Sampling by the Waterkeeper Alliance has turned up more waterways laced with toxic “forever chemicals,” including more than a dozen in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Per– and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been found in 83% of waterways sampled in 29 states and Washington, DC, the alliance reported on Oct. 18. Many had detections of up to 35 different compounds.
In the Chesapeake watershed, the group’s sampling identified detectable levels of PFAS in the Anacostia River in DC, 10 rivers and streams in Maryland, three tributaries of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, tributaries of the James and Shenandoah rivers in Virginia and one Potomac River tributary in West Virginia.
PFAS are a group of thousands of widely used and highly persistent chemicals. Some have been found to cause health problems, including decreased fertility, developmental delays, weakened immune systems and increased risk of some cancers. They’ve been detected in the nation’s private wells and public water systems, including the Bay watershed.
“When we began testing waterways for PFAS earlier this year, we knew that our country had a significant PFAS problem, but these findings confirm that was an understatement,” said Marc Yaggi, CEO of the Waterkeeper Alliance. “This is a widespread public health and environmental crisis that must be addressed immediately by Congress and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”
The EPA has yet to set an enforceable national limit on any PFAS in drinking water, though it has recommended limiting the two most frequently detected compounds, known as PFOA and PFOS. In June, it updated those advisory levels dramatically downward, essentially declaring any detectable level of each a health risk if consumed over a lifetime.
The EPA also has proposed but not finalized limits on PFOA and PFOS in freshwater to protect fish and aquatic life.
PFAS have been previously reported in several Bay watershed streams, including Antietam and Piscataway creeks in Maryland and Opequon Creek in West Virginia.
The waterkeeper report said the highest levels of PFOS and one other PFAS compound detected nationwide came from a branch of Kreutz Creek, which flows into the Susquehanna River.
The Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper group sampled the creek near a pipe discharging leachate from Modern Landfill, a sanitary landfill near York, PA. Levels detected just downstream were many times higher than those upstream. Lab analysis of downstream samples measured 374.3 parts per trillion PFOS and 847 ppt PFOA and also detected 18 other PFAS compounds. The group called the lab results “catastrophically high.”
A spokesperson for Republic Services, which owns Modern Landfill, said the company “cannot speak to the quality or accuracy of the sampling data provided by the alliance, nor to the methodology it used.”
The spokesperson noted that the landfill has been permitted to discharge treated wastewater into the creek since 1988. According to an EPA database, the facility in the past three years has reported excessive discharges of boron, fecal coliform and nitrogen.
The company agreed in a 2020 consent decree with the state Department of Environmental Protection to upgrade its wastewater treatment system and is fully compliant with the terms of that agreement, the company spokesperson said. The spokesperson added that the new $23 million treatment plant, which is expected to be finished by mid-2023, will be capable of treating PFAS as well.
John Repetz of the Pennsylvania DEP said the landfill is currently in compliance with the schedule for coming into compliance set in the consent decree. He added that the treatment upgrade was not specifically intended to deal with PFAS.
On Nov. 3, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper sent Republic a 60-day warning that it intended to sue over the landfill’s permit violations and for its ongoing discharges of PFAS.
“Modern Landfill has taken away the constitutional right for residents and the public to recreate and fish around Kreutz Creek safely,” said Ted Evgeniadis, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper. “The landfill owners must be held accountable to the highest standards in effectively treating their wastewater to remove PFAS and other harmful pollutants.”
Evgeniadis said his group is sampling the creek water monthly and testing for PFAS in individual residents’ wells near Lower Windsor Township.
The Environmental Working Group, another nonprofit, reported in October that the EPA and Department of Defense have largely followed through on steps promised during the Biden administration to reduce or clean up PFAS pollution, but other federal agencies have not done as much.
The group said that the EPA has proposed to designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances and is expected to propose a federal drinking water standard for those compounds this fall. The Pentagon is also expected to issue a congressionally mandated schedule for cleaning up PFAS contamination at military bases, stemming from the longtime use of PFAS-laden firefighting foams.
In all, the EPA has pledged nearly 50 regulatory measures dealing with PFAS, and the DOD has committed to or is required by Congress to take nearly 25 steps. But the Environmental Working Group said that the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture have each proposed just three actions, even though food is a major suspected source of PFAS exposure.
Not wanting to wait for federal action, some states have begun setting their own regulatory curbs on PFAS. New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware have moved to impose drinking water limits for PFOA and PFOS.
In 2021, the Maryland Department of the Environment issued the first PFAS-related fish consumption advisory in the Bay watershed after high levels of PFOS and PFOA were detected in Piscataway Creek and in some fish downstream of Joint Base Andrews, the airfield where Air Force One, the president’s plane, is kept.
After high levels of PFAS were detected in unnamed streams flowing to the Chesapeake Bay from the Naval Research Laboratory in Chesapeake Beach, MDE pressed the Navy to act while it continues to study groundwater and soil contamination on the facility.
The Navy is planning to install water treatment systems to remove the PFAS, with completion expected in mid-2023, according to MDE spokesman Jay Apperson. The Air Force plans similar action to deal with PFAS getting into Piscataway Creek from Joint Base Andrews, he added.
This article was originally published on BayJournal.com and is republished with permission.