Locals skeptical of project to remove PFAS from leachate in Coventry
At a public hearing this week in Newport, Northeast Kingdom residents lambasted a proposal by Casella Waste Systems to remove toxic PFAS chemicals from the leachate, or wastewater that is created when water passes through trash, at the Coventry landfill.
PFAS, or so-called “forever chemicals” are used for heat, stain and grease resistance in all kinds of consumer goods and fabrics, from pizza boxes to nonstick cookware, and have been linked to an increased risk for some cancers and other negative health impacts.
When PFAS-laden objects are sent to Vermont’s only open landfill, the chemicals leach out of them and into wastewater from the landfill, known as leachate, which some advocates call "garbage juice." In order to continue operating the landfill, state regulators in 2022 told Casella it must design a way to remove the chemicals from the landfill leachate.
The company was tasked with developing a pilot study that was slated to begin shortly after approval.
On Tuesday, about 70 people gathered in-person and virtually to provide feedback to the Department of Environmental Conservation about Casella’s pilot — many expressed concern that the work is already underway.
“The elephant in the room this evening is that Casella has already begun operating this treatment system before the public has weighed in, and the secretary has not finalized its decision to approve the plan,” said Nora Bosworth, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, a nonprofit environmental group.
In April, Casella pitched using a technology called “foam fractionation” to remove the PFAS. It involves using foam and bubbles to separate the chemicals out from the rest of the leachate.
Under the proposal, which was mandated as a condition of the landfill’s pre-treatment permit, which regulates the liquid that drains out of the dump, the super concentrated PFAS leftovers would be injected into concrete blocks.
The blocks would then be buried in the Coventry landfill, while the leachate is shipped to wastewater plants in Plattsburgh and Montpelier.
This plan has some environmental activists and residents in the kingdom deeply concerned.
PFAS are notoriously difficult to extract, store and destroy, so Casella is piloting relatively new technology.
Peggy Stevens with the group DUMP, or Don’t Undermine Memphremagog’s Purity, said Tuesday the PFAS removal should happen in Central Vermont, near where the leachate is discharged, not by Lake Memphremagog, which is a drinking water source for thousands of people.
“When a breakdown occurs, when the operational system fails, the same catastrophic spill would occur and migrate to the South Bay of the lake,” Stevens said.
Stevens and others said the regulatory process has bred distrust, since they believed they would have public input on Casella’s plan before it went into effect.
"From everyone I've spoken to in the Kingdom, there is no trust in the state's handling of the permits … and the Casella dump, and there's no trust in the way Casella operates the dump," said John Barrows, a former resident of the Kingdom who lives in South Burlington.
In October, three environmental groups — Conservation Law Foundation, Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Massachusetts-based group Just Zero wrote to the Agency of Natural Resources urging them to take enforcement action against Casella for starting the work before the pilot project was approved.
Pete LaFlamme, who leads the Watershed Management Division at the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, argues nothing in Casella’s existing pre-treatment permit prevents the company from taking additional steps now to remove chemicals from the leachate.
The pilot study requires further department approval, he said at Tuesday’s meeting, and the DEC can still require Casella to change course.
As for the concrete blocks, LaFlamme says Casella is allowed to dispose of them in the landfill under its solid waste certification — a separate permit from the one under review now.
“When a breakdown occurs, when the operational system fails, the same catastrophic spill would occur and migrate to the South Bay of the lake."Peggy Stevens, Don’t Undermine Memphremagog’s Purity (DUMP)
Jeff Weld, a spokesperson for Casella, confirmed Wednesday that the company has already started testing the foam fractionation process at the Coventry landfill. Weld also confirmed that the concentrated PFAS foam is currently being solidified in concrete.
“This is a very positive step providing further protection to public health and Vermont,” Weld said, adding that the company would like to go further and destroy the chemicals when technology to do so becomes available.
According to professor Rainer Lohmann, who leads the University of Rhode Island’s STEEP (Sources, Transport, Exposure and Effects of PFAS) research program, foam fractionation is a reasonably well established method for removing certain PFAS from liquids.
Rainer said pilot studies have shown foam fractionation removes most of the longer-chain PFAS — like the ones Vermont regulates now. But it does not remove smaller, toxic PFCs, which were designed to replace PFAS in manufacturing, and which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to regulate in the coming years.
