Report: Vt. wastewater plants sending landfill PFAS into waterways

Published: Feb. 13, 2020 at 5:18 PM EST
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A new state report is raising concerns over how PFAS, a class of toxic substances known as "forever chemicals," may be finding their way into many Vermont waterways.

PFAS are in so many parts of our daily lives. They're in mattresses, clothing, furniture, pots and pans, and nearly everything with non-stick or waterproof coating. And when those things are thrown out, the chemicals go with them. But a new report from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation shows that not all of them stay in the landfill.

Ever since PFAS were found in Bennington's drinking water in 2016, the DEC has been on a mission to figure out where these potentially cancer-causing chemicals are. They've tested private wells, public water supplies, industrial sites, landfills, and wastewater treatment plants.

"We pretty much found PFAS contamination in all the waste we analyzed," said the DEC's Chuck Schwer.

He says leachate collected from the liner on Vermont's landfills contains high levels of PFAS compounds. Montpelier's treatment plant is among those that regularly accept that leachate -- along with the PFAS -- eventually releasing it into the Winooski River.

They found that once in the river, the chemicals were being diluted to the point of not being detectable. But it remains unclear what the chemicals do once they're in the environment. Newport's plant had similar problems.

"There's absolutely no need to panic," said Joe Fusco with Casella Waste Management Systems. He says Vermont's standards are stricter than almost any other state and that the vast majority of PFAS compounds that end up in landfills stay there. He says a conversation about keeping PFAS out of the water has to start at the beginning -- by changing the products themselves.

"We have wanted a certain convenience to life as consumers over the last 50 years. We want things not to stain. We want them to clean easily. We want them to be waterproof," Fusco said.

He says Casella is now working with the state to try to figure out where the "sweet spot" is -- a treatment solution that's technologically, environmentally, and economically possible. And that's where the state says they need more data.

"The good news was that there are technologies out there that can treat this material. The bad news, at least at this point, is it's very expensive and the science isn't really clear yet. So, we think that needs to evolve a bit before we necessarily go in that direction," Schwer said.

The DEC is also testing some industrial sources like car washes and electro platers. While the full data isn't back yet on that, the early numbers they're getting show that while they're finding some PFAS in the soil and groundwater, the private drinking water wells near those do not appear to be contaminated.