The Decatur City Council approved spending money on a landfill cleanup system that, according to experts, almost certainly will not work.
In fact, an Environmental Protection Agency spokesman said the system may actually increase levels of PFOA and PFOS — the main chemicals the landfill is trying to eliminate from its leachate. An EPA panel has labeled PFOA and PFOS, commonly used perfluorinated chemicals found in Decatur, as likely carcinogens.
The City Council on Aug. 3 approved Morgan County Area Landfill Director Rickey Terry’s proposal for a system to remove the perfluorinated chemicals, called PFCs, from landfill runoff.
The council approved $33,000 to test the system, with an additional $20,000 payable if the system is successful in reducing PFC levels enough to permit the landfill to dump the treated leachate into the Decatur Utilities wastewater treatment plant.
The proposed expenditure has not made it to the agenda of the Morgan County Commission, which also must approve it.
David Lampert, an environmental engineer and a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas, did his thesis on the removal of PFCs from wastewater. He also co-authored a paper on the subject.
After reviewing the proposal Florida-based AJT & Associates prepared for the Morgan County landfill, he was skeptical.
“I think they will find that none of the treatment processes they have proposed will significantly remove the perfluorinated chemicals from the wastewater,” Lampert said in an e-mail.
Laurence Libelo, senior environmental engineer in EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention Toxics, said the AJT system is not consistent with current technology on the removal of perfluorinated chemicals.
“The only currently used removal technologies that we know of are incineration at high temperatures or sorptionto carbon or resin exchange media,” Libelo said, none of which are included in the AJT proposal. “Studies by the fluorochemical industry have shown that these are the only viable ways to remove PFCs from water.”
By “sorption-to carbon or resin exchange media,” Libelo is referring to the conventional method for removing PFCs from water: carbon filtration. While carbon filtration removes PFCs from water, it leaves behind carbon containing extremely high levels of the chemicals. The carbon residue must either be disposed of in a watertight setting that does not produce leachate or be incinerated.
The Morgan County landfill is not equipped for watertight storage, so the carbon would have to be shipped elsewhere at significant expense. Incineration also is expensive.
The AJT project manager who pitched the project to Terry, and who would manage its installation, used to be plant manager of Biological Processors of Alabama.
Todd Willoughby was Biological’s plant manager from August 2006 until Biological shut down in October 2008. The plant received dozens of permit violations during his tenure. It shut down with 1 million gallons of toxic chemicals on site.
In midst of cleanup
The EPA is in the midst of a $2 million cleanup of the former Biological site on Finley Island Road
Willoughby declined comment at the advice of his lawyers.
In its proposal, AJT said it believes its system will convert PFCs into harmless chemicals, so the landfill will not have to deal with incineration or alternate disposal.
The proposal touts the system as a pilot project that, if successful, would be built as a full-scale project — at an unspecified price — at a later date.
The AJT landfill cleanup system relies primarily on filtration and ozonation to destroy PFCs.
Filtration will not work because PFCs dissolve in water and are extremely small, Lampert said.
“These compounds are highly soluble, not biologically degradable and are too small to be retained by ultrafiltration,” he said.
Libelo agreed. “They are highly soluble. It’s tough to get them out of water,” he said.
Ozonation is a water treatment process that destroys bacteria and other microorganisms through an infusion of ozone, a gas produced by subjecting oxygen molecules to high electrical voltages.
“I’m not sure the effect of ozonation,” Lampert said, “but likely it is not powerful enough to destroy these compounds as they must be combusted at very high temperatures normally, which is much more costly than ozonation.”
Libelo said not only will ozonation not destroy PFOA or PFOS, but it could increase the level of the chemicals in the leachate.
This is the case, he said, because while ozonation does not degrade PFOA and PFOS, it does degrade related chemicals. Some of those chemicals, once degraded, convert to PFOA or PFOS.
Terry said he rejected other proposals for PFC removal, which relied on carbon filtration, in part because they required incineration of the used carbon to destroy the PFCs.
3M Co. has years of experience in dealing with PFCs. After showing the AJT proposal to 3M scientists, spokesman Wayne Martin declined to address the efficacy of the proposed system.
“I’ll just say that’s not the way we deal with it,” Martin said.
If the AJT system does not work, it could cause complications for the landfill and Decatur Utilities. The landfill has until November to come up with a plan for reducing PFC levels in its leachate, according to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Without a workable plan, the landfill can’t dispose of its leachate at the DU wastewater treatment plant.
For more than a decade, DU disposed of sludge from the wastewater treatment plant by spreading it on farms, most in Lawrence County. It stopped the practice in November when EPA discovered alarming PFC concentrations on the farms.
DU then began disposing of the PFC-contaminated sludge — which accumulates at 42 tons a day — in the landfill. Later tests showed high PFC levels in the leachate, runoff that accumulates in the liner under the landfill.
DU stopped accepting the contaminated leachate at its wastewater treatment plant, so the landfill stopped accepting DU’s sludge.
The EPA believes the source of the PFCs is area industries that use the chemicals to produce nonstick coatings, such as those applied to Teflon pans and microwaveable popcorn bags. 3M Co., Daikin America and Toray Fluorofibers use or have used the chemicals. They have disposed of the chemicals in the DU wastewater treatment plant, the Morgan County landfill and Morris Farms landfill in Hillsboro.