Ryan March, Brad Granley, and Pat Stanford

 

As the solid waste industry grapples with the challenges of PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances), understanding the evolving regulatory landscape and technological options available to manage PFAS are crucial to minimize the coming impacts to landfill operations. This article is a first in a series of columns that will offer an in-depth analysis of the current regulations up through 2023 and anticipated changes coming in 2024,1 and provides actionable insights that will allow landfill operators to feel more in control and less at the mercy of what is becoming one of the most significant, and expensive, challenges in the industry since Subtitle D regulations went into effect in the 1990s.

What Exactly are PFAS?
PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals invented nearly a century ago that have been used extensively for many purposes around the world. Their chemical structure includes carbon-fluorine bonds (one of the strongest in nature), and in their final form, PFAS compounds result in products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. This unique set of characteristic provides significant benefits and is why they are used in so many consumer products (e.g., non-stick cookware, food packaging, personal care products, waterproof garments, carpet, etc.) and industries (e.g., pulp and paper, fire fighting, textiles, metals plating, etc.).

So Why is PFAS a Problem?
The ironic nature of PFAS is that the chemical structure described, which results in highly desirable benefits, is also the same reason they can cause harm to human health and the environment. Specifically, the strength of the carbon-fluorine bond means that PFAS does not easily degrade. When it is ‘misplaced’ and ends up in the environment, the result is contamination and undesired exposures. PFAS also is bio accumulative so when people are exposed through water, food, or air, significant health problems can result.

What Negative Health Effects Can PFAS Cause?
Research shows that exposure at low levels can result in negative effects to reproductive and developmental processes, increased risk of some cancers, a depressed immune system, hormonal interference, and increased cholesterol levels. Another interesting point is that the cholesterol control drug Lipitor (one of the most widely used medications in the US with 114 million prescriptions in 2020) may be considered a PFAS compound by some definitions. How ironic.

So How Did the PFAS Get into My Landfill?
PFAS is likely present to some degree in every MSW and C&D landfill and there is no way to keep it out. There are many sources of PFAS; however, the reason PFAS is in your landfill is due to its presence in so many consumer products and associated industrial waste. Any material disposed in your landfill, which includes PFAS chemistry, can contribute to this long-term problem. Another probable source is sewage sludge or biosolids that have been disposed in the landfill.

Massive Changes Coming to the Solid Waste Industry Regulatory Developments Through 2023
To date, the two primary focal points of regulatory activity have been for protecting potable water via the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, and monitoring PFAS discharge under the federal Clean Water Act. However, most of the regulation of PFAS, which affects the solid waste industry has been disseminated by states, not Federal agencies. These regulations have required some landfills to implement measures to reduce PFAS in leachate, aiming to protect both the environment and public health.

Under the Clean Water Act, any facility that will discharge treated water to the environment via surface water requires a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. Under current Federal guidance, all new or renewed NPDES permits will have a monitoring requirement for PFAS compounds. This is significant to our industry because all sewage wastewater treatment plants that currently accept leachate have NPDES permits; meaning that once limits are established for them, they will require sampling and likely treatment for upstream point sources like leachate.

On a more local level, numerous landfills experienced somewhat random leachate “cut-offs” from wastewater treatment plants throughout the U.S. These cut-offs were driven by individual treatment plant supervisors, mayors, and county board members simply because they wanted to distance themselves from anything PFAS. As an example, a major wastewater treatment facility in Texas issued letters that read, “Effective Friday February 24, 2023, we will no longer accept transported leachate at our facility.” This happened almost overnight without giving landfills time to plan. Cut-offs are likely to continue, and at an increased rate in 2024.

2024 and Beyond: Anticipating Changes
The biggest immediate change for PFAS will be the regulation of Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for six PFAS compounds in drinking water. As of January 2024, these regulations are under review by the Office of Management and Budget after public comment and review by the EPA. The expected publication and enactment of these regulations is in March or April of 2024. The enactment of these regulations will result in higher public awareness and concern about PFAS with more than 40 percent of the drinking water systems in the U.S. expected to require treatment to meet the new regulations.
The federal regulation that more directly affects landfills is EPA Plan 15. Under the Clean Water Act, every two years the EPA must report all areas that they considered for regulation. Plan 15 is the 15th version of this report. In the Plan 15 report the EPA has stated that landfills are a source of PFAS, and EPA intends to issue regulations resulting in a requirement for leachate treatment. These regulations will likely be promulgated in 2025 or 2026.

On the state and local level, the regulatory environment is expected to become more stringent. In fact, all 50 states have some form of existing or proposed PFAS regulations. An extreme example is from New York State which has a proposal that would eliminate the ability of landfills to discharge water that contains PFAS. Additional proposed changes around the country include the introduction of enhanced treatment requirements and stricter PFAS discharge limits for wastewater treatment plants and those that discharge to them. The expected regulations reflect a heightened concern by the public, politicians, and regulators for the potential harm to human health and the environment.

