By K.C. Whiteley
Amid growing concerns about PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that concentrate in landfill leachate — Montpelier is being asked to increase the amount of leachate it accepts from the state’s only landfill because the city’s water treatment facility is now the only place in Vermont that will take it.
The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources recently issued a draft discharge permit that proposes to increase the amount of leachate the Casella Waste Systems landfill sends to Montpelier’s water resources recovery facility by 150 percent, from 24,000 gallons per day to 60,000. Currently, the city processes more than 10 million gallons of leachate annually.
In 2020, the City of Montpelier received a total of $417,000 in revenue generated from receiving leachate.
Leachate is the liquid residue that seeps through a landfill, gets drawn off from collection tanks, and is trucked to wastewater treatment plants. Leachate contains PFAS, pharmeceuticals, and other toxic chemicals that cannot be removed at the treatment facility and are discharged into waterways, in Montpelier’s case, the Dog and Winooski rivers.
At its regular meeting last week, the Montpelier City Council listened to testimony from residents concerned about PFAS (comprising more than 4,000 man-made chemicals) that accumulate in landfill leachate. These are often called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment. Instead, they bioaccumulate, building up in the tissues of living organisms over time.
Exposure to PFAS has been linked to certain cancers, weakened immunity, thyroid disease, other health effects, and contamination of surface water, ground water, and drinking water. Adequate testing for PFAS in water facility effluent is only in it’s beginning phases.
According to Kurt Motyka, Deputy Director of Public Works in Montpelier, “PFAS testing has been performed at the Montpelier Water Resource Recovery Facility. However, these tests were analyzed using a drinking water test method on the wastewater effluent. The EPA just released PFAS testing methods for surface water and effluent in September, 2021.”
“There’s no ongoing testing for PFAS in effluent,” said District 1 City Councilor, Lauren Hierl. “There was some testing done by ANR a couple years ago, and in the new permit, there would be additional testing added.”
At a meeting last month, after hearing public testimony, the Montpelier City Council added the following priority goal to the section of its strategic plan called Practice Good Environmental Stewardship: “Develop a long-term plan to address the discharge of toxic PFAS chemicals at our Water Resource Recovery Facility.”
Newport no longer takes leachate because PFAS were found in Lake Memphremagog, which is the drinking water supply for more than 170,000 Canadians.
The other primary receiver of leachate in Vermont was Essex, which has also declined to take any until there is a treatment for removing the PFAS they were discharging into the Lake Champlain watershed. That leaves Montpelier.
At its Oct. 27 meeting, the council addressed the following agenda item: “Discussion regarding Council Comments to the Agency of Natural Resources regarding PFAS in leachate as it relates to the Water Resource Recovery Facility.”
Public comments were taken before the council’s discussion. Speakers were united in their concern about polluting the Winooski watershed with PFAS and asked the council to make a plan to stop taking them and to pressure the state Agency of Natural Resources to take responsibility for managing Vermont’s solid waste.
“I’m not saying, ‘Not in my backyard,’ we’re saying ‘Not in anyone’s backyard,’” said Montpelier resident Darryl Bloom.
After a robust discussion in which council members and the mayor expressed a collective desire to find a way to stop discharging treated landfill leachate into the Winooski watershed, Councilor Hierl wrote in an email that the council agreed to the following concepts:
“Montpelier is committed to developing a plan to eliminate intake of PFAS-contaminated leachate and associated releases into our waters;
“Immediately, Montpelier expects the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and Casella to move forward with pre-treating leachate as quickly and effectively as possible, using the best available technology, so no facility in the region is taking in PFAS-contaminated leachate;
“ANR must take a much stronger oversight role of this process with public health and environmental protection front and center, and that oversight must extend to determining the pre-treatment technology, testing and monitoring protocols, and as quick a timeline as is feasible;
“The state and/or Casella should provide much more robust monitoring of the current and any future impacts of PFAS releases into Montpelier’s water, soil, and fish/wildlife.”
Hierl concluded “Montpelier should actively look into federal or state funding opportunities for state-of-the-art filtration at its water resources recovery facility.
We should also support state legislation or other efforts to hold the chemical companies responsible for the costs and harms their chemicals cause.”
More About PFAS
When traces of PFAS were discovered in Lake Memphremagog several years ago, Canadian residents suspected the toxic chemicals had made their way up the 30-mile-long waterway from the landfill in Coventry on the south end of the lake. Canadians were alarmed because the lake is their drinking water supply.
PFAS are found in everyday products such as tape, non-stick (Teflon) pans, waterproof garb, firefighters foam, etc. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a program designed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, determined that “Most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS and have PFAS in their blood…”
K.C. Whiteley is a Montpelier resident and environmental activist, and serves on the 350VT board of directors and Central Vermont Climate Action. You can contact her at email@example.com.