Runoff from the Decatur-Morgan County Regional Landfill, which ends up in the Tennessee River, is contaminated with industrial chemicals linked to cancer and other illnesses at levels hundreds of times the concentrations deemed safe in drinking water.
The landfill reported the data last month in a report to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
A separate report produced by ADEM in response to a request from The Decatur Daily revealed that tissue from fish caught in Wheeler Reservoir and Baker’s Creek, which is adjacent to 3M Co. and other industries that have used the chemicals, have tens of thousands times higher concentrations of the chemicals than deemed safe in drinking water.
These reports and one also submitted last month by a Lawrence County landfill are part of an effort by ADEM to reduce the levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, which contaminate Wheeler Reservoir and affect downstream drinking water and fish. The reports demonstrate the persistence of the PFAS contamination locally but also outline measures being taken to contain these “forever chemicals” once used by 3M, Daikin and other Decatur industries.
PFAS are referred to as “forever chemicals” because they do not decompose. At least with current technology, the chemicals can be moved around, from drinking water to a specialized filter, for example, but the PFAS remains.
“They’re like marbles. They don’t biodegrade. They don’t go away. It’s just a matter of shooting one marble out at a time versus dumping the whole bag,” said Mark Heflin, superintendent of Moulton Utilities wastewater treatment plant, which is struggling to deal with the contaminants it received in leachate from Morris Farms.
The durability of PFAS can create an unending cycle. For example, the regional landfill runoff containing PFAS is piped to the Decatur Utilities Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is not designed to remove them. DU discharges the liquids into the river and returns the sludge to the landfill. Both the liquids and sludge still contain PFAS, and the sludge can contaminate runoff anew and restart the cycle.
The DU wastewater treatment plant also receives contaminated runoff, or leachate, from Morris Farms Landfill in Hillsboro, owned by BFI Waste Systems of Alabama LLC. The report Morris Farms filed with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management last month did not list concentrations, but a report last year said the concentration in leachate from one of its cells was thousands of times the levels deemed safe in drinking water.
There are hundreds of PFAS still being manufactured, but the focus of health and environmental studies has been on two of them: PFOA and PFOS, which the Environmental Protection Agency classifies as "emerging contaminants." They have been around the longest and are no longer used by Decatur industries, but they are in landfills, soil and groundwater. Numerous studies link them to testicular and kidney cancer, low birth weight, immune-system problems, cholesterol issues and infertility.
Because it takes the chemicals years to leave the body, they tend to bio-accumulate in the organs and tissue of humans and fish.
Historically, Decatur companies like 3M and Daikin deposited much of their PFAS waste in the city-owned Decatur-Morgan landfill near Trinity and Morris Farms Landfill in Hillsboro.
Evaluating PFOA and PFOS concentrations is tricky, mainly because there is no universally accepted standard. The EPA in 2016 for the first time published a nonbinding standard of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS combined. Long-term consumption of drinking water with levels higher than this raised health concerns, according to the EPA.
Neither the EPA nor ADEM have placed regulatory limits on how much PFAS can be dumped into the river or what levels are safe for consumption in fish, although the EPA this year announced it is considering regulatory action. Because the EPA's only current standard is for drinking water, PFAS levels in other substances are typically expressed as a multiple of the drinking water standard.
The Decatur-Morgan landfill’s preliminary estimate on PFOA/PFOS levels in its leachate in the second quarter of 2019 was 17,600 parts per trillion, 251 times the EPA level, according to its July 29 report.
In the first quarter of 2019, its combined PFOA/PFOS levels in leachate were 257,000 parts per trillion — or 3,671 times the EPA recommendation on safe levels in drinking water, according to the report.
Morris Farms, which did not respond to a request for comment, filed an ADEM update July 27. While it did not include current PFOA/PFOS concentrations in leachate, a report it filed last year showed wide variations depending on the cell from which the leachate samples were collected. The highest concentrations, from an older cell, showed levels of 1,130,000 parts per trillion, or more than 16,000 times the EPA’s recommended levels in drinking water.
It’s an endless contamination circle, with the only contaminant reduction coming when it enters the place that nobody wants it: the river. There it contributes to ongoing fish-consumption advisories and to the high levels of PFAS downstream at the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority water intake.
West Morgan-East Lawrence is now filtering out PFAS with activated carbon, and in 2021 will bring online a high-tech and more effective reverse osmosis filtration system. The filtration systems yield sludge and used filtration medium with high PFAS concentrations — which West Morgan-East Lawrence will dispose of in a landfill, continuing the contamination circle.
In an effort to interrupt this PFAS circle, ADEM in 2017 required Morris Farms and Decatur-Morgan County Regional Landfill to develop plans for the reduction of PFOA and PFOS. The goal was to reduce levels reaching the DU wastewater treatment plant and thereby reduce contamination of the river. The reports the landfills filed last month were pursuant to this requirement.
Parallel with ADEM’s effort is a lawsuit filed in 2002 in Morgan County Circuit Court by James St. John Jr., who was then a 3M employee. What began as a workers compensation claim related to St. Johns’ exposure to PFAS at the worksite has evolved into massive and complex litigation with dozens of plaintiffs and defendants. Along with a federal lawsuit filed by Tennessee Riverkeeper, it is in mediation. The subject of mediation in both cases is how the defendants — including 3M, Daikin, Morris Fams and the city of Decatur — can reduce PFAS levels in the river and environment.
