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Arsenic levels in leachate among factors affecting new contract for treatment

Evan Brandt , ebrandt@pottsmerc.com

01/01/2006
POTTSTOWN -- Over the past 10 years that polluted water leaching from the Pottstown Landfill has been treated at the borough’s sewer plant, the level of arsenic permitted in the leachate has been exceeded at least six times, but no fines were ever levied, an analysis of monthly reports has revealed.

The permit which governs the limits on dangerous substances in the leachate -- there are many other than arsenic -- is issued by the Pottstown Borough Authority, which operates the wastewater treatment plant on Industrial Boulevard.

The permit allows the borough authority to issue violations that "may result in the imposition of civil and/or criminal penalties of up to $25,000 per day per violation."

However, since 1990, when the current leachate treatment contract between Pottstown and Waste Management Inc., was enacted, only two notices of violation were ever issued against the landfill, and both those were later retracted at the request of the landfill’s owner, Waste Management Inc., the reports show.

Authority officials explained that the permit allows a polluter to exceed the limits for certain pollutants and not be subject to a violation as long as it causes no adverse effects at the sewer treatment plant.

Instead, the polluter is charged an extra "surcharge" for exceeding the permit levels.

‘Not of Public Interest’

Waste Management officials referred questions on the issue of its arsenic "exceedances" to the authority, but added in an e-mailed statement "with all due respect, the questions you are asking are not, in our opinion, matters of public interest, and are not relevant to the wastewater treatment agreement, and involve isolated descriptions of events that are as much as 10 years old."

The landfill’s issues with arsenic, however, are not isolated events so much as a part of an ongoing campaign to have its limits raised.

The last time the leachate’s arsenic level exceeded its permit limits was Feb. 20, 1998, according to the reports, which were obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request to the borough authority by the Alliance for a Clean Environment, which provided them to The Mercury.

That year was also when the landfill asked, for at least the third time, that its permit limits for arsenic be raised.

As far back as 1995, Waste Management warned the authority "we believe that our pre-treatment facility will have difficulty meeting the new, more stringent interim limit" for arsenic.

Two years later, the company’s requests continued.

"As we have explained to you numerous times in the past, our present pre-treatment plant does not achieve significant arsenic removal," the company wrote in its Nov. 7, 1997 report to the authority.

"It is well documented in the literature that arsenic is difficult to remove, especially at low concentrations. It is also known that arsenic occurs naturally at or above these concentrations in the region," Waste Management wrote.

By 1998, the company was asking that its limit be doubled from .12 milligrams per liter to .25 milligrams per liter.

They got more than they asked for.

The limit now stands at .50 milligrams per liter, a level with which Waste Management was "generally pleased," according to a report in April 1999.

Studying Local Limits

Brent Wagner, chief operator at the wastewater treatment plant, raised the limit for Waste Management and other industrial users after conducting something called a "local limit study" from 1993 to 1995.

The study examined what’s necessary to maintain safe levels of pollutants for discharge into the Schuylkill River, a drinking water source for several million people, as well as what is technically feasible for each of the many pollutants regulated in the permits the authority issues to different industrial customers of the system.

In fact, a new "local limits" study is planned after the authority completes construction on a new dryer that will treat the sludge that remains after wastewater is treated. The new process will allow the sludge to meet government standards that will allow it to be used as fertilizer.

The new limits which will result from that study aren’t all that’s new on the horizon for Waste Management.

Contract Negotiations

The leachate treatment contract between Pottstown and the landfill, which governs the issuance of those permits and the limits it contains, expired Dec. 31.

Negotiations for a new contract "are in the preliminary stages," said David Allebach, solicitor for the borough authority.

On Dec. 15, he said the authority has suggested a six-month extension of the current contract to allow negotiations to continue, but Waste Management officials had not responded as of that date.

The current contract contains provisions that allowed the landfill’s leachate to be treated for free in exchange for the waiving of tipping fees for the borough’s trash and, later, for providing free recycling services.

Also, for years, the landfill is where Pottstown’s sewage sludge was disposed of.

The sludge is now trucked, at great expense, to a landfill in Bucks County. It is this expense that has pushed the authority to build the new dryer to cut down on sludge disposal costs and perhaps even turn a profit selling fertilizer.

Since the landfill officially closed in October, the option for a trade in services no longer exists, said Allebach.

"We’ve been reviewing the (current) agreement and there are some provisions there that we’re not sure how they came about," Allebach said.

Rather than amend the current contract, Allebach said, "I think we’re going to have to start from scratch."

Allebach also said, "I don’t think there’s any question that from a treatment standpoint, Waste Management will be paying higher fees. The only question in my mind is what else are we looking at beyond that."

New Drinking Water Standards

One of the things beyond that is the implementation next month of a new federal standard for the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water.

On Jan. 23, 2006, the new standard will be implemented that lowers the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water from the current level of .050 milligrams per liter to .010 milligrams per liter.

The current .050 level was set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1975 and was based on 33-year-old standards set in 1942 by the Public Health Service.

According to an October statement issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the new more stringent standard was implemented by EPA as a result of a 1999 recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences.

Some studies have linked long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic in drinking water to cancer of the bladder, prostate, skin and lungs, according to the EPA.

EPA has also linked arsenic, which occurs naturally in rocks, soil, water and air, to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, anemia and disorders of the immune, nervous and reproductive systems.

"There is also some evidence that suggests that long-term exposure to arsenic in children may result in lower IQ scores," according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Arsenic No. 1 Threat

In fact since 1997, arsenic has topped the list of the top 20 most hazardous substances compiled by the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act program, better known by its acronym -- CERCLA.

Arsenic makes the top not because it is necessarily more toxic than other things on list, like mercury, lead, benzene and vinyl chloride, but because it is so ubiquitous and the potential for people to be exposed to it is high.

In addition to its natural occurrence, levels for which vary according to local geology, arsenic is present "in at least 784 of the 1,662 current or former (National Priorities List) sites" of the federal Superfund pollution clean-up program, according to CERCLA documents.

Montgomery County has more Superfund clean-up sites than any other county in Pennsylvania.

Other Leachate Options

Ron Furlan, program manager of DEP’s southeast regional office’s waste management program in Norristown, said the EPA’s new arsenic standard applies specifically to drinking water plants and public water providers, not directly to wastewater treatment plants.

He said if abnormally high levels of arsenic were found in the Schuylkill -- into which the treated wastewater from the Pottstown sewer plant, and thus the landfill, is discharged -- water plants downstream could conceivably demand discharge limits from upstream users be lowered.

Furlan also said the landfill has options other than having its leachate treated by the Pottstown plant.

He said the GROWS Landfill in Bucks County, where Pottstown’s sewage sludge is currently dumped, treats its own leachate and discharges it directly into the Delaware River.

At the Pottstown Landfill, "part of their (DEP) permit has their leachate being treated at the Pottstown Wastewater Treatment Plant. So if they decided they wanted to do the treatment themselves, and say do a direct discharge into the Manatawny, they could, but that would be a major permit modification and they would need to give us a detailed explanation on what they planned to do," Furlan said.

He said Dec. 19 that he has received no such indication from Waste Management officials, leaving the Pottstown plant and the ensuing contract negotiations as the landfill’s only likely option.