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Toxic chemicals can be dumped into Merrimack River, federal and state officials say

The Merrimack is one of the region’s most polluted rivers.Joanne Rathe/Globe File

Federal and state environmental officials have renewed a controversial permit allowing a New Hampshire landfill to send as much as 100,000 gallons a day of polluted runoff to a Lowell treatment plant that empties into the Merrimack River, a source of drinking water to more than a half-million people.

Regulators made the decision in September even though the owner of the Turnkey Landfill acknowledged this year that polluted water drained from its facility in Rochester contains exorbitant amounts of highly toxic chemicals known as PFAS, which have been linked to kidney cancer, low infant birth weights, and other diseases.

The company’s tests showed that the amount of PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” because they never fully degrade, was more than 100 times higher than federal and state guidelines and more than 400 times higher than stricter standards being considered in Massachusetts. The company submitted the findings this year to New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services.

While the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility treats the landfill runoff before discharging it into the river, the plant lacks the expensive equipment to filter out PFAS. Worse, environmental advocates say, the treatment process can make the chemicals more toxic, enabling them to bind in ways that make them harder to break down.


Local officials and clean-water advocates have urged the US Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection to reject the permit or at least require the landfill to filter out the toxic chemicals before it trucks the waste water to Lowell and another treatment plant in Maine.

“We are very concerned about the possibility of PFAS getting into public water supplies . . . as well as its impact on the ecology of the river,” said John Macone, codirector of the Merrimack River Watershed Council.

Officials at Waste Management, the Texas-based company that owns Turnkey Landfill, said it has the capability to filter out the chemicals but isn’t required to do so.


“Waste Management is in compliance with all terms and conditions of the permit and is prepared to meet any and all future requirements,” said Garrett Trierweiler, a spokesman for the company.

Trierweiler didn’t say why Waste Management ships the waste water to Lowell. Officials at the Lowell treatment plant could not be reached for comment.

Federal regulators say tests of drinking water in communities downstream from the Lowell plant, including Andover, Lawrence, Methuen, and Tewksbury, found no evidence of harmful amounts of the six most prevalent PFAS chemicals in 2014.

But that was before the landfill signed a contract with the treatment plant in 2017 to take the waste water. The water has not been tested for PFAS since then, EPA officials said.

Environmental advocates say contamination from PFAS-laden landfills may be widespread, affecting waterways across the country.

A report presented this year at a meeting of the Solid Waste Association of North America found that 98 landfills had reported levels of one of the most common PFAS chemicals that were well above federal guidelines.

The pollution doesn’t just potentially affect drinking water. It can be ingested by fish and other wildlife. It can also end up in fertilizers, which are derived from sludge byproducts produced by treatment plants, and end up used in agricultural fields.

“This is becoming something that landfills around the country should be looking at,” said Jessie King, an environmental lawyer from South Carolina who presented the report to the Solid Waste Association.


The EPA’s 2014 tests came before the landfill began sending its waste water to the treatment plant and were not sensitive enough to detect PFAS below levels considered excessive today, environmental advocates said.

EPA officials said the agency currently lacks the authority to prohibit the plant from sending the PFAS-laden waste water to Lowell. As a result, the newly approved permit, which takes effect later this month, doesn’t require regulators to monitor the water for PFAS chemicals.

“But EPA may require monitoring in a subsequent permit under the agency’s action plan for PFAS,” said John Senn, an EPA spokesman.

Given a growing awareness of the pervasiveness and toxicity of the chemicals, which has spurred efforts by federal and state officials to place far stricter limits on them, environmental advocates called such a hands-off approach shortsighted.

They noted that Turnkey’s own testing last year found its waste water contained more than 9,700 parts per trillion of four of the most prevalent chemicals. By comparison, the EPA currently maintains a health advisory that recommends municipalities alert the public if two of the chemicals reach 70 parts per trillion in drinking water, either individually or cumulatively. Massachusetts uses the same standard, but for five of the chemicals.

In recent years, many states have set far stricter standards. Massachusetts is now considering regulations that would advise residents to stop drinking water if the cumulative concentration of six of the chemicals reaches 20 parts per trillion.


“Incredibly, EPA concedes it can — but won’t — prevent discharge of toxic chemicals into the drinking water source for a half-million people,” said Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney who serves as executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “ ‘Trust us, we might do something in the future’ is a recipe for disaster.”

He and others urged federal and state authorities to require mandatory testing and reporting for PFAS before approving any water-pollution permits.

In Massachusetts, environmental officials said they’re reviewing whether to update existing regulations on such discharges to the state’s waterways.

After the Globe asked questions about the pollution in the Merrimack, which was already one of the region’s most polluted rivers, DEP officials said they were working with the treatment plant to test the effluent and take water samples. Results are due back next month.

“We are also working with water suppliers in the Merrimack River area, encouraging PFAS testing to make sure that we have up-to-date water-quality data from those systems,” said Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the department. The state has also allocated more than $60 million to help communities test drinking water for PFAS, he said.

But environmental advocates worry that authorities are acting too slowly. Allowing toxic chemicals to be pumped into the state’s waterways — after knowing about the dangers of such pollution — amounts to a dereliction of duty, they said.


“It’s really unconscionable that the system allows this to continue,” said Caitlin Peale Sloan, also a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. “These forever chemicals enter your body, and don’t leave, and they compound. Protecting the public from these chemicals should be an urgent concern.”

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.