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Proposed Law Expands Responsibility for PFAS Contamination

Montpelier voters will consider a $16.4 million bond to upgrade the city’s Water Resource Recovery Facility just as a proposed Vermont law may address the kind of PFAS contamination that can occur from a product of the prospective plant upgrade. Photo by Lauren Milideo.
As Town Meeting Day approaches, Montpelier voters will consider a $16.4 million bond for wastewater treatment plant upgrades that likely will leave the city with new PFAS-laced material to discard. Meanwhile, state legislators are deliberating a law expanding Vermonters’ ability to sue chemical manufacturers that pollute the land and harm residents.

The new law, S.113, has two parts. The first part expands what Vermonters can sue for following exposure to toxic chemicals, explained Jon Groveman, policy and water program director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. Although Vermonters can sue chemical manufacturers over illness from exposure to toxic substances, Groveman said, they cannot sue to cover medical monitoring needed after exposure, but before becoming ill. S.113 would allow Vermonters to sue for these costs, too.

The second part of S.113, Groveman said, allows the state of Vermont to sue chemical manufacturers for funds to clean up pollutants. This includes costs to “retrofit wastewater treatment facilities and water supplies, [and] clean up rivers and streams and groundwater that gets contaminated with the chemical,” he noted. “PFAS is the biggest example. It’s in all of our wastewater treatment plants, it’s in all of our public water supplies where we tested on some level, sometimes at very high levels, and so it costs a lot of money to basically put in treatment systems to deal with the chemicals that are going through those public facilities.” In Vermont, Groveman added, no single manufacturer is discharging these pollutants. Instead, “it’s coming from all the products that we use that get into the waste stream.” 

Senate bill 113, already twice-vetoed, recently unanimously passed the senate and went to the house judiciary committee, said Lauren Hierl, a member of the Montpelier City Council and executive director of Vermont Conservation Voters. The latest version addresses the governor’s concerns. She noted in a recent lawsuit in Bennington, site of an infamous PFAS contamination, plaintiffs requested medical monitoring costs, prompting the judge to list criteria for determining the eligibility of such costs. Stakeholders thus glimpsed how a Vermont judge would view the issue, settling some concerns.

“I think we have a real responsibility in Montpelier to protect people,” said Hierl, “and I’m excited that laws like S.113 are moving forward to give Vermonters who might be impacted by a toxic chemical more tools to be made whole to the extent you can, once you’ve been harmed by exposure to a toxic chemical, so I hope that that bill keeps moving through the process and becomes law finally.”

Senate bill 113 is timely as Vermonters anticipate handling environmental pollutants, particularly PFAS, in coming years. Per- and polyfluororalkyl substances, a class of chemicals with uses from food containers to industrial processes to firefighting foam, are known as “forever chemicals” because of their resistance to breaking down in the environment. Exposure to PFAS is linked to numerous health problems, including high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, and testicular and kidney cancer, per the C8 Science Panel, which performed studies on a community exposed to PFOA, a class of PFAS typically used in industry.

As Montpelier voters consider an upgrade to the city’s wastewater treatment facility, including a dryer that will yield granules known as class-A biosolids, PFAS worry some residents. (To see the full story about the upgrade, go to montpelierbridge.org/2022/01/16-4-million-wastewater-plant-upgrade-proposed-for-bond-vote.)

Biosolids are rich nutrient sources, per the EPA. They’re also rich in PFAS. Said Anna Robuck, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, biosolids are “typically a very concentrated matrix just full of PFAS.” 

Kurt Motyka, deputy director and engineer with Montpelier Public Works, said initially a city-hired contractor would handle Montpelier’s biosolids. “There’s a few potential uses for the class-A material,” Motyka said. “One is topsoil, one is remediation in abandoned mines, [or], potentially land application.” Topsoil here refers to restoring lawns in construction projects, while land application entails spreading biosolids on agricultural fields producing livestock feed crops.

But, said Hierl, “I would be very concerned if Montpelier biosolids are being sent for any kind of land application.”

Hierl recalled a recent story on Maine Public Radio featuring an organic farming family who suspended produce sales after learning their land and water were contaminated by decades-prior land application of PFAS-laced sludge. 

Robuck noted similar concerns. “Where the biosolids are applied, you measure PFAS in biosolids, they’re very high. Those same biosolids without any treatment are applied to land; lo and behold, that land and subsequent crops or produce from it now has a PFAS problem.”

Motyka previously noted
that no EPA-sanctioned method for measuring PFAS in biosolids exists. But, said Robuck, that doesn’t mean these levels are unknowable. 

“I’ve measured them,” she said. “It’s quite doable.”

Robuck pointed out PFAS present challenges for municipal facilities. “Wastewater treatment plants are between such a rock and a hard place. The regulation hasn’t caught up to help them, and yet they’re kind of like this endpoint for these massive loads of PFAS.” 

Robuck said remediation might be the best use for the biosolids. “Something that’s already contaminated, [where] people already aren’t drinking the water below it — that’s probably the best place for it to go.”

Hierl, too, noted that end-use matters, and land application might be different from remediation. She said, “I don’t think just giving [the PFAS-containing biosolids] to a third party and then washing our hands of it is absolving us of the responsibility to know the end-use, and be handling it responsibly to minimize contamination of someone else’s environment.”