Nonprofit eyes lawsuit to force cleanup at Modern Landfill
After a nearly a year of sampling and testing water from the Kreutz Creek — and finding elevated levels of contaminants — the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper announced plans to pursue litigation against Republic Services, the operator of Modern Landfill.
Wastewater discharged from Modern Landfill into Kreutz Creek exceeded various pollutant thresholds enforced by the state Department of Environmental Protection since at least 2017, leading to a 2020 consent decree outlining mandatory steps to remedy the problem. A plan to address the issue has been delayed — in part due to the COVID pandemic.
“They are violating their boron limits [and] their osmotic pressure limits," said Ted Evgeniadis, the nonprofit's head riverkeeper. "But then we have this PFAS issue, which was really an issue I don’t believe Republic maybe really took a look at.”
The levels of PFOS and PFOA measured in the landfill’s discharges are 18,715 and 211,750 times higher, respectively, than the EPA guidance levels, according to Riverkeeper data. PFAS, shorthand for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are chemicals widely used in consumer products that are resistant to heat, water and oil and do not break down easily, according to the DEP.
The Riverkeeper sent a letter to the company stating the organization will move forward with litigation if Modern Landfill does not correct the alleged violations within 60 days. Tim O’Donnell, the landfill's general manager, said neither Modern Landfill nor Republic Services have yet received the letter.
Modern Landfill fell out of compliance with its permit under the Clean Water Act for exceeding limits on the release of contaminants, including boron, into wastewater discharged into Kreutz Creek in 2017. While upgrades to their water treatment facility to address the issue were originally slated for 2021, landfill operators more recently said the upgrades would be completed in 2023.
Lower Windsor Township officials and residents grappled with issues regarding the landfill for years. The township withdrew from negotiations with Republic Services to expand the landfill after hundreds of residents spoke against the expansion at a board of supervisors meeting in early 2020. The township officially terminated negotiations in December 2020.
Township officials said the decision to end negotiations remains unchanged since 2020 but declined to comment about issues regarding Kreutz Creek until the letter of intent was sent out.
Monitoring the issue: Township officials are aware of the Riverkeeper's letter of intent and "will be monitoring the case with interest," a written response from the township's office read. "The Township calls on U.S. EPA, PA DEP and the Modern Landfill to evaluate this situation and take any actions necessary to protect the public and the environment."
Residents asked the board of supervisors at an October meeting what they could do about the quality of Kreutz Creek, feeling not enough was being done to remedy it. Township officials said they had reported the Riverkeeper's findings to the DEP but noted their hands were tied until the DEP provided them updates.
Since 1988, the Lower Windsor Township landfill has discharged treated wastewater into Kreutz Creek, according to O’Donnell.
“We care about the environment, and we care about our neighbors — and we continue to manage our operations safely and responsibly, and in full compliance with regulatory standards. DEP is well acquainted with Modern Landfill and our compliance efforts over decades of operation. Modern Landfill remains fully compliant with the consent agreement it signed with DEP in August 2020,” O’Donnell said when asked for comment on the letter of intent.
The discharge of wastewater into public waterways is a common practice and is fully legal if the wastewater, also called leachate, meets certain criteria. The criteria is in part set by a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit under the Clean Water Act.
However, when the DEP updated Republic Services’ permit in 2017 to place a limit on boron and osmotic pressure, Modern Landfill automatically fell out of compliance, as their treatment system at the time did not treat for those items.
Process delayed: In the August 2020 consent decree, Republic Services agreed to update its water treatment system to treat for boron and osmotic pressure limits. Initially the water treatment upgrades were estimated to be done in July 2021, the consent decree said, but the process was delayed.
After submitting the permit application that was needed before construction could begin, in May 2020, Republic Services withdrew it to “modify the proposed design and resubmit at a later date,” according to the consent decree.
When the NPDES permit, which allowed them to exceed boron and osmotic pressure levels until construction was complete, expired this year, the DEP extended the permit, said John Repetz, a local DEP spokesperson.
When the state renews expired permits like this, the Riverkeeper association refers to them as “zombie permits” that allow limits they set to continue being exceeded, Evgeniadis said.
To treat boron, osmotic pressure, PFOA and PFOS levels, Republic Services is installing a reverse osmosis system, according to company's engineers.
“To meet ever-more stringent state and federal standards, construction is underway on a new $23 million plant, as the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper is well aware, with advanced treatment methods recognized as capable of treating PFAS, O'Donnell said. "That investment reinforces our commitment to operate the landfill in a manner designed to protect public health and the environment. The new plant will be operational in mid-2023.”
Concern lingers: Even with these upgrades the riverkeepers are still concerned about the high levels of PFAS they have found in Kreutz Creek. The nonprofit has been sampling water from various parts of the creek near the landfill discharge sites nearly every month for the past year and having them tested by certified labs to measure for various chemicals including PFAS, Evgeniadis said.
The Enviromental Protection Agency has only issued a health advisory — an unenforceable statement to provide technical information about drinking water — about the known effects of PFAS on human health and guidelines for how much can be in drinking water. PFOS and PFOA are the two most widely used and studied chemicals in the PFAS group, according to the EPA.
The riverkeepers are not the only people concerned about PFAS in groundwater. Evgeniadis recently tested the private well water of several Lower Windsor Township residents who were concerned there might be high PFAS levels in their water, but he is still waiting to get the results back from the lab, he said.
In November 2021, the DEP announced a proposal to set stricter, enforceable limits on the levels of PFAS and PFOS in drinking water. Although this does not address PFAS of PFOS in industrially discharged wastewater, Evgeniadis said it is a step in the right direction and hopes regulations regarding industrial discharge will follow.