For Waste Industry, PFAS Disposal Leads to Controversy, Regulation, Mounting Costs

November 18, 2020

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Municipal biosolids being deposited on a cornfield in Canada’s Quebec province. The EPA found such biosolids are the likely source of PFAS in some food crops and animal feed. Photo: North East Biosolids and Residuals Association. Click to enlarge.

Feature: For Waste Industry, PFAS Disposal Leads to Controversy, Regulation, Mounting Costs

By E.A. Crunden

Few issues are more pressing for the waste industry right now than contamination by so-called “forever chemicals.” Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are in numerous household and industrial products, and grappling with the issue has become unavoidable for those who handle the waste stream.

Every major waste conference I have covered (virtually and otherwise) since last fall for Waste Dive has included at least one session devoted to PFAS and sometimes several. 

David Biderman, president and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, told me in an email last February how some in the industry felt about the issue: “PFAS could have as much of an impact on landfills as National Sword is having on recycling.” 

Biderman was referring to the 2018 Chinese National Sword policy that banned imports of certain solid waste and established contamination limits on recyclable materials, a move that destabilized and upended global recycling markets.


The exchange kicked off a months-long

reporting process looking at how

PFAS are impacting the landfill and 

incineration sectors, as well as organics.


For me, the exchange with Biderman kicked off a months-long reporting process looking at how PFAS are impacting the landfill and incineration sectors, as well as organics, which includes composting and biosolids. 

I focused chiefly on financial implications — a key area of interest for my industry and local government readership — along with concerns about health and environmental risks.


Organics sector looking to head off problems

Industry representatives most willing to speak with me came from the organics sector, where impacts from PFAS have varied. Communities in Michigan, North Carolina, Minnesota and elsewhere have found PFAS in compost, largely from food packaging. That issue thus far has generated minimal cost impacts to date for composters. 

Still, the sector is looking to head off problems, as scrutiny mounts from lawmakers and regulators. San Francisco has banned food packaging containing PFAS, and laws in both Maine and Washington allow for a similar prohibition once a viable alternative is identified by the state. 

This year, the Biodegradable Products Institute stopped certifying products and packaging as compostable if they contain intentionally added PFAS — a step composters hope will mitigate contamination.

Concerns are much more widespread in the biosolids world, which deals with the organic materials leftover from the treatment of sewage. Staff with the North East Biosolids & Residuals Association, or NEBRA, devoted up to half of their time working on PFAS issues in 2019 and are on track to do the same in 2020. 

NEBRA operates largely in New England and is grappling with fallout from a 2019 Maine memorandum essentially banning biosolids land application due to PFAS. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, around 60 percent of municipal biosolids are applied to land nationwide and are the likely source of PFAS in some food crops and animal feed.


Municipal wastewater treatment plants

produce biosolids and inevitably pass along

PFAS from consumer and industrial sources.


Municipal wastewater treatment plants produce biosolids and inevitably pass along PFAS from consumer and industrial sources. Some facilities concerned about PFAS have seen swift financial consequences as they have sought to head off regulations. Concord, N.H., for example, has seen its sludge management costs increase by $500,000 after the city opted to send biosolids to Canada for disposal. 

Many NEBRA members are worried about similar costs in the future. NEBRA Executive Director Janine Burke-Wells presents the situation as a trade-off — sending organics to a landfill might redirect the location of PFAS, but it will also lead to emissions spikes while hitting a sector associated with climate benefits.

A number of environmental groups see the situation differently. Researchers with the Environmental Working Group and other organizations are sympathetic to the challenges the waste industry is facing — but they are calling for new regulations and laws. 

The waste industry and activists alike largely agree chemical manufacturers should have to finance PFAS cleanup and mitigation. Two PFAS manufacturers, the former E.I. DuPont de Nemours and its spinoff Chemours, did not respond when I asked for comment. A third, 3M, declined to comment.


Disposal is key concern

Concern over PFAS in organics inevitably links to disposal of these nutrient-rich materials. Landfills and incineration are the major options. While I was reporting this series, a Bennington College professor and his students found PFAS near an incinerator run by Norlite Corp. in Cohoes, N.Y. They announced those findings in April. 

Testing done near an incinerator in Cohoes, N.Y., found PFAS close to a public housing complex. Photo: wadester16, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Months later, public outcry about EPA’s plans to study how PFAS in municipal solid waste react to incineration in Rahway, N.J., prompted cancellation of the study.

Those two facilities differ. The Norlite incinerator processes hazardous waste into fuel for cement kilns. It had a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to incinerate PFAS-laden aqueous firefighting foam, or AFFF. By contrast, the Rahway incinerator operated by Covanta burns municipal solid waste. 

But they shared common themes. The Cohoes incinerator is adjacent to a public housing complex and the nearby Rahway community is largely Black and low income. Both facilities provoked community discord with their respective state environmental agency. 

And regulatory agencies were defensive. New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC, criticized the science behind the Cohoes data. New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, maintained that the planned incineration test would have been safe and yielded important findings. 

Covanta told me the proposed Rahway study was already facing challenges, as the facility owner, Union County Utilities Authority, had not given approval for the test. Both the company and New Jersey DEP were clear that no actual PFAS would have been intentionally placed in the incinerator. The plan was to use surrogate compounds with similar structures. They intended to monitor PFAS content in solid waste as it entered the facility. 

Companies with incineration and waste-to-energy business largely resisted interviews. Covanta did speak with me and noted the New York DEC’s criticism of the Cohoes findings. Still, Covanta and another waste disposal company, Clean Harbors, made clear distinctions between their facilities and Norlite’s. Phillip Retallick, senior vice president of compliance and regulatory affairs for Clean Harbors, said there were “technical, thermodynamic, and operational differences” between its typical facilities and the kiln design used in Cohoes.


