Waste With PFAS Spread On Wisconsin Farmland
Wisconsin wastewater plants were built to keep pollutants out of the environment, but state regulators have come to realize the facilities may be spreading hazardous industrial chemicals in ways that increase health risks.
Normal sewage treatment processes kill bacteria, but they can’t touch highly fluorinated chemicals known by the acronym PFAS, which have been described as one of the most seminal public health challenges of coming decades.
PFAS typically enter the human body in drinking water contaminated by the heaviest users of the chemicals — military bases, fire departments and many manufacturers. One route PFAS takes to drinking water begins at the users’ sewer drains.
Miles of underground sewer lines carry the virtually indestructible synthetic compounds to publicly owned sewage plants, which release them with treated wastewater into public waters and treated sewage sludge that is applied to farm fields as fertilizer.
Operators of Wisconsin treatment plants that handle industrial waste are faced with a challenge because the state has fallen behind others in setting easily enforceable standards for PFAS pollution of water.
In one of several efforts to catch up under new Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, state Department of Natural Resources regulators plan to ask more than 170 public treatment plants with industrial customers to test treated wastewater for 36 kinds of PFAS.
The DNR said it wants to better understand where contamination exists. A similar program of voluntary testing of public treatment plants in Michigan resulted in efforts by manufacturers that reduced PFAS releases. The Michigan program was backed up by enforceable standards.
Local law harder to use
Treatment plants have options. Local ordinances — like the one governing the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District — authorize them to halt industrial releases of hazardous materials. But enforcement could be more difficult than it would be under state or federal standards if polluters resisted potentially costly measures for properly disposing of PFAS.
District managers said they first want to see more research on PFAS risks and advice on testing. They point out that PFAS disposal is costly and problematic. And they are lobbying for federal PFAS standards, questioning how strict the limits need to be, and seeking assurances that land parcels contaminated with “low levels” of PFAS won’t be declared Superfund sites that carry cleanup costs and public stigma.
“We’re taking this issue very seriously,” said Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District Chief Engineer and Director Michael Mucha. “There are a lot of interests at play here, and for us to be making these kinds of decisions not knowing all the facts is an uncomfortable area to be in.”
It will be important to stop any contamination at its source, Mucha said. If the district couldn’t annually spread its 37 million gallons of sewage sludge — called biosolids — on 5,000 acres of fields where crops are grown to feed farm animals, disposing of it would be costly. Removing PFAS from sludge and incinerating it would add to costs while posing environmental risks, he said.
A Madison conservationist who helped bring to light PFAS contamination in Madison said there’s no excuse for not testing wastewater, especially considering the high price farmers could pay if their crops are found to be contaminated with PFAS.
“There’s also a high cost in the health of the wildlife and humans exposed to the PFAS that enters the food chain or eventually washes off these fields into waterways and fish,” said Midwest Environmental Justice Organization director Maria Powell. “Which costs are more important? Who should bear the burden of these costs?”
Powell said failure to test wastewater parallels the inaction of federal, state or local governments to determine how far PFAS has spread from the Truax Air National Guard base. It was measured under the base in 2017 at 40,000 parts per trillion, more than 500 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.
Mucha said there was uncertainty about how to test wastewater for PFAS. But DNR water quality manager Adrian Stocks said the state Laboratory of Hygiene can analyze water, soil or biosolids for PFAS. The DNR was expected this summer to finalize standards for private labs to use.
No matter how much or little PFAS is in sewage from industries in the Madison area, there’s no doubt that much of the water from nine PFAS-tainted city wells is going down drains in homes and businesses to the treatment plant, Powell said.
“Shouldn’t the priority be on assessing how much PFAS is coming into the plant, being released from the plant into waterways and being spread on farmland?” Powell said. “We need this information as soon as possible to assess risks to public and environmental health.”
Tainted sludge in Marinette
One Wisconsin community, Marinette, in the northeast corner of the state, stopped distributing its sludge to farmers after it tested a sewer line coming from a Johnson Controls subsidiary, Tyco Fire Products, which manufactures PFAS-based firefighting foam that has contaminated drinking water.
There were high levels of PFAS coming from Tyco. It was also detected in sludge at the plant. At the DNR’s request, the plant has been storing the sludge. Tyco plans to separate it into liquid and solid material. The solids would be incinerated and the liquids run through a carbon filter to remove the chemicals, plant manager Warren Howard said.
Experts say drinking water is the main way people ingest PFAS. Among the major polluters are military bases, firefighter training sites, metal plating companies, and manufacturers of paper products, leather goods, textiles, industrial surfactants, resins, molds, plastics, wire, semiconductors and equipment for photolithography, according to the nonprofit Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council.
Nineteen states set PFAS rules
An estimated 5 million to 10 million people in at least 33 states have been exposed to PFAS in drinking water.
Some members of Congress are pushing for federal limits to help enable cleanups, but there has been resistance from the Department of Defense, which is facing cleanups at hundreds of bases where PFAS-based firefighting foam has been used.
Nineteen states have set PFAS limits or guidelines for PFAS in water. Most took the actions between 2015 and 2017. In March, Maine became the first to require testing of sewage sludge that is spread on the land.
Last year, Michigan required wastewater testing for PFAS and found 250 metal finishing companies releasing the compounds into sewer lines at levels up to thousands of times higher than state water standards.
High concentrations were also found coming down sewer lines from military bases, fire stations, refineries, landfills, industrial laundries and sites where paint, paper products and medical supplies were made.
Wisconsin late and moving slowly
Wisconsin has begun much later than many other states in taking initial steps toward setting PFAS standards.
The administration of former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker postponed the start of the process here until early last year. State toxicologists recommended groundwater limits for two of the 4,000 or more PFAS compounds, but under Walker-era laws, it will take two or three years before they could be considered for final approval.
A proposed law written with the assistance of the DNR and the state Department of Health Services, and which is based on what other states are doing, would speed up the setting of limits and efforts to find out where drinking water is contaminated. It has dozens of Democratic co-sponsors, but no such support from Republicans, who control the state Legislature.
For more information on PFAS, visit the PFAS Resource Center by clicking here.