PFAS!

PFAS!  The acronym brings up goosebumps on citizenry, regulators, and water quality professionals alike.  Though these human-made chemicals have been around for 70 years, they’ve stepped into the emerging toxins spotlight this year, and concern is growing.

Here’s a sampling of news headlines from throughout the U.S. on July 28:

  • Pentagon Announces PFAS Task Force to Address Contamination (EWG)
  • Farmers Are Losing Everything After “Forever Chemicals” Turn Up In Their Food (BuzzFeed News)
  • New York to Get Federal Funds for PFAS Health Study (Lexington Herald Leader)
  • Water System Operators Told to Test for PFAS Contamination (Greenwich Time)
  • Three Connecticut Rivers to be Tested This Summer for PFAS Chemical Pollution (Hartford Courant)
  • “Markedly higher” Levels of 2 PFAS Found in the Blood of NC Residents (WECTV)
  • Yakutat Officials Wary of State’s PFAS Double Standard (Alaska Public Media News)

This post will lay out the basics on PFAS; future posts will discuss current efforts by Vermont and other New England states to learn more about PFAS and to reduce human health risks associated with them.

What are PFAS, and why are they nicknamed “the forever chemicals”? 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances comprise a family of almost 5,000 compounds, being invented and manufactured continuously since 1940.  They’re called “forever chemicals” because that’s what they were designed to be – highly durable, resistant to grease, solvents, biodegradation, photodegradation, and heat.

They’re used in hundreds products, notably non-stick cookware, heat-resistant industrial materials (and processes), water- and stain-resistant sprays, carpets, food packaging, dental floss, paints, cleaning products, and firefighting foams. 

That means we have lots of opportunities to be exposed to them.  During Congressional testimony on July 24, Glenn Evers, a DuPont chemist for 22 years, claimed that 99% of Americans have PFAS in their blood and body cells.  And, Evers warned, “these chemicals stay in your blood and don’t leave. . . . there is not a single bacteria, mold, or virus, anything that will ever break this molecule down.”  He went on to say, “You can’t kill this beast.   You can only control it.”

How are humans exposed?

As the above suggests, we’re exposed from the moment we fry our breakfast eggs on a non-stick pan until we floss our teeth before bedtime.  The US EPA lists the following as the most common means or sources of exposure:

  • Eating food packaged in PFAS-containing materials or food grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water
  • Eating fish or wild game with high concentrations of PFAS
  • Inhaling or having skin contact with commercial household products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, etc., containing PFAS
  • Inhaling or having skin contact in workplaces, such as production facilities or industries using PFAS (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oil recovery)
  • Drinking water – whether from a well, a municipal supply, or bottled – that has been contaminated or packaged using materials/equipment containing PFAS
  • For babies, drinking breast milk from mothers who have been exposed to PFAS

What are the health dangers?

Definitive answers may not be available, yet.  While concern is universal among health authorities, high-confidence clinical literature is hard to find.  This is in part due to the fact that, with new PFAS continually being invented, there hasn’t been time to assess their health effects. 

PFOA and PFOS have been better studied; in lab animals, according to the US EPA, they have been shown to affect function of reproductive, developmental, endocrine, and immunological systems, and have caused tumors.

Among humans, the most consistent findings are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to:

  • low infant birth weights
  • reduced immune response
  • changes in liver function
  • kidney and testicular cancer (for PFOA), and
  • thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS)

But which of the 5,000 PFAS are most toxic?  What degree of health impairment results from what level of exposure, over how long?  Is there a safe level?  What products, foods, or circumstances cause the greatest uptake by the human body?  How can consumers minimize their exposure?

Well, as the ATSDR – Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry – explains, mildly, “Scientists are still learning about the health effects of exposure to mixtures of PFAS.”

Next: PFAS in water and wastewater, and what the EPA and states are doing about it.

To return to GMWEA’s website, CLICK HERE.

The Trouble with Food Scraps

The recent publication of GMWEA’s first “Don’t Flush It!” brochure sparked a lively discussion about food scraps among wastewater and solid waste management professionals.  Should be they be flushed or processed in in-sink disposal units — and thus allowed into septic tanks or municipal wastewater systems?

The brochure, “Cloggers!”, identifies materials that typical households flush or pour into their septic/sewer systems – fats, oils, and greases, along with solid items – that clog tanks, pumps, and pipes.

Food scraps proved to be the most nuanced of these materials, due to two, contradictory, characteristics:

1. They are valuable!  They contain sequestered nutritional value, energy, and money, and their value can still be recovered even after the scraps leave your kitchen. (The average American household throws away about $1,600 worth of food every year!) 

