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City Sets Deadline for Getting PFAS Out of Leachate

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Photo of brick building with wastewater treatment center in front.
Montpelier's Wastewater Resources Recovery Facility. Photo by Lauren Milideo.
Montpelier drinking water showed no traces of PFAS when tested two years ago, according to Kurt Motyka, Montpelier’s deputy director of public works and city engineer. Motyka spoke at a Nov. 17 city council meeting that revisited the issue of elevated levels of PFAS in the city’s wastewater as a result of processing landfill leachate.

PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, is a grouping of 4,000 chemicals associated with cancer, thyroid disease, and pregnancy complications. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down naturally, but rather bioaccumulate in organic tissue. PFAS are found in an array of household items, from nonstick cookware to firefighting foam, and are found in elevated levels in landfill leachate. Montpelier has been processing landfill leachate at its water resource recovery facility since 1994.

Because there were (and still are) no approved tests for wastewater, Motyka said in 2019 state testers used an EPA drinking water test on the city wastewater treatment plant. Results showed “influent” (direct landfill leachate) had 169 parts per trillion, and effluent levels at 69 parts per trillion, making the water treatment plant discharge on par with EPA-approved drinking water standards, but not up to Vermont’s more stringent 20 parts per trillion standard. He pointed out, however, that “there is currently no standard for PFAS in wastewater effluent.” 

These findings, although two years old, were relevant to discussions about how long the city of Montpelier will accept landfill leachate containing PFAS.

“There’s PFAS in every [wastewater] treatment plant,” Motyka said. “It is much higher in plants that accept leachate. I want to recognize that whether or not we take leachate from Casella, we’re going to be having PFAS in our wastewater.”

Motyka’s comments came as the council discussed its letter to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources about draft permit #3-1406, which governs landfill leachate disposal for New England Waste, Inc. The permit addresses leachate processing for three landfills, all owned and operated by Casella Waste Management, the Coventry landfill; a landfill in Bethel, N.H., and the closed CV landfill in East Montpelier, and names Montpelier as the sole receiver of landfill leachate in Vermont.

The city’s letter to the Agency calls for:

  • No longer accepting landfill leachate that contains PFAS after July 1, 2023.
  • An expectation that Casella will move quickly on a permit-mandated pilot project to remove PFAS from leachate. 
  • Stronger oversight by the Agency of Natural Resources.
  • Monthly testing at the Montpelier water facility.
  • A commitment that Montpelier will no longer accept leachate from out of state. 
As councilors hammered out details of the letter, which it has since submitted as a written comment on the draft permit, Motyka pointed out that the city timeline might not align with the reality of conducting a pilot study. 

“Casella will likely just have a pilot,” he said, “which would treat 10 percent (of total leachate generated). It might be a reduction, but it won’t be a full-scale treatment (by 2023). Really, it’s 2025.”

“We certainly understand and frankly support the city’s desire to move forward with the removal of PFAS. Our primary concern is the timing,” said Samuel C. Nicolai, Casella’s vice president of engineering and compliance, who attended the Nov. 17 meeting. “We expect to be in the pilot by next year,  so the pilot will be 100-percent operational in 2022 … We will see a reduction by July 2023. I’m not convinced we will see full removal by then. We need time to scale the pilot up.”

Casella’s region engineer, John (Joe) Gay, said that PFAS in Vermont’s landfill leachate come from what people throw away in Montpelier and throughout Vermont. Not only that, but Montpelier sends sewage sludge to the landfill, which also contains PFAS.

“We do accept your trash, which has PFAS in it, and we accept your sludge, which has the PFAS in it,” Gay said. 

District 1 councilor Dona Bate asked Motyka exactly how much PFAS in the Montpelier wastewater treatment plant comes from residential homes, and how much from landfill leachate. Motyka said “the majority of it, almost 90 percent” comes from leachate. 

“Whatever happens in Montpelier is not going to change that there’s PFAS in our water and the solid waste stream,” said district 2 councilor Jack McCullough. “So what’s the best way to reduce and eventually eliminate the chemicals from the waste stream and the environment?”

Nicolai responded, “the first thing we have to do is stop producing these materials. The landfills and water treatment plants are at the end. As long as we as a society keep making Gore-Tex jackets and carpets, we’re going to keep producing it. The good news is we have a voluntary ban in the U.S., and documented blood levels are dropping; 98 percent of adults in the U.S. have detectable levels in their bloodstream … those levels are dropping.”

“You and me, and everyone in this room has carpets and jackets and stuff that are going to have to be dealt with over the next 20 years. But we’re on the right path,” Nicolai said, to which Montpelier City Manager William Fraser responded:

“Even if we completely stop production, we still have decades of stuff to process.”

The permitting process allows written public comment until Dec. 24, 2021, after which the draft permit may be revised. To see the draft permit go to anrweb.vt.gov/ANR/vtANR/DocBrowser.aspx?Directory=/DEC/WSMD/Wastewater/PublicNotice/3-1128

Comments can be submitted to anr.wsmdwastewater@vermont.gov or mailed via the post office to the Agency of Natural Resources, 1 National Life Drive, Davis 3, Montpelier VT, 05620. 

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