Although scientists struggle with how to deal with the toxins that permeate soil and water in the Decatur area, they know vaporizing the chemicals is not the best solution.
But that is the solution embraced at the Morgan County Area Landfill for reducing its leachate levels, which contain high levels of the perfluorinated chemicals PFOA and PFOS.
“What they are doing is creating the exact condition that gets PFOA into the air where people can breathe it,” said Olga Naidenko, senior scientist at Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group.
Liner for protection
The Morgan County Area Landfill has a liner beneath it to protect groundwater.
That means rainwater collects in the liner after soaking through the waste, including sludge from Decatur Utilities’ wastewater treatment plant and various area industries that use or have used perfluorinated chemicals.
While the landfill occasionally received industrial sludge containing perfluorinated chemicals — especially PFOA and PFOS — in the past, levels increased dramatically in November.
Until November, Decatur Utilities took the 42 tons a day of sludge it accumulates and distributed it on area farms, most in Lawrence County, as fertilizer. It stopped the practice when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency discovered in November the sludge had high concentrations of PFOA and PFOS.
DU then began dumping the sludge, at much higher expense, at the landfill.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management, however, tested the landfill’s leachate and discovered it, too, had high levels of PFOA and PFOS.
Those levels led ADEM to decide the landfill needed a permit before it could send the leachate to Decatur Utilities, its practice in the past.
“Based upon the Department’s current knowledge of the characteristics of the leachate … it appears that a State Indirect Discharge Permit would be required for any future discharges of the Morgan County leachate into the Decatur Utilities collection/treatment system,” ADEM said in a statement to The Daily.
Left with dilemma
That left landfill Director Rickey Terry with a dilemma. He cannot let the leachate overflow from leachate ponds, because that would contaminate groundwater. His normal disposal method — shipping the leachate to DU — was not an option because of the high toxin levels and the fact the landfill lacks a permit.
Terry’s solution, as he seeks a filtration procedure that would survive ADEM’s permitting process, is to increase evaporation. The landfill is increasing evaporation of the leachate by recirculating it through its waste and by using an aerator that shoots a stream of leachate into the air.
Bad idea, according to scientists.
Naidenko said the aerator transforms PFOA into an aerosol that people, especially those who live near the landfill, absorb through their lungs.
“Fine aerosol mist can concentrate PFOA and deliver it to the air,” Naidenko said. “Based on this data, it is a definite possibility that aeration of leachate can result in significant transfer of PFOA, raising a health concern that needs to be addressed.”
Even standard evaporation through leachate recirculation, she said, causes a significant health risk. PFOA, PFOS and other perfluorinated chemicals can vaporize through evaporation. Also, the same industrial processes that create PFOA and PFOS tend to create fluorotelomer alcohols.
Fluorotelomer alcohols evaporate easily. Studies show that when people inhale the airborne alcohols, they convert to PFOA and PFOS in the human body.
An EPA panel concluded PFOA and PFOS are likely carcinogens. Studies are difficult with humans, but in laboratory animals the chemicals cause liver damage, birth defects, sterility and other illnesses.
Naidenko said scientists have focused on the risk presented by PFOA and PFOS in water and food. That the airborne particles present a risk is clear, but the extent of that risk is not.
“Airborne transfer of perfluorinated chemicals is likely to be an important route of contamination,” Naidenko said.
“Scientists still don’t know what is the relative contribution of the airborne perfluorinated chemicals versus contamination of drinking water and food. It is nevertheless clear that on a global level, air transfer of the chemicals is a significant contributor to environmental pollution with this chemical family.”
Naidenko said the best solution is for industries to stop using the synthetic chemicals. She agrees with EPA scientists that the only viable method of disposal is the expensive option of incineration.