2. They are problematic!  Stored improperly, they can grow pathogens, stink, attract  pests, and generate greenhouse gases; flushed, they contribute to clogs in private septic systems and  municipal wastewater plants.

The issue is especially urgent in that Act 148, Vermont’s Universal Recycling & Composting Law, bans the disposal of food in landfills as of July 1, 2020.

What are we to think? Chittenden Solid Waste recently offered this view:

“. . . Don’t look at your garbage disposal for answers—Just ask the folks who manage wastewater treatment plants and witness the repercussions of putting the wrong things down the drain.

“’Organic overload is a concern in septic tanks as well as in wastewater treatment systems,’ says Jim Jutras, Water Quality Superintendent at the Water Resource Recovery Facility in Essex, Vt. ‘Another concern is “hydraulic overload,” where home septic systems and municipal systems . . . accumulate material that can cause trouble, such as “flushable” wipes, grease, and food scraps. This can result in costly repairs or sewage overflows.’

“Some residences don’t have their own system, but do connect directly to a municipal wastewater treatment plant, via pump stations, which require regular maintenance due to the increase in food scraps and ‘flushables’ that can hang up in the pump and cause backups and sewer overflows.

“. . . The bottom line: Drains and garbage disposals are not the solution for handling your food scraps. Public and private water systems, especially older ones, are not designed to handle much more than human waste from your toilet, rinse water from the kitchen sink, or bath/shower water. Even items marketed as ‘flushable’ can cause problems.”

However, Jeff Wennberg, Commissioner of Public Works in Rutland, offers this cautionary “minority report”:

“One-half of the dwelling units in Rutland City are rental units. The vast majority are multi-family homes and most of those do not have the homeowner residing in the home. In nearly all of these cases there is no yard to speak of (Rutland is only 7 square miles and 85% developed). The idea that absentee landlords are going to persuade renters to use composters in the apartment or on-site is totally unrealistic. Compliance with mandatory on-site composting will be 20% to 25% City-wide at best.”

Wennberg’s concern for compliance rates – and for petroleum used in transporting food waste to centralized composting or biodigestion facilities – is validated by past Vermont experiences in Zero Waste and post-consumer food-waste value optimization. 

What’s a householder to do?Fortunately, there are ways to avoid flushing food waste and to soften the edges of our hard choices. Again, thanks are due to CSWD for articulating some alternatives.

1. Store food better – buy smart and fine-tune your fridge

2. Donate food – plan your consumption, give excess to Vermont’s many hunger-fighting programs

3. Feed animals – get to know your local chicken and pig farmers

4. Digest it – compost it yourself, or find a neighbor who does

5. Recover energy – not yet an option in Vermont, but rather a systemic goal to strive for.

CSWD offers more excellent advice at  www.cswd.net/reduce-and-reuse/reducing-food-waste/

To return to GMWEA’s website, CLICK HERE.

The Best in the Business!

The nominations came in, the panels convened, and deliberations were duly made. On May 23, 2019, at GMWEA’s annual Spring Member Meeting and Conference, 10 awards were presented to individuals and facilities for their exceptional service in water quality fields in 2018 — or, in one case, a lifetime.

We congratulate the awardees and thank them for their commitment to protecting public health and Vermont’s beautiful environment!

Ashleigh Belrose, above, operator at South Burlington’s Airport Parkway WRRF, won the Bob Wood Young Professionals Award, given to a young professional operator or engineer (30 or under) who has achieved notable contributions to the water environment, water or wastewater operations, and/or to GMWEA.

Rod Munroe, lab director, City of Rutland Wastewater, received the Andrew D. Fish Laboratory Excellence Award, presented for outstanding activity in laboratory performance at work, community service, education, committee participation, or other outstanding contribution.

Chelsea Mandigo, stormwater coordinator/operator, Village of Essex Junction, won the Stormwater Award, presented for outstanding performance in stormwater management and/or education, and significant contribution to the stormwater field.​

Peter Krolczyk, operator, Town of Waterbury, was presented with the Operator Excellence – Wastewater award, given for outstanding performance in system maintenance, protecting public health, and achievement beyond normal responsibilities.

John Tymecki, operator, Champlain Water District, won the Michael J. Garofano Water Operator of the Year Award, presented for outstanding performance in system maintenance, protecting public health, and achievement beyond normal responsibilities.

