AUGUSTA, Maine — A wastewater treatment plant in Maine’s Somerset County that discharges into the Kennebec River accepted more than 250,000 gallons of liquid runoff from a New Hampshire landfill that was potentially contaminated with the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.
While the wastewater accounted for a small amount of the Anson-Madison Sanitary District’s total intake, the shipments of landfill “leachate” are the latest example of ways that the toxic chemicals could be seeping into rivers, streams and groundwater in Maine and elsewhere.
The news comes at a time when Maine and other states are scrambling to figure out how to regulate a class of widely used but extremely persistent chemicals that have been linked to low birth weight, elevated cholesterol, some types of cancer and other health concerns.
Neither Maine nor federal rules require landfills or most sewage treatment plants to test for the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances commonly referred to as PFAS, although treatment plants in Maine that turn sludge into fertilizer have been under mandatory testing for months.
Now, Maine Department of Environmental Protection officials are weighing whether to require additional monitoring for PFAS in Madison and other treatment plants.
“We are evaluating that internally at this point and haven’t come to any conclusions,” said David Burns, director of the DEP’s Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management.
According to a report published Wednesday in The Boston Globe, Turnkey Landfill in Rochester, N.H., shipped landfill wastewater, or “leachate,” to the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility in Massachusetts and to an unnamed Maine facility. September 2018 tests of the leachate showed levels as high as 9,700 parts per trillion for some types of PFAS — more than 100 times above the federal health advisory level for drinking water.
On Thursday, media outlets in Massachusetts reported the Lowell plant had terminated its contract with the Rochester landfill amid an outcry over the PFAS risk.
Documents filed with New Hampshire regulators and obtained by the Portland Press Herald show that second facility was the Anson-Madison Sanitary District in Somerset County.
Dale Clark, the superintendent of the Anson-Madison Sanitary District, did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday. According to figures from the Maine DEP, the Anson-Madison Sanitary District received 152,000 gallons of leachate from Turnkey in December 2018 and 104,000 gallons in January 2019, which accounted for a fraction of the total intake at the facility.
“What I understand is this was being done a trial basis,” Burns said. “And what I also understand was that this was the only time that this material was brought to the Anson-Madison Sanitary District and there are no further plans to bring leachate in” from Turnkey.
Both the New Hampshire landfill, which is owned by Waste Management, a national company, and the Madison treatment plant were operating within the bounds of their respective permits, neither of which require monitoring for PFAS.
But environmental health groups said the lack of standards or mandatory testing are precisely the problems.
Tim Whitehouse, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, compared the situation surrounding PFAS to “a regulatory wild, wild West where nobody has a handle on its use, storage, or disposal.”
His organization and others are calling on the EPA to take more aggressive regulatory action on the chemicals.
“Discharging PFAS contaminated leachate into a wastewater treatment system without continuous monitoring and strict pollution controls is asking for trouble,” Whitehouse said in a statement. “What’s happening is one company is simply dumping an expensive and dangerous problem on someone else’s lap, in this case the people in Madison and surrounding communities.”
PFAS have been in widespread use for decades in non-stick cookware, water- and stain-resistant fabrics, grease-resistant food packaging and firefighting foam. But the complex chemical structures that impart those characteristics to products also mean PFAS lingers in the environment or bodies for long periods, hence the nickname “forever chemicals.”
Two types of the chemical, PFOA and PFOS, that were used in Teflon and 3M Scotchguard products have been definitively linked to cancer and other health problems. While those two compounds are no longer manufactured or used in products made in the U.S., there are thousands of other varieties of PFAS that health and environmental groups say could be equally problematic.
That science is still developing, however. In the meantime, states are rushing to set their own health standards in the absence of federal action.
Maine Gov. Janet Mills created a PFAS Task Force this year that is examining the extent of contamination in the state and plans to recommend next-steps for the Legislature or administration to consider.
Earlier this year, the Maine DEP began requiring PFAS testing at facilities that convert treated municipal sludge into fertilizer or compost. As a result, some facilities have been unable to spread treated sludge as fertilizer, an issue that gained headlines after an Arundel couple blamed sludge for the PFAS contamination that has shut down their dairy farm.
Wastewater treatment plants that do not turn sludge into fertilizer, or biosolids, are not currently required to test for PFAS. Burns with the DEP said it would be “premature” of him to guess what the task force will ultimately recommend on testing.
“Certainly we are trying to look at all sources,” Burns said.
Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of the Maine-based Environmental Health Strategy Center, said the leachate issue is another reason why “we need to turn off the tap and get this chemistry out of use.”
“It just shows the problems with this type of chemistry,” said MacRoy, whose organization has a seat on the governor’s PFAS task force. “Since it is virtually indestructible, it just keeps recirculating and it highlights the challenges of managing it.”
The Environmental Health Strategy Center has pushed to end the use of sludge-based fertilizer or compost that has any PFAS contamination. But the more costly alternative for most treatment plants is landfilling the sludge, which then means any PFAS in the materials would likely show up in the leachate.
“But at least we can monitor it,” MacRoy said.
The two months of leachate shipments to the Anson-Madison Sanitary District accounted for a tiny share — just 0.7 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively — of the facility’s total intake, according to DEP figures. That wastewater was ultimately discharged into the Kennebec River, a large river that nonetheless supports several species of endangered fish.
But environmental, health and conservation groups in Massachusetts were alarmed by the potentially much larger amounts of leachate shipped to the Lowell treatment facility, which discharges into the Merrimack River.
A Waste Management spokesman took issue with comparing PFAS levels in wastewater from landfills to the federal government’s 70 parts per trillion health advisory level for drinking water.
“No wastewater meets drinking water standards, that is why it is wastewater,” Garrett Trierweiler, a spokesman for the company’s New England region, said in a statement. “There are no wastewater standards for these compounds at this time and when they are established, we intend to meet them.
“In the meantime, we are in the process of evaluating treatment technologies to address these compounds.”