Courtesy of the Mattabassett District
Mattabassett District sewage treatment plant (Courtesy of the Mattabassett District)

HARTFORD, CT—Operators of sewage plants in Connecticut are beginning to grapple with the challenge of responding to public health concerns about PFAS chemicals.

A report from the state’s PFAS Task Force has identified wastewater treatment plants as one of the primary pathways for PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances) to enter the environment because of high concentrations in industrial and commercial wastewater.

Connecticut’s treatment plants are not capable of removing PFAS from the wastewater flows they accept, and often they are not equipped to perform the delicate testing process needed to detect small concentrations of PFAS.

“We’ve invested quite a bit of public dollars into our infrastructure in the last decade,” said Jennifer Perry, assistant director of water planning and management at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “We really are putting a lot of money into our wastewater infrastructure, but those plants were not ever designed to remove PFAS. They don’t generate PFAS, they’re the purveyors of the PFAS that comes to them.”

Scientists and health officials are still studying the long-term effects of exposure to PFAS, but the chemicals are pervasive in our environment, our food and our bodies. They are used in thousands of consumer products because they are ultra-effective in waterproofing and fire suppression, but are specifically designed to never break down and therefore persist for years in the environment.

The EPA has been issuing advisories about PFAS since at least 2013, but its concerning presence in the environment has only entered the public consciousness more recently.

Perry said testing the inflows and outflows to get baseline data, as recommended by the task force, will help with an understanding of where treatment might be effective. It will also help determine the original sources of contamination, and how to best remove it from the wastewater or catch it before it enters the wastewater flows, she said.

“You really need to go back and look at where the source is,” Perry said. “We’re really looking at it on a broader state level with baseline data at plants and water bodies.”

In Connecticut, the push to understand PFAS came after an accidental spill of firefighting foam from a business operating a hanger at Bradley International Airport in early June. Tens of thousands of gallons of the foam entered the Farmington River in Windsor through sewer systems, prompting warnings from state agencies about using the water.

“The main pathways for continued releases of PFAS to the environment are discharges to air, soil, water, and municipal wastewater treatment facilities as a result of industrial and commercial processes, as well as the use of AFFF [firefighting foam] for both training and incident response,” the task force wrote in its action plan issued Nov. 1.

The report is primarily aimed at understanding the primary ways people and the environment are exposed to PFAS.

This year the state has taken major strides in understanding PFAS contamination and its potential effects on public health. Much of the work has focused on what’s still unknown, like the largest sources of PFAS and the sources that contribute most to human exposure.

“There’s pretty big push to try to get some kind of outlook and direction on where the PFAS is going for the wastewater industry,” said Art Simonian, executive director of the Mattabassett District in Cromwell, which processes wastewater for Cromwell, Berlin, New Britain and Middletown. “We feel we absolutely have to get involved in this. When regulations come down, the discharge of pollutants is regulated through state and federal agencies. It’s good planning on our part to get ahead of it and know where we’re at before the regulations come down.”

The Mattabassett District has done some early testing of flows that reach the plant and the treated effluent that is discharged into the Connecticut River, and both flows, not surprisingly, have detectable levels of PFAS. Simonian said the testing hasn’t been done to the most stringent of EPA standards yet.

The plant has not done sampling of its ash or biosolid waste, he said. Connecticut is one of only a few states that requires incineration of biosolids, and the Mattabassett District is one of five plants in the state with an incinerator. Simonian said Mattabassett incinerator’s 1,450-degree Fahrenheit burn temperature isn’t nearly high enough to remove PFAS, which breaks down at temperatures over 1,800 degrees.

“Even though we’re not the producers, we end up getting stuck with it because it’s in the waste stream,” Simonian said. “We want to be good environmental stewards. We don’t want to add to any problems.”

PFAS are thought to cause higher cholesterol levels, decreased immune response, slower growth and learning, behavioral effects, and increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer.

Lamont’s chief operating officer, Paul Mounds, Jr., said the governor’s office has begun planning for its PFAS-related priorities in the next legislative session beginning in February, primarily focusing on resources needed to begin baseline testing procedures, he said.

Mounds was Lamont’s representative on the PFAS Task Force, and said the topic remains a top priority for the Lamont administration.

“The fact that the governor called for the task force shows it’s an immediate need to be addressed,” Mounds said. “It’s an issue of concern for the state of Connecticut. We now have another hard job, putting these recommendations into practice. By the end of the year we should be prepared to talk about what we need for the legislative session.”

Mounds said the Lamont administration has had many conversations about how to alleviate the concerns about firefighting foam being released into the environment. Federal and state codes require its use in many cases, but there is plenty of room to review storage and training procedures to limit the exposure, he said.

“I couldn’t be happier with the work done by the task force over the timeline the governor provided,” Mounds said. “The task force speaks to what this administration stands for. We have many issues agencies have to work on on behalf of the people of Connecticut.”