(Above) The Town Of Ludlow WWTF won the Facility Excellence Award, Wastewater, given annually for outstanding facilities exceeding system operation requirements. Recognition is for the entire facility and staff.

Jim Fay, general manager (retiring!) of Champlain Water District, was presented with GMWEA’s prestigious Founder’s Award, given to individuals for significant contributions to the water quality professions and GMWEA during a lifetime of service.

Chris Cox, chief operator at Montpelier WRRF, received the 2019 President’s Award, presented to water quality professionals demonstrating exceptional achievement in their fields and service on behalf of Green Mountain Water Environment Association’s mission.

Kevin Corliss, operator at Drew’s All Naturals, LLC, in Chester, received the Outstanding Industrial Operator Award, presented for significant accomplishments in operation, problem solving, crisis management, training, or understanding of industrial wastewater issues.

Global Foundries WWTF, Essex Junction, received the Outstanding Industrial Facility Award, given for demonstrated commitment to clean water and pollution prevention, including implementation of water or wastewater treatment changes to address problems common to similar industries.

To return to GWMEA’s website, click here.

What’s the Big Idea? (3)

This is the third post in my “What’s the Big Idea?” series — this time, more of a photo essay or info-graphic. There is method to the madness here – I’m working around to the seven Big Ideas developed by the U.S. Water Alliance as part of their One Water policy framework.

But the sheer scale of water and wastewater management is SO huge, and issues of physical scale are SO important to water use and policy (and cost!), I figure readers can use another bigness to grapple with: How much is a million gallons? That number comes to mind because here in Montpelier, Vermont — a town of about 8,000 hardy souls — we use an average of one million gallons of treated water every day.

“A million gallons” is easy to say, but how much is it, really?  Sometimes I think even the drinking water and wastewater people I work with don’t really get it.

Well, everyone knows how big a gallon of milk (or water) is.  Here’s an illustration of one gallon, in the usual plastic jug, with a young man about six feet tall.

Below, here he is again, having just stacked 1,000 of those jugs. I have made every effort to keep the scale accurate — though I admit those jugs put some air between the gallons.

Below, here he is again, with 100,000 such gallon jugs.

And, at last, with one million gallons.

Here in Montpelier, we use that much, on average, every day.  Makes you think about, say, New York City’s one billion gallons per day – one thousand times more.  If you stacked that amount in one-gallon plastic milk jugs, as I’ve done here, it would look about like midtown Manhattan – many dense blocks of skyscrapers.

A whole city-scape poured, drunk, washed with, flushed, and drained — and replaced — every day. Oh — and it all then goes to a wastewater treatment facility to be cleaned up afterward.

The scale of our water use and pollution is mind-boggling, and the science, engineering, technology, infrastructure, and professional community that manages it deserve our awe and admiration.

To return to GMWEA’s website, click here.

VtSTEM Winners!

Congratulations to our 2019 Vermont STEM fair water quality project winners!  The four students were chosen from among 200 student scientists who presented their projects on March 30, at Norwich University.  The annual fair features exhibits by middle and high school students from throughout the state, all of whom won local-level competitions for their experiments.

Clearly, cyanobacteria/algae and phosphorus are hot topics in Vermont’s schools, and all four 2019 winners addressed them in various ways.

Virginia Snyder

Virginia Snyder, in 11th grade at Windsor Schools, won the top award of $150 for her project “Designing a Solar-powered Ultrasonic Cyanobacteria Growth Inhibitor.”  Virginia explored using sound to suppress algae blooms by exposing four colonies of Anabaena to different ultrasonic wavelengths. She is motivated by the technology’s potential to treat natural bodies of water, but in the near future hopes to run tests on her algae growth inhibitor in home fish aquariums.  GMWEA’s judges were impressed by her knowledge of biology and sound physics, her use of multiple means of assessment, and the quality of her exhibit.  She is the student of Catharine Engwall.

Audrey Chairvolotti

Audrey Chairvolotti, a home-schooled 9th grader from Grand Isle, also won GMWEA’s top award of $150 for “Effects of Nonpoint-Source Pollutants on Cyanobacteria Growth.” Also concerned with algae blooms in Lake Champlain, Audrey collected cyanobacteria samples from a dense bloom on the lake, then tested their growth in 14 different solutions. The judges appreciated the thoroughness of her experimental protocols, her management of controls, her enthusiasm, and her understanding of biochemistry, as demonstrated in discussion and her exhibit.  She cites her mother, Sheila Chairvolotti, as her instructor for the project.

