The wastewater treatment plants in Montpelier and Newport have “significantly higher” PFAS concentrations in the discharge leaving their plants, according to a report out today from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The two plants cited are the only ones that regularly accept landfill leachate for processing.
PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a family of widely used chemicals under scrutiny for their health impacts. Last year, lawmakers passed a law, Act 21, requiring the state Agency of Natural Resources to set drinking water standards for five PFAS compounds — PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, PFHpA and PFNA. The agency is moving ahead with setting those standards at a combined 20 parts per trillion.
The law also required ANR to come up with a plan for a statewide investigation into potential sources of PFAS contamination and to submit a report on managing landfill leachate, which is liquid contaminated with landfill pollutants. And the state had to submit a plan for regulating the chemicals in surface waters, which also came out Wednesday.
PFAS are known for being heat-resistant and water-repellant. Known as “forever chemicals,” they take a long time to break down and are used in a wide array of manufactured products from rain jackets to cookware to firefighting foam. Scientists now know that exposure to certain PFAS chemicals can lead to cancer, thyroid disease, immune system damage, developmental problems in children and low birth weight.
The state completed an initial round of PFAS sampling around Vermont after the discovery of PFOA contamination in Bennington in 2016. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been slow to act to regulate PFAS, leaving states largely on their own to figure out how to deal with contamination.
“As much as we would like to be in a situation where we know what the right steps are here, we are at that cutting edge with a small group of states,” said Emily Boedecker, commissioner of the DEC. “And the federal agencies, I would say, are finally starting to step up in terms of the range of support … that we need, but it is years behind where we would like to be.”
The state hired engineering firm Weston and Sampson to study PFAS levels in landfill leachate and at wastewater treatment plants. In a report released Wednesday, the firm found that treated water leaving plants that regularly accept landfill leachate have the highest PFAS concentrations.
Montpelier took the largest amount of leachate, 1.3 million gallons, from the Coventry and now-closed Moretown landfills during the sample period of September and October 2019, while Newport accepted just over 400,000 gallons. (Newport no longer accepts leachate as a condition of the Coventry landfill’s new Act 250 permit to expand.) The average concentration for the five PFAS compounds regulated by the state was 69 parts per trillion for treated water leaving the Montpelier plant, while treated water coming out of the Newport plant averaged 65 ppt.
Meanwhile, plants that treat residential wastes on average had PFAS levels below the state’s 20 ppt drinking water standard, according to the DEC report. Treatment plants in Swanton and Bennington, which has widespread PFOA contamination, also had higher average PFAS levels. While state officials are still looking “back up the pipe” to see what is leading to elevated PFAS levels in the Swanton plant, there is a metal plating company that discharges to that plant, said Kasey Kathan, analyst for the DEC.
Leachate from the shuttered Randolph landfill actually had higher PFAS levels than the still-open Coventry landfill. Kathan pointed to waste it had accepted from the teflon-coating factory in Bennington as a likely cause for that.
In October 2018, the state Agency of Natural Resources’ Department of Environmental Conservation approved a 10-year continuation of the Coventry landfill and an expansion to its south. A concern raised by expansion opponents was that landfill owner Casella Waste Systems was treating leachate — water contaminated with landfill pollutants — at Newport’s wastewater treatment plant on the Clyde River.
One of the conditions of the DEC solid waste permit was that Casella study options for treating leachate from the Coventry landfill to reduce PFAS levels before it goes to wastewater treatment plants. Brown and Caldwell, the consulting firm hired by Casella to conduct that study, estimated that this additional treatment could cost anywhere from $32 million to $394 million over 20 years. The landfill owner also had to study PFAS levels in incoming waste.
Textiles — including furniture, clothes and umbrellas — and carpeting had the highest PFAS levels of any waste coming into the landfill, with one clothing sample having over 1,500 parts per billion PFAS. Chuck Schwer, director, said he was at first surprised to see that these had high levels of PFOS, a toxic chemical that was phased out in the early 2000s, but then realized it was because due to “legacy” contamination from older pieces of furniture or clothes being thrown out.
Joe Fusco, vice president of Casella, said that the “good news” from those two studies was that the leachate leaving the landfill has much lower levels of PFAS than the waste coming in.
“If you think about it, landfills are doing a pretty good job of sequestering most of the PFAS in our society,” he said.
In its report to lawmakers Wednesday, the Department of Environmental Conservation says that while it may be “technically feasible” to lower PFAS levels in leachate or wastewater treatment plant discharge, doing so results in more concentrated waste that has to be managed somehow. The state has not yet decided whether to require Casella to pretreat leachate but will continue to have them test PFAS levels in leachate.
“It is likely that the options and approaches to manage and treat landfill leachate and … effluent will expand greatly in coming years as science and our understanding continues to improve,” DEC writes in the report.
Dr. Rainier Lohmann, an oceanography professor at the University of Rhode Island who leads an institute specializing in PFAS exposure and transport, explained that “if you produce chemicals that don’t break down, then they’ll end up somewhere.”
“It’s an unfortunate reality that you can’t pretend they’re suddenly gone,” he added.
Fusco said pretreating leachate would increase landfill operating costs, adding that it was difficult to say at this point how much this would cost given the wide range of cost estimates for potential treatments.
“I think a lot of the stakeholders have to determine, what is that worth to us? And that will kind of determine the economics,” he said.
Lawmakers also asked the state to come up with a plan for setting surface water standards for PFAS compounds. Pete LaFlamme, director of watershed management for the DEC, said that his division determined it would be “very expensive and difficult and time consuming” for Vermont to come up with those standards on its own.
DEC is recommending instead that Vermont wait for the federal standards to come out while continuing to collaborate with other New England states. The EPA is supposed to release related standards for PFOA and PFOS by 2022.
In the meantime, the state will continue to focus on identifying specific businesses that could be either discharging water with higher PFAS levels or sending more contaminated waste to treatment plants. LaFlamme said “working to eliminate those sources that that’s a far more effective way.” The state will also start testing fish tissue for PFAS contamination.
Lohmann, the URI researcher, noted that while much of the focus so far in PFAS regulation has been on drinking water, the EPA estimated that only accounts for 20% of exposure for the average person.
“I think the logic is that drinking water, you can fairly easily measure and actually regulate and everything else — your diet, your indoor exposure — that’s very difficult to figure out” what the exposure is, he said.
One possible other source of PFAS exposure is coated food packaging. Last session, Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, and nine other senators introduced a bill, S.101, to require the state Health Department to look into whether there are safer packaging alternatives. If so, making PFAS-coated packaging — or selling food wrapped in that packaging — would be banned.
Lohmann said that if enough states pass these kinds of regulations, it could change manufacturer practices and have a “big impact on reducing exposure across a wide range” of people.
“That’s a very commonsense measure,” he said of PFAS food packaging ban. “It’s much cheaper than almost anything else we’re talking about (and) it’s much quicker.”
DEC also announced in July that testing would occur by car washes and electroplating facilities, which use PFAS compounds. Schwer said as getting permission to test at those sites has been challenging, that process has taken longer than anticipated.
The state also will be doing more PFAS sampling of biosolids, which are the treated leftovers from sewage treatment that are sometimes spread on farm fields.
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