TEWKSBURY — In the wake of an article appearing in The Boston Globe on Nov. 5, 2019 revealing that a permit to accept wastewater from a landfill in New Hampshire was approved by state and federal regulators for the Duck Island Wastewater treatment plant in Lowell, Tewksbury officials have responded quickly and methodically to the report.
“We were not aware [that Lowell was accepting wastewater runoff from an out of state landfill],” stated Town Manager Richard Montuori. “We will be speaking with Lowell.”
Through the week, Lowell responded to negative reactions by the general public and environmental groups and agreed to suspend acceptance of deliveries of wastewater from the Turnkey Landfill site in Rochester, New Hampshire. According to the Conservation Law Foundation, the landfill, which recently expanded to add 58 additional acres, is the largest in New England. Much of the material in the Turnkey Landfill is from outside of New Hampshire, according to NHDES information.
New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services had denied Turnkey a permit to dispose of its toxic runoff and as such, the material was trucked to Lowell and another facility in Maine for processing. This is described as leachate, and while the landfill does not accept any hazardous material, there are toxic chemicals of unknown sources on the site, according to the landfill owner as reported by New Hampshire Public Radio.
At issue is the presence of PFAS in the water, a family of chemicals that for decades have been used in consumer products to repel water, and for a host of industrial uses including firefighting foam, non-stick pan coatings, and cleaning products. PFAS are characterized as “forever chemicals.” Maine officials are looking into this information in light of The Boston Globe report as well.
Tewksbury and the communities of Andover, Methuen, Lowell, and Lawrence draw raw water from the Merrimack River into their water treatment plants to be processed for drinking. All except Lowell are downstream from the Duck Island Wastewater Treatment plant, which has been accepting deliveries from the Turnkey site, owned by Waste Management of NH, since 2013, according to The Boston Globe.
Lowell processes the water then discharges it into the Merrimack. It is not uncommon for wastewater treatment plants to accept water deliveries from septic haulers and industrial discharge from businesses for a fee, though, as part of their normal operations.
The Merrimack River serves over 600,000 people as a drinking water source and is monitored by many environmental groups who have raised numerous issues with the management of the river. In particular, the permission by the EPA for wastewater treatment plants to let untreated sewage run into the river during storm events has caused much concern, as raw sewage contributes to algae blooms and other unsafe environmental conditions for fish and wildlife. The Merrimack River runs into the Atlantic Ocean at Salisbury/Newburyport.
Department of Public Works Superintendent Brian Gilbert is confident in the water process for Tewksbury, however.
“Carbon filters capture PFAS” he said, “and we’ve always had those in place.”
In fact, Gilbert said that the carbon is refreshed ahead of what is required, keeping it clean and active. Gilbert shared that the state has been interested in PFAS for years, and is now developing new regulations for testing which will be out next year.
“Tewksbury has a chemist on staff and reports to the DEP on a very strict schedule,” he said.
But, in light of this revelation, Gilbert said that Tewksbury is going to sample its raw water at the intake and finished water coming out of the plant the week of Nov. 11. Despite the cautions raised by the environmental groups, PFAS are not currently part of the compounds required to be tested for in drinking water, hence the anticipation of the new regulations.
Additional compounds to be tested for on the horizon include the presence of pharmaceuticals in the water, and groups such as UMass Lowell’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department are developing technologies to detect and capture these compounds.
Carbon filters do rank as some of the best protections available.
As the developments with Lowell unfolded, Town Manager Montuori shared this statement with the Crier, “The town has been in regular communication with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection regarding the concerns with PFAS in the Merrimack River. The town is currently in the process of sampling and performing PFAS testing on both raw river water and finish drinking water from our treatment plant. The testing is performed by a MassDEP authorized laboratory, with results taking several weeks to be returned. Once test results are received, the town will review with experts at MassDEP for any concerns and possible actions that may be necessary.”
Both Montuori and Gilbert shared that, as testing technologies have improved, the evaluations will now be done at the parts per trillion level. Previously testing was done at the parts per billion level. Tewksbury is also going to test the groundwater discharges from Sutton Brook, a capped landfill in the town. Montuori does not believe it shares the same issue as the trucked in waste from New Hampshire but wants to be sure.
It is important for residents to understand that the handling of wastewater and drinking water are two separate processes which happen at two separate locations. Tewksbury maintains its own water treatment facility on Merrimac Drive to provide drinking water to the community. Tewksbury sends its wastewater sewage outflows to the Lowell Water Utility Duck Island Wastewater treatment plant for treatment, a service it pays for in the absence of its own wastewater treatment plant.
Stay tuned to the Crier for follow up to this story.