With few state or federal regulations existing for PFAS chemicals, the military and impacted towns face the tough question: Where to dispose of filters and waste?
When carbon filters filled with firefighting foam chemicals from Bucks and Montgomery counties are burned at an incinerator in Delaware County, the temperatures approach one-fifth of those found on the surface of the sun.
But is that hot enough? Are the chemicals destroyed, or do they go elsewhere?
The lack of sure-fire answers to those questions strikes at the heart of another set of issues faced by communities and regulators already grappling with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), toxic chemicals that are being found in increasing amounts in water supplies and waterways throughout the country.
Communities along the county line have been struggling with PFAS contamination for years, after the chemicals were used at firefighting foams at a trio of current and former military bases in the area.
On July 28, an investigative report from this news organization detailed potential “hidden” exposure routes for the chemicals as they continue to leak off the bases, including through fish consumption, agriculture, and the disposal of PFAS-saturated materials such as soil and carbon filters. The Navy has yet to respond to questions about the report.
Several years ago, the impacted water authorities in Horsham, Warminster and Warrington townships implemented zero-tolerance plans to completely remove the chemicals from their drinking water supplies. To varying degrees, that involved purchasing water from neighboring water authorities or installing large carbon treatment systems to filter out the chemicals.
But what to do with the used filters?
“One of the biggest problems facing communities is how to responsibly dispose of these contaminated materials in a manner that does not contribute to the dispersal of PFAS further into the environment,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the nonprofit Delaware Riverkeeper Network.
The chemicals remain almost entirely unregulated at the state and federal levels, leaving communities on their own to navigate treacherous waters. Horsham Township manager Bill Walker has seen what can happen when disposal facilities are publicly named and decline to take any more PFAS waste.
“That could be a problem for authorities if a landfill is spotlighted, (and) they just say, ‘OK, no more,’” Walker said. “Then, all of a sudden, local water departments and sewer departments are saying, ‘Oh my gosh, where do we go? What do we do?’”
Regardless of those concerns, all three affected towns were transparent and open about where their filters are disposed of when asked by this news organization.
The Horsham Water & Sewer Authority said it operates three temporary carbon treatment systems on its wells, along with four permanent systems. Carbon from the permanent systems are “recycled” by the Calgon Carbon Corp., and carbon from the temporary systems is sent to the Covanta Delaware Valley facility in Chester City for incineration.
Tim Hagey, manager for the Warminster Municipal Authority, said his system also sends about 72,000 pounds of PFAS-saturated carbon and resin filters to the Chester facility annually. Christian Jones, director of Warrington Water and Sewer, said the department has not yet needed to use a series of filters it installed, because it relies on water purchased from the North Wales Water Authority, and thus has not yet needed to dispose of carbon.
Most of those asked about the incineration of PFAS in Chester say they believe the facility’s process destroys the chemicals, or is at least the best known disposal process to use. Covanta spokesman James Regan said the plant operates at no less than 1,800 degrees, and at times in excess of 2,000 degrees. Beth Rementer, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, confirmed the facility is “permitted to maintain a minimum gas temperature of 1,800 degrees.”
“They’re designed to handle organic compounds like this,” Regan said of his company’s facilities.
Ash from the incineration process is disposed of in a double-lined landfill, officials said.
Hagey said his understanding also is that the facility’s process destroys PFAS. Michael Pickel, director of compliance and regulatory affairs for the Horsham authority, said it’s the best option available.
“We believe incineration and disposal of the ash in a double-lined landfill is the most reasonable and environmentally acceptable approach to handling the material that exists today,” Pickel wrote in an email.
Roland Weber, an expert on PFAS incineration with POPs Environmental Consulting in Germany, agreed the facility is a good option, if the temperature data is accurate.
“If the incinerator never goes below the 1,800 (degrees) I would see no big issue to destroy activated carbon loaded with PFAS in this facility,” Weber wrote in an email. “I think that incineration is currently the best technology for this waste.”
But that doesn’t completely close the case. The Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council is a coalition of state regulatory groups and scientists that work to develop best environmental practices. The council has been active on PFAS issues, and in March 2018 put out a guide that said while available studies suggested incineration eliminated a handful of target PFAS, “several data gaps” remained.
“For example … whether PFAS are destroyed or simply mobilized is not completely understood,” it added.
Other experts have given voice to those concerns. In an interview with the journalism website The Intercept, Jen Duggan, a lawyer at the Conservation Law Foundation in Vermont, said the existence of data gaps means there isn’t enough science to definitively declare that incineration eliminates PFAS entirely.
