PFAS Found in Septage Is a Problem for Maine Wastewater Professionals

Chemical substances in wastewater are making disposal difficult for pumpers. Plus, installers in the state are expected to have trouble finding workers.

PFAS Found in Septage Is a Problem for Maine Wastewater Professionals

Michael Martin, owner

In States Snapshot, we typically talk to a member of a state, provincial or national trade association in the decentralized wastewater industry. There isn’t a formal group for pumpers and installers in Maine, so we are visiting with a contractor who is licensed through the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Name and title or job description: Michael Martin, owner

Business name and location: Earthworks Inc., Presque Isle, Maine

Services we offer: Our primary work is excavation. It’s a smorgasbord between commercial, residential and agricultural. For septic, we do installations and maintenance, and we also do municipal sewer lines.

Age: 61

Years in the industry: 34

Association involvement: We don’t have a wastewater association. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection puts on seminars quite often. They have funds for low-income folks to help them put in a system, and we have to be licensed to do their work. You take a course through [the DEP] and get a license with continuing education requirements every three years. Mine is for septic excavation, and I’m licensed to do shoreline excavation along lakes, rivers and streams.

Biggest issue facing your industry right now: Getting rid of the sludge and sewage we pump out of tanks is our biggest issue because of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are a group of man-made chemicals) in the soil. They call them “forever chemicals.” The chemicals are found in home cleaning products, and they get in with the sludge. The sludge up here is spread on the open ground, and now the chemicals are starting to build up in the soil. Right now we’re about at the limit. All the sludge they’re taking out of the wastewater treatment plants has to be put through a whole treatment process before they spread it. Or they may have to landfill it after it’s treated, which is costly up here. The DEP is working with the municipal wastewater plant on it. There’s a company that comes up and treats all their sludge.

Our crew includes: I have 12 people, plus or minus. My son Joshua is the vice president. He does day-to-day operations for the company. Another key guy is Matt Pelletier, one of the foremen. And my daughter-in-law — Joshua’s wife, Laura — handles the office and book work.

Typical day on the job: I start at 5:30 a.m., and the crews leave around 6 a.m. After I get the crews going, I’m looking at jobs, meeting customers, doing estimating and going to hot spots. Most of the time we have three separate jobs going, so I’m bouncing around between them, answering questions, checking on things and talking to the customers. Every once in a while I have to run equipment or do a little operating, but it’s getting less and less now.

The job I’ll never forget: I was replacing a septic tank for a customer a number of years ago. We had the old tank dug out and I was putting the cables on to lift it up. It was an old concrete tank — I don’t know if it was homemade or not — and I was standing on top of it and the cover caved in. I went to the bottom of the tank and shattered my ankle and leg. I was in a leg cart that you put your knee on and push yourself around in for the rest of the summer. It didn’t slow me down. I was still working. When you own your own business, you keep on going. You find a way. I did have to hire a driver — it was my right leg — so one of my friends who had retired drove me around.

My favorite piece of equipment: I like our Volvo 145 excavator and our Bobcat T650 track loader. We’ll use both for septic systems because they’re so versatile and have zero tail swing: You’re not tearing trees down when you get in tight areas.

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: Working along the lakes where there are smaller lots and we are working around trees can be challenging. People don’t want the trees taken down. And when you’re working around a lake, you go by the DEP rules: They only let you take down so many trees. Our county has a lot of different soils so you never know until you actually dig your test holes what kind of system to use. We put in a lot of different ones around here, depending on the soil. It could be an Eljen system, Presby Environmental system or stone bed.

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: I put a septic system in for a guy I went to school with, a good friend of mine. I got it all done and gave him the bill. He wrote the check and his wife looked at me and said, “Man, that’s a lot of money to make in one week. Dave doesn’t make anything like that.” She thought the whole check was all profit.

Best piece of small-business advice I’ve heard: My wife told me this — “Call your customers back whether you can do their job or not.”

Planning for the future: My son is going to be taking over the company. We started the buyout process a couple years ago, so that’s a real nice situation for me — having somebody willing to take it over. It’s getting to the point now that I can have a little free time. Other than that, we don’t plan to change anything for the future unless the county grows, which hasn’t happened. The population is actually shrinking up here.

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: When I was younger, I farmed. I was brought up on a potato farm and farmed for seven years back in the ’80s — which, farming was a disaster in the ’80s. It was a good way of life, but I don’t miss it. I like what I do.

Crystal ball time – This is my outlook for the wastewater industry: I see some new designs in septic systems that are coming out, which seem to be smaller beds that take up less space so you can put them in smaller areas — and step systems. The labor force is really tight around here. There’s all kinds of work, but we have trouble getting people who want to work. We’ve been swamped for the last two or three years. 


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