The Crucial Role of Landfills in PFAS Management
Landfills are not merely waste disposal sites, they are critical in controlling PFAS pollution and actually aid in protecting human health and the environment. Landfills have been shown to sequester a large portion of all disposed PFAS, with some calculations estimating as high as 90 to 97 percent of PFAS that enters a landfill will remain in the landfill and not show up in leachate or gas emissions. Also, with more states limiting the agricultural application of biosolids, landfills will be asked to dispose more of it. Thus, landfills should be viewed as part of an overall societal solution to keep PFAS out of the environment.

Technological Innovations in PFAS Treatment
Two years ago, Jim Little, Executive Vice President – Engineering and Disposal at Waste Connections, challenged industry professionals during a keynote address at the 2022 Global Waste Management Symposium to rapidly develop solutions to manage PFAS, and the industry has responded. To date, numerous technologies have emerged and advanced, becoming viable options for managing PFAS in leachate. So what PFAS Treatment options currently exist?

Currently there are three primary treatment and/or disposal categories which include sequestration, concentration, and destruction. Some forms of sequestration include solidification combined with disposal in the landfill, deep well injection, or onsite disposal of leachate with phyto-based solutions. Concentration of PFAS into a smaller volume has been proven via foam fractionation and reverse osmosis. The use of granular-activated carbon, ion exchange and other adsorption media overlaps both the sequestration and concentration categories, and new products have and are becoming available. The third PFAS-management category is destruction, which includes, but is not limited to, super-critical water oxidation, high-temp alkaline treatment, electro-chemical oxidation, plasma treatment, and incineration. In all cases, amazing work over the last two years has led to many advancements of these technologies; there are too many to discuss here, but additional information will be provided in subsequent issues of our upcoming PFAS columns.

 


Landfill Operations: Key Points

1. Get started if you have not yet. Do your homework. Talk to a company with history in solid waste. Talk to multiple solutions providers. Do not get sold on something you do not need. Ask lots of questions. Get things in writing.

2. The PFAS challenge in the waste management industry is evolving, necessitating proactive and informed actions from landfill operators. Staying abreast of regulatory changes and technological advancements is essential for effective PFAS management and compliance.


 

Preparing for Regulatory Compliance
It is difficult to find consensus these days, but nearly everyone in the solid waste industry would agree that PFAS regulations are coming, and none will escape. In the near future every state will be required to follow the EPA lead or develop stricter standards. Add in locally driven jurisdictional requirements and undoubtedly that will lead to leachate requiring treatment in order to be disposed off site. PFAS is a multi-billion-dollar problem that cannot be avoided, that we must not dismiss or passively wait to be imposed upon facilities, and for which we must be properly prepared. This will include being informed, planning financially for facility upgrades, investing in cutting-edge technologies, and ensuring operational readiness.

A lot is at stake. Fortunately, you don’t have to be an expert in all of the complex levels of regulations, you don’t have to be an expert in PFAS chemistry, and you don’t have to be an expert in PFAS treatment technologies. You can become all of these; we have confidence in you. However, you may instead choose to be informed together with others. Reach out to those who are experts in all of these categories. Discuss internally at your organizations. Come up with plans and strategies. Form relationships with technology providers before they are too busy to answer your call as demand will outweigh supply. Talk to people now so that you are in line to receive services.

The moral of the story is that PFAS is coming, exemptions are not. So regardless of your chosen path, our strongest advice is to not sit idly by. Instead, become informed and be prepared because your efforts now will not only significantly reduce disruptions to your facilities and budgets, but it will make for less stressful, more relaxed days ahead, and that’s something we wish for everyone in our amazing and talented industry. | WA

Ryan March is a Director of Innovation with Leachate Management Specialists. His wide range of experience has focused on bringing new technologies to those most in need. He can be reached at (905) 999-7202 or e-mail [email protected] or.

Brad Granley, P.E., is President and PFAS Lead for Leachate Management Specialists. His 25+ years of experience include complex remediation projects in his early career, and an almost exclusive focus in the solid waste industry the last 15+ years. He can be reached at (720) 556-4801 or e-mail [email protected].

Pat Stanford is a Principal at Coviana, LLC, a specialty environmental firm focused on landfill leachate and PFAS technologies and regulations. He has more than 35 years of leachate treatment experience both in the US and internationally. Pat can be reached at (310) 322-4205 or e-mail [email protected].

Leachate Management Specialists and Coviana are here to help guide you through this daunting journey. We plan to provide you with solid, reliable, and relevant information so that everyone will know what is coming and how best to prepare. This article is the first of a series, “That PFAS Column” in Waste Advantage Magazine that will provide useful informative installments that get straight to the point to help all to navigate through this PFAS maze. If you would like any specific questions answered and to have your name and company mentioned in future articles, send your requests to any of the above contacts.

Note
The article draws from a recent webinar with guest speakers and PFAS experts Pat Stanford and Brad Granley,

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