Energy & Environment

State officials present PFAS findings, permit plans to residents at Newport forum

Lake Memphremagog
View of Lake Memphremagog from a hill near Mansonville, Eastern Townships, Quebec. Photo by Kevstan/Wikimedia Commons

NEWPORT — To a standing room only crowd, state officials ticked through updates on a number of top-priority water quality issues related to Lake Memphremagog at a public forum on Tuesday night. 

Among the highlights, tumors found on 30% of the lake’s brown bullhead fish do not, so far, appear to be caused by contaminants. The first of three state sampling events on July 20 showed extremely small amounts of the toxic class of chemicals known as PFAS in two out of 10 locations. 

While 70% of the 32-mile-long lake’s surface area is in Quebec, about 71% of its watershed drainage area is in Vermont. The lake is a drinking water source for 175,000 Canadians. 

Some residents, and all 118 members of the National Assembly of Quebec, have been pushing to make permanent a temporary moratorium on the discharge of leachate into the lake. The leachate — the liquid that forms when waste breaks down and water filters through — comes from Vermont’s only landfill, located in Coventry and operated by Casella Waste Systems. 

Environmental groups raised alarms when Canadian officials detected trace amounts of PFAS in the lake earlier this year, though officials have not yet determined that the PFAS came from the landfill.

State officials have now announced an extension to that temporary moratorium. Meanwhile, the Coventry landfill has applied for a permit that will allow it to use new technology to treat the leachate for PFAS before discharging it, though state officials say it will not be discharged into Memphremagog. A draft of the permit will become available in September. 

Also present were many residents and members of the conservation association Don’t Undermine Memphremagog’s Purity to urge Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, and other state officials to lessen the environmental burden of Vermont’s waste on the rural areas of the Northeast Kingdom.

“The sheer number of people in the room today is heartening,” Moore said. “I understand that the conversation may be hard or challenging at times, and we welcome that. I think the alternative is far worse, where there is no one paying attention.”

Reducing phosphorus 

Ben Copans, Memphremagog’s watershed planner, and Oliver Pierson, director of Vermont’s lakes and ponds program, said their efforts focus primarily on reducing phosphorus in the lake. 

Until anglers found lesions on brown bullhead and Canadian officials detected PFAS in the lake, phosphorus and invasive species were top concern for agency officials, Pierson said. He said he believes those reduction efforts should remain a top priority. 

Vermont state agencies have spent around $7 million on mostly agricultural-focused clean water projects in the basin, he said, and those have yielded around a 4-metric-ton reduction in phosphorus. Levels of phosphorus in the lake stand at around 19 parts per billion — the target for the lake is 14 parts per billion. 

Brown bullhead

Pete Emerson, a fisheries biologist with the department, who has been studying malignant melanoma first discovered on brown bullhead in 2012, said the tumors have since been found on fish throughout the length of the lake. 

So far, indications do not suggest that the fish developed the tumors because of exposure to pollutants, he said. 

“We did not find anything that was a smoking gun. We didn’t look at anything that made us feel that we need to put consumption advisories out there. The bullhead did not appear to be suffering from high doses of any of the contaminants we were concerned about,” he said.

Emerson said his team is partnering with cancer researchers at the University of Vermont to map the bullhead’s genome, which will help them gain an understanding of how, exactly, the cancer is affecting the fish. They’re looking at a variety of possible causes, including viruses. 

“We think it’s going to take some time,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

PFAS sampling

Rick Levey, a water quality expert with the agency, conducted the first of three PFAS sampling events July 20. 

After sampling 10 sites for 36 types of PFAS, including the five that are regulated, the analysis showed only two instances of the chemicals’ presence. 

One, at a midlake site, showed a concentration of 2.8 parts per trillion. Another, at the mouth of the Johns River, read 2.2 parts per trillion. Vermont’s standard for PFAS in drinking water is 20 parts per trillion. The river rises in Derby, Vermont, swings north into Quebec, then empties into the lake back in Vermont.

“These are very low concentrations, and they’re actually concentrations consistent with what you would find even in very remote areas around the world because of atmospheric deposition,” Levey said.

From the Newport sewage treatment plant, the results from the effluent were “also very low,” he said. For the regulated compounds, the sum was around 22 parts per trillion. Other nonregulated compounds showed higher values. 

“We’re really pleased with this first round of sampling results back from this PFAS sampling in Lake Memphremagog,” Levey said. 

His team has already completed the second round of sampling, and those samples are being analyzed. The third will take place in September. 

Pretreatment permit

Pete LaFlamme, director of the Watershed Management Division, said the Coventry landfill has applied for a pretreatment permit for leachate, and a draft of the permit will become available in September. The moratorium on treating the leachate at Newport’s sewer plant will continue. 

“The Newport wastewater treatment facility will not be on that list of approved facilities to receive leachate as a result of the pretreatment permit,” he said. 

The permit would require treatment of leachate and authorize delivery of that leachate to certain wastewater treatment facilities, LaFlamme said. 

Within the four months after the permit’s approval, the agency is requiring Casella to develop a plan to pilot technology that would remove PFAS from the leachate and submit that plan to the agency for review. The agency will develop a standard and will collect data to test whether the technology is working. 

By the third year of that operation, Casella must produce a comprehensive report “on the adequacy of the removals across different seasons,” he said. 

During a 30-day period after the draft is released, state officials will take public comment in written form and at a public meeting similar to Tuesday’s. 

‘Not Vermont’s dumping grounds’

Henry Coe, co-founder of Don’t Undermine Memphremagog’s Purity, said in his organization’s view, “filtration and treatment options for PFAS and other chemicals are too important to society to be left with a private waste industry alone.” The comment drew applause from the crowd. 

“Let the rest of the state share the burden,” he said. “Landfill leachate must be treated elsewhere. No leachate ever in the Lake Memphremagog watershed.”

Jim Campbell, a lifelong Northeast Kingdom resident, raised a point that commenters after him repeated throughout the meeting: The Northeast Kingdom should not be “Vermont’s dumping ground.”

“I’m also a little bit passionate because our home farm on the Airport Road is part of what is now Casella,” he said. “And what puzzles me is how we ever left one company in control of the waste for the entire state of Vermont. I just can’t get that through my head.”

One resident asked Moore to name the environmental benefits of discharging leachate into the lake.

“I don’t want to suggest that there is an environmental benefit,” she said. “I don’t believe any of us believe there’s an environmental benefit to disposing of leachate. But the fact of the matter is, leachate is a reflection of our lifestyle. It exists and we need to look for strategies to treat it, minimize it and address it.”

Lindy Sargent of Don’t Undermine Memphremagog’s Purity asked officials about whether they’re concerned that Vermont’s decision to approve Casella’s pretreatment permit would create the first permit of its kind in the country. 

“We think, just like all of you do, and all of you have been expressing tonight, it’s important to treat and remove,” LaFlamme said. “We want to do that as soon as possible. You know, we’re not waiting for some of the national-level research. We feel like a well-designed study that provides that treatment opportunity here is really important.” 

Many of the evening’s commenters pushed to redistribute waste management operations across the state. 

“The time has come for the state to revive its mandate to develop a comprehensive solid waste plan based on zero waste principles and on regional depositories closer to Vermont’s population centers,” Coe said.

Correction: This article has been corrected to state that PFAS levels in effluent from the Newport sewage treatment plant were around 22 parts per trillion, not billion.

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: [email protected]

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