A state report this week found that significant quantities of PFAS are going into Vermont’s dumps, and that at least some of it is leaching back out.
How much of a problem this is and what to do about it remain undetermined, according to state officials.
“We’re not waving the panic flag yet, but there’s enough concentration for us to talk about next steps,” Chuck Schwer, director of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources’ Waste Management Division, said. “This was really about trying to figure out what is out there for PFAS in the environment.”
PFAS refers to a group chemicals created in a number of industrial processes. High concentrations were found in recent years in North Bennington and then in a handful of wells in Clarendon. The state began testing all public water systems for PFAS earlier this year. While the city’s tests came back negative, higher-than-allowed concentrations were found in the water supplies of the Mount Holly School and Killington Mountain School.
The report issued this week looked at transfer stations in Williston, East Montpelier, Rutland, Hyde Park and Arlington as well as the landfill in Coventry. Researchers tested materials going in for PFAS as well as leachate coming out — rainwater that has gathered in a transfer station landfill, absorbing substances from the materials within.
A variety of the materials going in tested positive. The largest concentration stemmed from furniture and other “bulky items,” the second-largest from textiles and the third from carpeting.
“PFAS compounds were detected in 95% of the waste samples at concentrations ranging over many orders of magnitude,” the report read.
The report said that most of the PFAS that goes into the dumps stays there — but not all. PFAS was found in leachate. That leachate does not appear to be going into wells, Schwer said.
“We have not found any drinking water wells contaminated close to these facilities,” he said. “I think the piece that’s unknown to the state ... is the impact on aquatic biota and public health.”
Water that leaches out of landfills is collected and trucked to wastewater treatment facilities.
“It does a great job treating the organic matter, but it isn’t designed to treat PFAS,” Schwer said of the typical sewer plant.
So any PFAS coming into the plant passes right through it into wherever the plant discharges.
The answer to the question of is there an impact to aquatic biota is unknown, Schwer said. He added that future studies are aimed at answering that question.
Also, state officials are working with Casella Waste Management on whether there are any ways to keep PFAS from leaving the landfills — or entering it to begin with.
“All of the stakeholders in this area are going to be having a discussion of what’s viable going forward,” Casella Vice President Joseph Fusco said.
One of the realities they will grapple with, he said, is how pervasive a presence PFAS has become.
“People tend to think of them as coming from exotic sources,” he said. “Where they’re coming from is that part of our consumer society that wants things to be waterproof, stainproof and no-stick. ... We have this larger issue about how to deal with these contaminants.”
Fusco said state regulators need to decide how best to frame this issue as they look at solutions.
“There’s possibilities (for dealing with PFAS in the waste stream) but it’s about which of these makes sense and which are viable,” he said. “We are not at the conclusion point of that. We’re at the thinking-about and discussion stage. From our perspective, it’s a bigger-picture issue than wastewater plants and landfills. These contaminants are in our culture, in our society. They’re pervasive. The solution will have to come from looking at the system.”
Rutland Public Works Commissioner Jeffrey Wennberg said the city’s sewer plant doesn’t take landfill leachate, but it does treat septage from around southern Vermont and there had not yet been a study of whether PFAS is coming from septic system leach fields.
Wennberg said sewer plants were not the place to try to filter out PFAS. While carbon filters can remove the chemical from drinking water when necessary, he said wastewater would quickly wreck such a system. Wennberg said the question consumers need to ask is why, if they don’t want PFAS in the water system, are they allowing it in consumer goods?
“These chemicals are very, very difficult to destroy,” he said. “If you want to keep them out of the environment, stop putting them in the environment. Stop them at the source. ... Why are we allowing it to be put in dental floss and pizza boxes if we don’t want people to ingest it?”