Landfills play central role

Controversy over incinerating PFAS, and the potential for organics disposal due to contamination, underscore the role landfills play in this conversation. Even if waste is incinerated, the resulting ash still requires a final disposal site.


Landfills have a symbiotic relationship with

wastewater treatment plants. Landfills send

leachate to be treated and the wastewater

plants send organic materials to landfills.


Looking at how landfills deal with PFAS ultimately required the most reporting. Multiple experts noted landfills have a symbiotic relationship with wastewater treatment plants. Landfills send leachate to be treated and the wastewater plants send organic materials to landfills. 

That dynamic is causing problems for municipalities. The Marathon County Solid Waste Department in Wisconsin sent leachate for treatment to the same facility for decades, said Meleesa Johnson, the department’s director. 

That was before PFAS concerns led the wastewater plant to terminate that arrangement with the department in 2019. Johnson quickly had to seek a new location for treatment of 17 million gallons of leachate a year. With transportation costs to three treatment facilities, her budget for leachate treatment has now increased from $350,000 to over $1 million annually.

Despite the higher price tag, that new arrangement is not curbing PFAS releases. 

“It doesn’t even change the amount of PFAS being discharged into the Wisconsin River. It changes the location,” Johnson told me.

Johnson acknowledged the health risks PFAS pose. Her concerns hinge on the outsized expenses municipalities are facing and what she feels is an unfair public perception that landfills are a source of PFAS rather than a receiver of waste. Johnson is part of an informal group of solid waste stakeholders that formed last year seeking to combat those perceptions. 


Financial filings, public records yield insights

Public facility operators like Johnson were candid about their struggles. Speaking with large companies was more challenging. For instance, Waste Management, the largest waste company in the United States, sent me a few sentences via email about its commitment to the environment. 

The second-largest company, Republic Services, declined to comment at all. Other major landfill operators did not respond to multiple inquiries, with the exception of Casella.

Without many interviews with landfill businesses, I turned to other indicators of how PFAS might be impacting companies. In annual 10-K filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, I discovered Waste Management and Republic were lobbying on PFAS policy at the federal level. Those companies also named PFAS as a potential risk for their financial well-being.

I also filed public records requests in several states. A November 2019 article in The Boston Globe (may require subscription) called attention to PFAS in leachate from a Waste Management site in New Hampshire. Wastewater treatment plants in Maine and Massachusetts came under scrutiny for accepting that leachate and then discharging into nearby rivers. 

I requested email exchanges in all three states, seeking how officials approached the controversy. New Hampshire proved challenging. After connecting once, the department did not respond to my attempts to follow up. Multiple follow-ups to Maine and Massachusetts, however, ultimately yielded the documents I was seeking. 

They proved revealing: conversations in the documents relating to the Waste Management landfill indicated officials in Massachusetts were concerned about PFAS in the waste stream. Still, testing in the state indicated PFAS from the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility entering a river did not correlate to significant amounts of the chemicals in drinking water. 

Maine officials had conversations similar to those in Massachusetts. In one notable exchange, a wastewater treatment plant offered itself to Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, as a possible regional destination for PFAS-laden waste. A Maine DEP spokesperson told me phone conversations occurred about this possibility but said nothing more, although email exchanges with the wastewater treatment plant showed Waste Management has expressed interest in the idea.


Possible solutions for treating leachate

Another landfill, owned and operated by Casella in Vermont, also caught my eye. A community group is at odds with the company over the presence of PFAS at the site, among other issues. 

I requested any relevant email exchanges regarding that situation as well. Vermont complied with my request within a few weeks. Those emails showed how the state is scrutinizing PFAS in the waste stream, including Casella’s landfill — giving me insight into how the complexities of  PFAS disposal are impacting both public and private operators. 

The documents were hugely beneficial for my reporting. They also left me curious about solutions, as treatment for PFAS in leachate is an emerging area. Several technologies raised in the email exchanges also came up repeatedly in interviews. They include water treatments such as reverse osmosis, ion exchange and granular activated carbon. 

Engineers that I spoke with were cautious about those treatments, given the composition of leachate. They told me multiple types of technologies are typically needed, and the end result is often only to remove the PFAS from liquid. Used filters or concentrated liquid waste with PFAS still need to be disposed of. 

Cost is also prohibitive. No one could give me a definitive number, but most agreed that prices depend on multiple factors. Johnson of Marathon County told me one treatment her department explored would have cost $2 million in infrastructure or capital costs, followed by an additional $350,000 to $450,000 in annual operating expenses. 


Incineration is among the most costly

options, although it might be the

only one available for those seeking

near-complete destruction of PFAS.


Experts repeatedly said incineration was among the most costly options, although several indicated it might be the only available option for those seeking near-complete destruction of PFAS.

Most in the waste industry are conducting research and development to provide new solutions in the next five to seven years. A spokesperson for the EPA confirmed the agency is studying a number of treatment and mitigation options. A priority for the EPA  is handling AFFF, as the military seeks to safely dispose of the foam without creating a situation like the one in Cohoes. 

The email exchanges I obtained are posted here for public use and may prove useful for other reporters seeking to do their own coverage of this complex issue. 

Many questions still linger around PFAS, including the role state laws and regulations will play. Those trends and events will shape the future of PFAS disposal in the United States.

[Editor's Note: For more, read Crunden's three-story series in Waste Dive. Plus, check out this SEJournal PFAS primer to help with your reporting.]

E.A. (Ev) Crunden is a reporter, formerly with Waste Dive and now with E&E News. Crunden previously reported on climate and environmental issues from Puerto Rico and areas all over the country, including their home state, Texas. Ev holds a B.A. from Smith College and an M.A. from Johns Hopkins University.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 42. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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