Per- and polyfluororalkyl substances (PFAS) are everywhere, from groundwater to food packaging, with multiple industrial and everyday uses. Yet the chemicals are linked to a growing number of health problems, a matter particularly apt in Montpelier, where thousands of gallons of PFAS-contaminated landfill leachate is processed through the city’s wastewater treatment plant every month. As awareness grows about the dangers of PFAS, a new state law allows Vermonters to hold chemical companies responsible for medical monitoring costs incurred when residents get exposed to toxic substances but have not yet become sick.
The law, S.113, consists of two parts: one allows those exposed to toxic substances to sue chemical manufacturers for costs associated with medical monitoring; the other allows the state of Vermont to sue these companies for costs related to cleanups of the toxic chemicals they produce. Governor Phil Scott signed the bill on April 21.
“I was thrilled that the S.113 passed, being the first state in the country to make sure that Vermonters have access to medical monitoring if they’ve been exposed to toxic pollution,” said Lauren Hierl, a Montpelier City Council member and executive director of the environmental group Vermont Conservation Voters. “That is great for Vermonters, and I think, hopefully, it serves as a model for other states as well and giving the state the ability to try to hold chemical manufacturers responsible for the harm that their products are causing after they have been the ones to reap the profits for often decades from selling these chemicals, that they should be the ones on the line for the harms they’ve caused.”
Among chemicals that may trigger the law’s provisions are PFAS, which are used in food packaging, nonstick coatings, firefighting foams, and other applications. Their ubiquity has led to them being widespread in the environment, although some sites have particularly high levels, with Bennington, Vermont being one such hotspot. Exposure to PFAS chemicals has been associated with numerous health problems in humans, including high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, and testicular and kidney cancer, according to the C8 Science Panel.
This is What it Takes
These health dangers have left some Vermonters deeply concerned about PFAS. On April 22, James Ehlers of Winooski, executive director of Lake Champlain International, donned a penis costume and stood in front of the Statehouse, holding signs stating “People and Planet Before Profits” and “Stop Dumping Sewage in our Rivers.”
The scene may have been surprising, but that’s the point, Ehlers said: “I knew that (humor) would be the reaction that would be elicited from some,” said Ehlers in a subsequent interview, “but I don’t think it’s funny at all, the fact that this is what it takes to get not just the attention of politicians but — no offense — but also even the media.”
Ehlers added that, as a former Navy firefighter, he and other firefighters are well aware of PFAS in firefighting foam. Ehlers also noted the “incidence of testicular cancer particularly among firefighters” and its link to PFAS exposure.
Maine’s PFAS Law
Meanwhile, Maine appears ready to pass a law banning land application of PFAS-containing biosolids (a product of wastewater treatment). Although the biosolids are rich in organic materials that fertilize farmland, the PFAS that biosolids contain can contaminate groundwater and reach drinking water supplies. Such effects were recently seen in a Maine organic farm found to be contaminated after decades-earlier land application of sludge containing PFAS. Maine Public Radio covered the story in February.
With a bond voters passed on Town Meeting Day, Montpelier’s Water Resource Recovery Facility will soon undergo upgrades, including a belt dryer for waste treated at the plant, yielding class-A biosolids (a treated sludge from sewer waste). These biosolids are considered basically pathogen-free and can be applied to land without restriction, per the EPA. Once the dryer is in place, class-A biosolids coming out of the Montpelier plant have several potential destinations, per an earlier interview with Kurt Motyka, deputy director of and engineer with Montpelier Public Works Department. One possible application is the kind of land-spreading that Maine’s bill would ban because of the environmental damage this practice causes.
Landfill leachate constitutes the largest portion of PFAS coming into Montpelier’s wastewater treatment plant. This liquid, drained from the Coventry, Vermont landfill, gets shipped to Montpelier’s plant for treatment. Motyka said Montpelier will stop accepting leachate after July 2023 (before the new dryer will be operational), unless landfill operator Casella Waste Systems begins onsite leachate treatment to remove PFAS before shipping. Motyka noted the decision on this lies with Montpelier City Council, which will review the issue again this fall.
Noted Hierl of the PFAS removal project, “I haven’t seen the progress on that, that I was hoping to see by now.” She added that, “to me, if that’s not happening for whatever reason, then that’s a different conversation of what’s our plan with the leachate, and what’s the city doing about it.”