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Leachate from landfills is contaminated with PFAS chemicals at hundreds of times the state’s drinking water limit

Runoff from the state’s active and inactive landfills contains PFAS ‘non-stick’ chemicals at hundreds of times the levels deemed a health risk in drinking water.

While state officials are cracking down on two PFAS compounds in public tap water, they are withholding landfill pollution data from the public as they assess how much it contributes to the contamination.

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New York is a leader among the states in requiring the cleanup of any drinking water tainted by PFOA and PFOS in excess of 10 parts per trillion. And state health officials are seeking to apply that same remediation standard to four other compounds in the PFAS class that includes thousands of potentially harmful variants.

Also, under a new law, the state’s 3,000 water systems will soon be required to notify customers when any of 23 PFAS compounds are found in their water.

Even at a few parts per trillion, exposure to PFAS compounds found is everyday products such as Teflon pans, water-resistant jackets, cosmetics and even dental floss has been linked to cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.

The latest public data on PFAS contamination at the state’s biggest landfills is four years old. It comes from the results of tests conducted by TestAmerica in March and April 2018 obtained under the Freedom of Information Law.

Active landfills typically send their runoff, or leachate, to local municipal wastewater treatment plants, which discharge it virtually untreated into state waterways.

The 2018 tests showed that leachate from Seneca Meadows, the state’s largest municipal solid waste landfill, contained PFOA at 1,690 parts per trillion.

One Seneca Meadows sample showed PFBS, a replacement chemical for PFOS (which has been phased out by manufacturers), at 15,200 ppt, while another showed PFBS at 9,190 ppt.

Samples from the Ontario County Landfill, the state’s third largest MSW dump, showed PFOA of 3,270 ppt and four other PFAS compounds in excess 2,000 ppt.

Most of the 2018 tests of the state’s other large MSW landfills showed PFAS contamination at least 200 times the state’s 10 ppt drinking water limit. (The state’s FOIL response omitted data on High Acres, the state’s second largest MSW landfill, and Chemung Landfill, the ninth largest.)

Updated results since 2018 — if there are any — have not been made public.

But the state Department of Health has been quietly assessing the impacts of landfill PFAS.

In September 2019, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded $6 million in grant money to seven universities and the New York DOH to study PFAS in landfill leachate and municipal wastewater.

But when Hammondsport attorney Rachel Treichler sought details of that DOH study — now in its third year — she was rebuffed. The state agency denied her FOIL request, saying: “The research project is ongoing and no project results or conclusions have been established at this time. It is suggested that you re-file your FOIL request at a later date.”

Meanwhile, nearly half of the state’s 1,901 inactive landfills have combined PFOA and PFOS totals above 70 ppt, according to a May 2021 analysis by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

“Overall, the results of this investigation have shown that the presence of PFAS compounds in groundwater near inactive landfill facilities is relatively common,” the DEC said. “…Inactive landfills do have the potential to impact drinking water sources.”

The DEC prioritized closed landfill sites that showed high PFAS readings in both landfill groundwater and nearby drinking water samples. That list included several inactive dumps in the Hudson Valley and four near Rochester — in Perinton, Fairport and two in Palmyra.

A few of the large active landfills that have shown PFAS readings above 2,000 ppt have applied to the DEC for major expansions. That includes Seneca Meadows in Seneca Falls, the Hakes C&D Landfill in Campbell and the Hyland Landfill in Angelica.

TestAmerica results from 2018 showed Hyland samples with PFOA of 2,510 ppt., and other PFAS compounds even higher. While TestAmerica results weren’t available for Hakes, that landfill’s 2020 annual report showed PFOA of 1,200 ppt, PFHxA of 3,900 and PFPeA of 3,500. An email request for the landfill’s 2021 annual report was not returned.

Bids by Casella Waste Industries, owner of Hyland and Hakes, to expand its facilities will trigger exhaustive environmental reviews, but not necessarily any examination of PFAS contamination.

Casella wants to expand Hyland’s waste capacity from 465,000 tons of waste to 1 million tons. If the DEC allows it, the landfill would become the state’s fourth largest MSW landfill — up from No. 8.

Under relatively recent state rules, the issues that may be considered in a formal environmental impact statement must first be specified in a final “scoping” document. Draft scoping documents prepared by Casella do not include PFAS as an issue to be reviewed.

While the DEC has allowed public comment on the Casella drafts, it has not allowed the public to review the company’s formal application to expand, a hydrogeological investigation report, or other documents required by law.

Environmental advocates have asked the DEC to provide the required items before it approves the final scoping document.

In a Feb. 22, 2022 letter to the DEC, the Sierra Club notes that state regulations require “all relevant issues” to be raised before the issuance of a final written scope. “This cannot be done if the application materials are not available for public review,” the letter says.

In a letter four months earlier, Sierra Club made a similar plea concerning the proposed 43.3-acre expansion of the Hakes C&D landfill, which would involve closing or rerouting an important local thoroughfare, Manning Road.

That scoping process is also underway before certain required application documents are available to the public, the group claims.

Five years ago, Roger Downs of the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter, voiced concerns at a DEC public hearing on agency plans to “streamline” regulations, including scoping rules, under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).

“The department is unnecessarily weakening the thoroughness of reviews and creating an incentive for applicants to withhold concerning information about a project until after the final scoping document is complete,” Downs said at a Mar. 31, 2017 DEC hearing.

Downs said an agency decision to withhold application documents until after final scoping is completed for Hakes would deny the public the opportunity to comment on final plans for Manning Road or any potential issues raised by the required hydrogeological study.

Despite such objections, the DEC is proceeding with the scoping process for both the Hyland and Hakes expansions before allowing public access to Casella’s formal applications or other SEQRA-required documents.

But the agency hasn’t approved a final scoping document for either project.

The DEC recently issued the following statement to WaterFront:

“In accordance with SEQRA, DEC will review all public comments submitted and all relevant issues raised during the scoping process will be described and evaluated in the draft supplemental impact statements for the proposals.” (Read the entire DEC statement.)

In 2020, the Cuomo Administration’s DEC granted Hakes permission to add about 21 acres after explicitly excluding from that project’s final scoping document any discussion of radiological issues.

Radiation issues had been the public’s primary concern due to Hakes’ acceptance of drill cuttings imported from fracked Marcellus shale gas wells in Pennsylvania. The Marcellus shale is among the most highly radioactive of the nation’s shale formations, and independent experts noted the presence of tell-tale isotopes in Hakes leachate.

Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute of Health & the Environment at the University of Albany, said the evidence pointed to “a huge reservoir of radioactivity in the landfill.”

Disregarding those warnings, the DEC allowed the landfill to discontinue testing for the specific red-flag isotopes while approving a final scoping document that excluded radiological issues.

According to the DEC’s SEQRA handbook, fourth edition, 2020, “There is nothing in the regulations to prevent a project sponsor from preparing and submitting a proposed final written scope.”

But the DEC has responsibility for the final scoping document.