Both landfills have taken various steps to reduce the migration of PFOA and PFOS to the wastewater treatment plant.
“Pilot studies are currently being performed at the leachate holding pond to determine the best and most feasible methods of PFAS reduction from the leachate discharge to the (DU wastewater treatment plant),” according to the Decatur-Morgan report, drafted for the landfill by Nathan Tomberlin of Pugh Wright McAnally Inc.
Tomberlin and landfill manager Rickey Terry declined comment because of the pending litigation, referring questions to attorney Barney Lovelace.
“As part of the joint mediation in the St. John state court case and the Tennessee Riverkeeper case, which mediation by court rules is confidential, there is a pilot study being done to see if there is an efficient and reasonably cost-effective method to pre-treat leachate from a landfill to remove or substantially remove PFAS before that leachate is otherwise disposed of,” Lovelace said last week in an email.
Another approach is to reduce the amount of leachate, especially in cells known to have high levels of PFAS. In the first two quarters of 2019, according to its report to ADEM, the Decatur-Morgan landfill discharged 3.3 million gallons of leachate to the DU wastewater treatment plant. Both the Decatur-Morgan and Morris Farms landfills are seeking to reduce the amount of discharged leachate by capping the cells, thus reducing the amount of rainwater that seeps through the contaminated waste.
The Decatur-Morgan landfill spent $4.7 million to cap cells “which are believed to contain the majority levels of (PFAS) within the landfill,” according to a report it filed with ADEM last year.
Like Decatur-Morgan, Morris Farms’ main response is to reduce the amount of leachate from the highly contaminated cells. In the report it filed last month, Morris Farms said it has completed the capping of the cell that had the highest PFAS concentrations in leachate, and has capped most of another cell that had high concentrations.
While both landfills advised ADEM they continue to look for cost-effective methods of removing PFAS from leachate, both have been pessimistic.
After working with Decatur-Morgan landfill, Morris Farms reported last year, “it has been concluded treatment options have not yet presented a cost-effective option to reduce (PFAS) levels from leachate.”
ADEM has also taken steps to reduce PFAS contamination of the river from 3M property, where contaminated sludge was dumped on the soil for years. 3M entered into an agreement with ADEM “which committed 3M to installing a multilayer cap over the former sludge incorporation area where sludge that contained PFOA and PFOS was applied in the past and to installing groundwater recovery wells at a portion of the site,” said ADEM spokeswoman Lynn Battle.
Pursuant to that agreement, according to 3M filings with ADEM, it has installed liners over 287 acres to prevent rain from leaching the chemicals into the groundwater and then into the river.
Notwithstanding those efforts, river contamination is ongoing, both from 3M runoff, from the landfill leachate discharged through the DU wastewater treatment plant, and from other sources like closed dump sites.
In response to a request from The Decatur Daily, ADEM last week produced underlying PFOS data that led to a fish-consumption advisory earlier this year in much of Wheeler Reservoir and in several creeks that feed into it.
One of the advisories was on Baker’s Creek, which adjoins 3M and Daikin. The tissue in largemouth bass caught in Baker’s Creek had PFOS levels ranging from 1,695,000 parts per trillion to 7,575,000 parts per trillion, the latter more than 100,000 times the levels deemed safe in EPA’s long-term drinking water advisory. Spotted bass had PFOS levels ranging from 415,000 to 1,055,000 part per trillion.
In Wheeler Reservoir downstream of Baker’s Creek, largemouth bass had PFOS levels ranging from 116,000 to 1,005,000 parts per trillion, the latter more than 14,000 times the EPA drinking water advisory.
Heflin said Moulton’s wastewater treatment plant is caught in the middle.
“We inherited (PFAS) from the landfill. We took leachate from Morris Farms Landfill, and Morris Farms was taking waste streams from the Decatur area. That’s how we got it,” Heflin said.
The leachate was placed in a lagoon where, after the sludge settled, the treated liquid was discharged into Crow Branch. Crow Branch goes to Big Nance Creek, he said, which flows into the Tennessee River. Heflin stopped accepting leachate from the landfill in 2012.
“It’s basically just long-term sludge storage,” Heflin said of the lagoon.
But the lagoon is almost full of sludge, and the sludge is heavily contaminated with PFAS.
“A simple dredge of the lagoon and hauling it to the landfill became very expensive because of what was in it,” Heflin said. “It’s going to cost a tremendous amount of money. It will cost $1 million just to dredge the lagoon. That’s just to dredge it.”
He said it could cost $15 million to adequately deal with the contamination, which would include removing not only the sludge but the contaminated soil, disposing of it at a landfill, and installing a liner along the bedrock to prevent the risk of groundwater contamination.
That’s an enormous amount of money, he explained, for a plant with 1,300 customers.
“I’m hoping one day before I retire to see this a reality and make it happen, to close this thing out for good,” Heflin said. “It’s just a slow process. I believe it’s going to happen, I just believe it’s going to take time.”