Nearby residents skeptical as Modern Landfill works to address contaminants

Noel Miller
York Dispatch

Modern Landfill's operators are moving forward with long-delayed upgrades to a wastewater treatment plant that were the subject of a state consent decree over contaminant runoff into Kreutz Creek.

"I'm going to emphasize over and over and over and over again that we are absolutely on schedule with the milestones contained in that consent agreement," said Tim O'Donnell, the landfill's general manager, during a recent visit to the site.

The landfill's operator, Republic Services, says it's roughly two-thirds of the way through a planned $23 million project to address wastewater treatment at the site. Construction is expected to be completed later this year.

But that work may not satisfy Lower Windsor Township residents, who've grown increasingly frustrated by years of promised improvements. A number of them have paid for their own drinking water testing and have grown distrustful of the landfill's operators.

"I ran a division of a multibillion-dollar company. I understand companies like Republic Services," said John Bowser, one nearby resident who previously worked for DuPont.

More:'I didn't know what to do,' 2-year-old Dante Mullinix's mother testifies

More:Warming stations open as bitterly cold 'bomb cyclone' approaches

More:Tyndall, 13, breaks York County bowling record with perfect game

Bowser is concerned about what will happen to contaminants — particularly the so-called PFAS "forever chemicals" that have shown up in local drinking water supplies — extracted by the landfill's reverse osmosis system.

In the 2000s, Bowser worked with DuPont to remove PFAS chemicals, found in everything from cookware to waterproof clothing and firefighting foam, from the company's products.

Construction of the water treatment center at Modern Landfill in Yorkana on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022.

Modern Landfill faced scrutiny from the state Department of Environmental Protection since at least 2017 after wastewater discharged into Kreutz Creek was found to exceed limits for boron and other contaminants.

Republic Services agreed to upgrade its treatment system, but the project, which was originally expected to be completed in July 2021, was delayed. John Repetz, a DEP spokesperson, said the state extended the landfill's permit allowing it to temporarily exceed boron and osmotic pressure levels.

Ted Evgeniadis, executive director of the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, calls such agreements "zombie permits."

>> Please consider subscribing to support local journalism. 

Since 1988, the landfill discharged treated wastewater into Kreutz Creek. According to O'Donnell, the practice is not uncommon and is fully permitted as long as the waste product — known as leachate — is properly treated.

A filter similar to what will go inside of the reverse osmosis systems being installed.

The upgrades include five tanks, two reverse osmosis filters and a small building for heat exchanger equipment. Reverse osmosis filters consist of a high-pressure membrane system that launches water through a filter at high speeds, according to the EPA. It is a fine filter that removes contaminants.

"There are varying types [of filtration]; there's ultrafiltration, nanofiltration and reverse osmosis," said Jacob Schmidt, a Republic Services area environmental manager. "And each of them, as you move further and further, it's these tighter and tighter screens."

>> Please consider subscribing to support local journalism. 

As the water travels through each successive screen, more and more contaminants are removed.

"Parts per million is one drop [of PFAS] in an Olympic swimming pool," Schmidt said, describing the size of particles removed from the wastewater.

Construction of the water treatment center at Modern Landfill in Yorkana on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022.

In addition to lowering boron levels and osmotic pressure, these filters can treat for the PFAS chemicals that have turned up in Kreutz Creek.

“That study did reveal that York County, Pennsylvania, Kreutz Creek had the highest levels of PFAS in the entire country, which is super alarming,” Evgeniadis said.

Concerns over the landfill's effect on the environment are not new.

In 1986, the landfill was added to the EPA's superfund programs national priorities list, which details nationwide sites that have released or could release hazardous substances, according to the EPA, based on hazardous waste it received in the 1970s.

Photographs, taken by local fisherman Shane Allison, show a dark substance draining into Kreutz Creek in Lower Windsor Township, on the north side of Modern Landfill.

Bowser is concerned that, even though the reverse osmosis filters will keep PFAS from getting into Kreutz Creek, a concentrated stream of PFAS will eventually be disposed of elsewhere.

According to Republic Services, the PFAS and other substances filtered out "will be managed off site at multiple fully licensed and permitted commercial facilities." It's not clear, however, where precisely that material will go.

More:'It's a lot. I miss him': Bowie visits Dante's grave following acquittal

More:Shooting suspect threatened woman twice in weeks before: Police

More:More creative ways to recycle or reuse your Christmas tree

PFAS are almost impossible to destroy. There are several ongoing EPA studies into how to remove and destroy PFAS in the environment but, so far, a permanent solution remains elusive. Burning PFAS at extremely high temperatures, for example, could result in the chemicals' release into the air.

Bowser said the only way to significantly reduce the amount of PFAS getting into the environment is to cap the landfill with a plastic liner and then bury it in a layer of earth. Until then, he said, rainwater will continue to pick up the contaminant and take it downstream.

"My dream is for that landfill to close up tomorrow," he said.

Republic Services Modern Landfill in Lower Windsor Township, Thursday, September 17, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

It's possible that Modern Landfill will end up being capped eventually as it nears capacity and Lower Windsor Township cut off negotiations over a proposed expansion that would allow it to continue accepting refuse.

O'Donnell said that if the current volume continues, the landfill will reach capacity sometime in 2025. Once it hits capacity, without permission to expand, it will be capped. The landfill will not cease all operations because the area still needs to be maintained, he said. Gas released from inside the landfill and water that runs off its surface would still need to be treated.

— Reach Noel Miller at NMiller3@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @TheNoelM.