“Even if we did know what conditions are required to destroy PFAS, we don’t have monitoring at the stacks to make sure it’s being done properly,” Duggan told the outlet.
Weber added that it’s important to determine “if the incinerator is state of the art and if it can provide stable conditions.”
The Chester facility has received some negative public attention in recent years, including when The New School in New York City named it one of the top-emitting incinerators in the country. Covanta officials pushed back on that assessment, telling radio station WHYY it met all regulations and was constantly upgrading its pollution control systems.
Covanta’s Regan further pointed to a pair of studies that he said shows incineration fully destroys perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), one of the primary PFAS of concern.
But Regan wasn’t aware of any efforts to verify that none of the chemicals in the PFAS family, of which there are thousands, escape from the facility’s stacks.
The DEP’s Rementer also said that while several studies have shown incineration “completely removed” some kinds of PFAS, data gaps still exist.
“DEP is looking into all the available information about thermal treatment of PFAS containing material, as there is limited specific test data to authenticate the appropriate temperature and residence time for the destruction of PFAS,” Rementer wrote in an email.
Covanta and the DEP also appear to have different takes on whether the facility should even be accepting the PFAS waste in the first place, highlighting the lack of clear regulations and best practices around the chemicals. After being asked about PFAS disposal earlier this week, Rementer initially suggested the facility had stepped beyond its permit.
“While Covanta is allowed to accept carbon filters, it would need to have approval from DEP to accept this type of waste,” she wrote.
Asked about the comment, Regan said Covanta had contacted the DEP and asked them to point out which regulations prohibited them from taking the waste, and that the DEP had then “backed off” its initial comments.
Completing the confusing exchange, Rementer responded back that Covanta would need to seek DEP “approval” prior to accepting the waste for incineration, which would involve characterizing the waste and detailing how it would sample for it.
“DEP and the Wolf Administration understand that PFAS contamination is an emerging health concern,” Rementer added. ”(The state) is studying the issue in order to ensure we protect Pennsylvanians, including remediation and disposal of these compounds, which are very persistent in the environment.”
Biosolids also disposed
In addition to carbon filters, the three communities impacted by PFAS contamination also dispose of sludges or biosolids leftover from wastewater treatment plants.
Biosolids must be tested and treated to reduce pollutants and pathogens. Those that meet high quality standards, such as Warminster’s, can be applied to agricultural fields as fertilizer. But there aren’t reliable methods to test biosolids for PFAS.
Studies have shown concentrations of some types of PFAS in soil previously treated with biosolids, and the chemicals can leach into groundwater or be absorbed by plants and food crops. Some, including Carluccio, are concerned about those potential exposure pathways.
Cost to taxpayers is a big factor in what to do with biosolids, Hagey said. It’s about $40 per ton for field application, and about $115 per ton to send them to a landfill.
But the cost to the environment matters, too, he added.
“We’re always concerned about what’s in (the biosolids), because we want to use it in a beneficial way,” Hagey said. “What we do really is an environmental operation at a wastewater treatment plant. We think of that stream as our stream, and that’s how we operate, but we don’t want to pollute anything.”
Like Warminster, Horsham has not been able to test its biosolids for PFAS. But Pickel, with the Horsham authority, assumes the chemicals are present because they have been found in the water the plant treats, although at levels below a 70 parts per trillion (ppt) safety limit established by the EPA for drinking water.
While PFAS are not considered hazardous substances, Pickel said Horsham officials know the hazards the chemicals pose and have tried to dispose of the waste responsibly. The township sends about 15 tons of biosolids a month to a Lancaster County landfill.
“It’s a double-lined landfill that meets all the requirements for municipal waste, leachate, leak detection and all of that,” Pickel said. “So I think that the environment is protected.”
Jones, with the Warrington authority, said sewage sludge from their wastewater treatment plant ends up at either the Hatfield Township Municipal Authority incinerator, or the NAWC Wastewater Treatment Plant in Warminster, where it is dried. The biosolids are then sent to a landfill, according to Jones and the authority’s engineers.
Walker, Horsham’s manager, reiterated his town is doing the best it can to protect public health from contamination it didn’t cause, and relies on regulators to say if there are better options available.
?(The waste) has to go somewhere, so we need our state and federal people to be on top of that,” Walker said. “If it’s not the right disposal method, then we need them to be telling us what is the right way to dispose of it.”
*Original article online at https://www.theintell.com/news/20190802/waste-containing-pfas-chemicals-poses-conundrums