BOSTON – Environmentalists and lawmakers are raising alarms about chemical-laden wastewater from a New Hampshire landfill being dumped into the Merrimack River.
Concerns were sparked by a recent decision by state and federal regulators to renew a permit for the Turnkey landfill in Rochester, New Hampshire, to dispose of polluted wastewater runoff at a Lowell treatment plant. The sewage plant is permitted to empty processed wastewater into the Merrimack, a source of drinking water for more 600,000 people.
The new permit, issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, allows the plant to accept up to 100,000 gallons of wastewater a day from the landfill, which is operated by Texas-based Waste Management.
Regulators approved the permit in September, despite concerns from environmental groups that the wastewater was contaminated with chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. The compounds have been dubbed "forever chemicals" because they take thousands of years to degrade and accumulate in the human body.
"These are really scary toxic chemicals, and they don't leave our bodies," said Caitlin Peale Sloan, senior staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, which is fighting Turnkey in a New Hampshire court over pollution and plans to expand the landfill. "This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, but the regulators are still playing catch up."
In response to comments about the landfill's contract with the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility, EPA officials noted the new five-year permit "does not require monitoring for these pollutants" but that "EPA may require monitoring in a subsequent permit." The permit goes into effect at the end of the month.
"It's deeply disturbing, on so many levels, that these chemicals are being dumped in our beloved Merrimack River," said Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen. "It's unacceptable."
Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said state regulators are testing discharges into the river from the Lowell treatment plant to check for contamination. Results from those tests are expected within the next few weeks, he said.
Coletta noted that drinking water treatment facilities serving Andover, Lawrence, Methuen and Tewksbury have the technology to remove PFAS contamination if it is found in their raw water supplies.
He added Gov. Charlie Baker's administration has provided more than $60 million on state grants to help communities test for PFAs, lead and other contaminants in drinking water supplies.
Waste Management spokesman Garrett Trierweiler said the firm is "in compliance with all terms and conditions of the permit and is prepared to meet any and all future requirements."
He said the company is "in the process of evaluating treatment technologies to address these compounds" but pointed out they're not required to do so.
"There are no wastewater standards for these compounds at this time, and when they are established, we intend to meet them," he said.
While the EPA permit allows delivery of up to 100,000 gallons a day, last year the company only sent one-tenth of 1% of maximum amount allowed under its permit to the Lowell treatment plant, he added.
It's not clear why the landfill is sending the wastewater to Massachusetts. Tougher rules in New Hampshire could be one factor.
The Granite State has set some of the toughest PFAS drinking-water limits in the country. Adopted by state regulators earlier this year, the new rules limit the chemicals to a maximum of 15 parts per trillion.
That's far lower than the 70 parts per trillion drinking water standard set by the EPA.
Federal regulators say tests of drinking water in 2014 in several Merrimack Valley communities – including Lawrence and Andover – didn't detect unsafe amounts of PFAS.
But, in filings with the EPA, landfill operators noted that recent tests of wastewater revealed contamination levels of nearly 10,000 parts per trillion.
The EPA set its PFAS standards three years ago, classifying the compounds as an "emerging contaminant" linked to liver cancer and other serious health problems.
Studies have found potential links between high levels of PFAS and a range of illnesses, including kidney cancer, increased cholesterol levels and problems in pregnancies.
John Macone, co-director of the Merrimack River Watershed Council, said part of the problem is that most wastewater treatment plants lack technology to filter the contaminants out of the water.
"It's an expensive process and our treatment plants aren't really built for it because it's new," he said. "But we clearly need to deal with this to protect public health and the river's ecology."
The Merrimack is one of the state's most polluted rivers, with much of its contamination coming from overflow pipes that are part of decades-old sewer and stormwater systems. The outfalls, which are designed to spill when the systems are inundated with rain, violate the federal Clean Water Act, but the plants are allowed use them under consent agreements.
Last year, five treatment plants along the 117-mile Merrimack reported hundreds of discharges, amounting to more than 800 million gallons of sewage dumped into the river.
The EPA is requiring operators of three sewage treatment systems along the Merrimack River – Greater Lawrence Sanitary District in North Andover, Haverhill's treatment plant and another plant in Lowell – to reduce the bacteria flowing into the river.
Those requirements are part of renewed operating permits for those three plants.
Meanwhile, Congress is debating whether to force the Trump administration to adopt more stringent standards for testing and clean-up of PFAs -- a plan the White House opposes.
Environmentalists said regulators need to get a handle on the level of contamination in the state's drinking water supplies and take action to reduce it.
"We really need to see some action on this issue," said CLF's Peale Sloan. "The regulators need to set more stringent limits for these chemicals to protect human health."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com