Under pressure from lawmakers and environmental advocates, officials in Lowell said Thursday that they had suspended a contract with a New Hampshire landfill that sent a large volume of toxic runoff into the Merrimack River, a source of drinking water to more than a half-million people.
Federal regulators had recently renewed a permit allowing Turnkey Landfill in Rochester, N.H., to send as much as 100,000 gallons of daily runoff to a Lowell treatment plant that empties into the long-polluted river.
Earlier this week, the Globe reported that environmental regulators approved the permit even though 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. Exposure to the chemicals has been linked to kidney cancer, low infant birth weights, and other health issues.
In a statement, city officials said the decision to halt intake from the landfill was made “out of an abundance of caution.”
“It is believed that the discharge of treated leachate [landfill] runoff . . . does not pose a threat to public health, including to downriver communities that draw drinking water from the Merrimack,” the statement said. “Thorough testing . . . at Lowell’s drinking water intake point in the Merrimack River has indicated an exceptionally low level of PFAS.”
The Lowell treatment plant has been accepting runoff from Turnkey since 2013. The plant lacks the expensive equipment needed to filter out PFAS and the regular wastewater treatment process can make the chemicals more toxic, environmental advocates say.
The Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility, which manages the treatment plant, has begun working with the state Department of Environmental Protection to assess PFAS levels at the plant and in the Merrimack River, city officials said.
Local officials and clean-water advocates had urged regulators to reject the landfill’s permit or at least require the company to filter out the toxic chemicals before it trucks the runoff, known as leachate, to Lowell and another treatment plant in Madison, Maine.
Garrett Trierweiler, a spokesman for Waste Management, the Texas-based company that owns Turnkey Landfill, said “we will not be bringing material to the Lowell facility going forward.”
The company has not determined where the runoff will be sent. The company has said it has the capacity to filter out the chemicals but isn’t required to do so.
The city’s decision to stop accepting the PFAS-laden runoff came as several Massachusetts legislators, including Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, called on the Environmental Protection Agency to “reassess this permit and use its broad discretion to protect public health in Massachusetts.”
“PFAS already pose a serious health risk to residents across Massachusetts,” they wrote in a letter to Andrew Wheeler, EPA administrator. “Efforts to address existing contamination will likely be both lengthy and expensive. Our state does not need additional PFAS pollution to contend with as we work to clean up legacy contamination in our air, soil, and water.”
The representatives, who included Lori Trahan, Richard Neal, and Seth Moulton, said that “as a routine matter” the landfill does not test for PFAS or attempt to eliminate it before sending the runoff to the Lowell plant. They called on the EPA to “take all available actions” to assess and limit PFAS pollution.
“EPA relying on test results from 2015, prior to the agreement for the Lowell wastewater plant to receive and discharge leachate from the Turnkey landfill, is wholly inadequate,” they wrote.
Environmental advocates welcomed the city’s decision but said regulators need to adopt stricter limits on the toxic chemicals on a broad basis.
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., said the decision was “a welcome first step that prevents immediate harm but leaves unanswered the larger questions, including where this toxic leachate will ultimately be discharged.”
“It also underlines the need for Massachusetts to finalize enforceable and comprehensive PFAS water standards as soon as possible,” he said in a statement.
Massachusetts is considering stricter PFAS standards in drinking water, following the lead of a number of other states.
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.
“We will only be truly safe from PFAS when our elected officials require strict standards to keep these dangerous chemicals out of our water,” said Caitlin Peale Sloan, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. “This is exactly why we need to stop expanding polluting landfills like Turnkey.”
Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, said the landfill controversy showed that regulators have been “inexcusably slow” to protect the public from PFAS.
“In case anyone has been wondering if environmental advocates, whistle-blowers, the media, and other watchdogs outside government have an important role in protecting public health and the environment, the Lowell case should provide a clear example of why the answer is yes,” she said.
Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Maria Lovato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @maria_lovato99. David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.