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Reporter Debrief: State Starts PFAS Testing In Lake Memphremagog

a lake and a house along the wooded shore with a landfill rising up in the background
Barton Chronicle, Courtesy
The Coventry landfill as seen across Lake Memphremagog's South Bay. After PFAS chemicals were found in waters on the Canadian side of the lake, Vermont's environmental officials are undertaking extensive sampling in the lake this summer.

PFAS chemicals are a group of synthetic substances that were once found in everyday items like nonstick cookware, carpets and food packaging. But the so-called “forever chemicals” don't break down naturally and are believed to linger indefinitely in the environment, with the potential to cause serious health problems, including cancer.

When the chemicals were detected in Lake Memphremagog last fall, it set off alarm bells on both the Vermont and Canadian shores of the lake. Now the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation is undertaking extensive testing for the chemicals starting this summer.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Barton Chronicle reporter Sylvia Dodge about her latest article — "Extensive Testing For PFAS In Memphremagog To Start." Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Let's start with what's new here. What is Vermont's Department of Environmental Conservation planning to do this summer when it comes to testing for PFAS chemicals?

Sylvia Dodge: Well, they hope to start by July 20, although I've been told that it may be a little later than that. And it's a three-pronged testing that will take place three times. So they plan to test five species of fish, they plan to test on the Vermont-side lake water in three different places — near Newport, near the Canadian border, and somewhere in the middle — and then they also plan to test in the various tributaries on the Vermont side of the lake.

Let's talk about why this is happening. VPR covered the push by environmental advocates to designate Lake Memphremagog as a “lake in crisis” earlier this year, and that didn't come to pass. State officials said the lake doesn't meet its strict criteria for such a designation. But there have been a lot of calls — from both the Vermont and Canadian shores of the lake — for action, due to various concerns. What are people most concerned about? Why does there seem to be a lot of urgency, especially from the Canadian side on this?

Well, on the Canadian side, they use the lake for drinking water. In particular, the city of Sherbrooke, which has a population of over 175,000 people, they use lake water to drink. And they have found trace amounts of PFAS in the lake near the intake valves for their drinking water.

Another issue is that, in a study that took place between 2014 and 2018 it was [U.S. Geological Survey] and Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife they tested a fish called the brown bullhead. And they found malignant cancerous lesions in 30% of those fish that they sampled. So that really scared a lot of people.

The final thing is, in February of 2020, the Department of Environmental Conservation looked at the effluent around all of Vermont's wastewater treatment plants. And they found really high PFAS levels, the highest in the state, in Montpelier and Newport. And both of those water treatment plants treated effluent from Vermont’s only landfill, the Coventry Casella waste management landfill, which sits right above the lake.

More from VPR: Is Lake Memphremagog 'In Crisis'? 3,700 Petitioners Say Yes. A Watershed Nonprofit Disagrees

So they're talking about leachate, there, right? Which is sometimes... euphemistically called “garbage juice,” is that right?

That is true. It's the water that percolates down through all the layers of the waste, and then it has to be pumped out and treated.

It's no longer being treated in Newport, because when Act 250 allowed the extension of the life of the landfill for [another] 25 years — and it can expand into 51 more acres — there was a moratorium that was put on treating the leachate in Newport [until 2024]. And Canadians really hope that that will become permanent.

What has Casella said about the leachate possibly contaminating Lake Memphremagog?

People say that leachate is everywhere, and they deny that there's any scientific proof to say that the leachate is putting PFAS into the lake.

As you point out in your story, there is a lack of national guidelines around PFAS from the federal Environmental Protection Agency here in the U.S. And Vermont may have to look to states like New York on what to do next. What are the next steps here?

I was surprised when Oliver Pearson told me that. He's the lakes and ponds manager for DEC.

The state right now is hiring a lab to look at the samples and to test them and compile results. So then, Vermont would compare those results to water and other lakes in Vermont, in New York, other states, federally. And if PFAS is found in a high enough level, I guess it's left for our Legislature, our agencies to decide what to do next.

And there's been no indication so far of what might happen if they do find some high levels of PFAS?

Not that I know of. I know on the other side, the city of Newport made a lot of revenue treating the leachate. And when the moratorium started in 2019 — I mean, it's a city that has some economic problems anyway. I think if PFAS wasn't found at high levels, the city of Newport would be very pleased to begin treating the leachate again and making some revenue from it.

More from VPR: Vt. Landfill Case Highlights 'Garbage Juice' Chemicals In Drinking Water

What about the coordination, Sylvia, between U.S. officials — either in Vermont or federally — and in Canada? Because it does seem like there is more concern on the Canadian side, as you mentioned, because of the drinking water issue. But does it seem like they're on the same page here?

Early this spring, the Canadian National Assembly voted unanimously, 118-0, to essentially prompt Quebec to take a stand.

And so Quebec contacted Vermont, Julie Moore, head of our Agency of Natural Resources, basically saying they want leachate to be banned from going into the lake. So when I talked to Oliver Pearson, he made it very clear that they're working really hard to coordinate this testing this summer with their Canadian counterparts.

You know, two-thirds of the lake, or more, is in Canada. So they want data from the entire lake.

What about the folks that you've spoken with? Especially environmental advocates, and the folks who are really concerned about this? The testing seems to be a good first start, but do they seem satisfied with that approach at this point?

I know the people from DUMP — Don’t Undermine Memphremagog’s Purity — they really were hoping that the lake would be declared a lake at risk. And if it had been, it would have prompted a stakeholder meeting.

DUMP is happy, because the Agency of Natural Resources is willing to hold a stakeholder meeting, anyway. But one of the worries is, the talk is now that that meeting would be held maybe in August of this summer. And the DUMP people really think it's important for their Canadian counterparts to be able to participate in-person. And, you know, who knows when the border is going to open?

I think the people on the Vermont side really want to make sure that the people on the Canadian side can meet in-person for these meetings.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb

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A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station WBUR...as a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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