Additionally, Lohmann said the method may work less well with leachate, which has a lot of other chemical junk in it in addition to PFAS. He said that chemical junk also means there aren’t a lot of great options for getting the PFAS out. For example, Lohmann said reverse osmosis, which has been shown highly effective for removing PFAS from drinking water, likely wouldn’t work as well for leachate.
Peggy Stevens with DUMP said regulators should require the PFAS residuals be destroyed, not put back in the landfill.
“That cement is porous and both absorbs and releases PFAS when exposed to water,” she said.
Nora Bosworth, an attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, called foam fractionation “wholly inadequate” and called for Casella to use two removal processes to address the chemical contamination.
She also raised concerns about whether the pilot project will spray PFAS into the air, and said regulators should be more specific about how much PFAS they want to see removed from the leachate.
“We urge the department to go above and beyond in demonstrating that they are still committed to modifying the pilot system as needed to protect the environment and human health,” Bosworth said.
Lohmann confirmed that there are no federal air quality regulations for PFAS, and that foam fractionation will aerate the chemicals. However, he said this can be addressed if Casella uses carbon air filters to capture the chemicals, something researchers use in the lab.
“It’s not rocket science, you just have to make sure you don’t release whatever PFAS are mobilized into the surrounding environment,” he said.
Regarding the short-chain PFAS, Lohmann said there is no good way to remove them right now. When it comes to destroying the chemicals, which are extremely hard to break down, he said the science remains unsettled about the best way to do that. Most available methods are costly and energy-intensive, and could involve shipping the residuals outside of Vermont.
“The idea of using the leachate, concentrating it, and then trying to bind it and put it back in the landfill is probably in the big scheme, not the worst of ideas, because at least it would be part of what will end up being a closed loop."Rainer Lohmann, University of Rhode Island’s STEEP research program
Provided the air quality concerns are addressed, he said Casella’s pilot study seems like a reasonable approach to try — though he couldn’t speak to how well concrete would contain the chemicals.
“The idea of using the leachate, concentrating it, and then trying to bind it and put it back in the landfill is probably in the big scheme, not the worst of ideas, because at least it would be part of what will end up being a closed loop,” he said.
But Stevens, with DUMP, says this plan does not meet the standard locals expect.
“The leachate treatment can’t just be better than nothing,” she said Tuesday night. “It must be the most effective, state of the art technology available — not the most cost effective.”
“It’s not pretty; it’s not ideal,” Lohmann said. “But we don’t have an ideal situation here because of the nature of the chemicals.”
Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom is one of the least populated parts of the state, and many residents say it’s unfair for their communities to host Vermont’s only open landfill. They point out that the state’s more populous areas produce most of the trash.
Teresa Gerade of Newport told regulators she supports the treatment of leachate for PFAS, but that it should happen in Montpelier.
“It is environmental injustice,” Gerade said. “Lake Memphremagog is the beating heart of the Northeast Kingdom and all of our futures depend on these waters that we share with our Canadian neighbors. Siting a landfill in the Memphremagog watershed was a mistake that was made years ago. Let us not make another mistake.”
A tougher stance on PFAS
The Department of Environmental Conservation announced an update this week to the state’s PFAS Roadmap, which outlines the department’s plan for how to tackle the problem of forever chemicals.
The roadmap doesn’t hold regulatory weight, but it does signal the department’s priorities for new regulations and the kinds of new laws the administration might support.
The DEC says it will be looking upstream at ways to regulate PFAS in manufacturing and in goods — the sort that wind up in the Coventry landfill.
“Lake Memphremagog is the beating heart of the Northeast Kingdom and all of our futures depend on these waters that we share with our Canadian neighbors. Siting a landfill in the Memphremagog watershed was a mistake that was made years ago. Let us not make another mistake.”Teresa Gerade, Newport resident
Matt Chapman, who leads the department’s work on this issue, says in Vermont, PFAS mostly get into the environment when they’re shed from consumer goods.
“The more we look into it and the more we study where PFAS is coming from, the sources aren’t so much the industrial discharges or point sources that we’re sort of used to managing in the environmental context,” Chapman said. “It’s sort of diffuse sources, like you washing your clothes or the cleaning products that you use.”
Last year, a bill that would have limited PFAS in personal care products drew strong bipartisan support from state lawmakers. During a busy session for environmental policy, it didn’t make it to law. Lawmakers have signaled interest in revitalizing the issue.
But so far in the Statehouse, it’s been largely lawmakers in the Northeast Kingdom who have advocated for changes to where Vermont sends its waste.
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