal government to reduce the amount of sewage flowing into the river.