Emily King

Emily King, a 9th grader at Missisquoi Valley Union H.S., won $100 for “How Effective Will Substances Be in Binding to Phosphorus During Filtration?”  Seeking to identify  possible phosphorus (P) mitigation methods, Emily explored chemicals likely to bond with P, potentially allowing for filtration prior to entry to Lake Champlain.  She envisions additional testing to determine impacts of the binders on aquatic animal and plant life.  The judges were struck by her trans-disciplinary approach – testing P binders known from the treatment of kidney disease – and consideration of both possibilities and impediments to use of phosphorous-binding filtration.  She is a student of Richard Ballard.

Jaylyn Davidson

Jaylyn Davidson, a 10th grader at Northfield High School, won GMWEA’s $50 scholarship for “Is Algae Part of the Solution for Environmental Pollution?” Jaylyn explored the potentials for three types of algae and a flowering aquatic plant (duckweed) to help mitigate atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by sequestering CO2 through “farming” in lakes and oceans.  Growing each in four different nutrient solutions, she assessed biomass increase as a measure of CO2 uptake. The judges appreciated her concern for the global environment, her understanding of biochemistry, and her motivation to pursue a career in marine biology.  She is the student of Shane Heath.

We commend these terrific young scientists for their enthusiasm, discipline, and devotion to water ecosystems!

Many thanks are due to Aaron Perez and Paul Sestito, water systems specialists at Vermont Rural Water Association, for joining executive director Daniel Hecht to judge this year’s STEM fair.

To return to GMWEA’s website, click here.

What’s the Big Idea? (2)

In the prior “Big Idea” post, I started with the idea that the traditional view of the water cycle is no longer accurate.  To the classic four phases – precipitation, flow, evaporation, and condensation – we need to add a fifth.  That’s mankind’s use and pollution of the 1% of the world’s water that’s available in fresh, liquid form.

The sheer scale of our water use is mind-boggling.  In the U.S. alone, our household use totals 32 billion gallons per day.  And that’s only about one-eighth of the total volume we use; much more is used in thermoelectric power plants, manufacturing, irrigation, and mining. 

Point to consider: It all has to get cleaned up before we use it — and again after we use it.

More big numbers: Here in the U.S., we use 1.2 million miles of pipe to bring us clean water.  How far is that?  It’s as if we pumped our 32 billion gallons a day to the moon, then back, then back up to the moon and back to Earth again, and yet again up to the moon.  (You can also think of it as 26 miles of water pipe for every mile of Interstate highway we have.)

For wastewater, we in the U.S. use 750,000 miles of public sewer lines and 500,000 miles of additional lines connecting private property to public sewer lines.  Picture the same illustration, except that it’s sewage moving through the pipe.

The moon doesn’t want our sewage, any more than our rivers do.  So, we clean that water up in the 14,748 publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities that process what comes through those pipes.  As my uncle used to say, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.  Or maybe not.”

Next: More mind-boggling examples of water/wastewater infrastructure scale. Oh, and big money.

Source for data: American Society of Civil Engineers; Bipartisan Policy Center.

To return to GMWEA’s website, CLICK HERE.

A New Hampshire Operator’s Visit to Vermont

Looking at my blank computer screen now, I am wondering what I can say that would be different.  How can I describe my wastewater operator exchange experience in Vermont?

Before June of 2017, I had no idea this program existed — until my plant superintendent shared an e-mail from New Hampshire Dept. of Environmental Services, asking if we were interested in sending an operator. I corresponded with N.H. contact Mike Carle, and he got my name submitted as an alternate with Sean Greig.

Later, my exchange confirmed, Chris Robinson — water quality superintendent of Shelburne, Vermont — contacted me with a final itinerary for my visit, Nov. 6, 7, and 8, 2018.  Chris was also gracious enough to take me around to the plants on the second day of my tour.  He explained the processes these plants use and the type of work they do to avoid having a negative impact on the environment.  

The author, third from front on left, with co-conspirators at the DoubleTree Hotel in Burlington, Vermont, during his exchange.

The treatment plant tours, on the first two days, were very interesting. I was led through plants by operators with experience ranging from two months to over 30 years. In every case, they explained each step of their process with me and shared insights about how they keep things running — in some cases, while dealing with storm flows and equipment failures.

During my tour, I also spoke with lab techs at each plant, asking what types of tests they run and where they grab samples when they do checks on equipment. There was even time to look through the microscope on the Shelburne tour and talk about the installation of DO and ORP monitoring probes.

I was also lucky enough to meet a local farmer and ride along on a land application of treated liquid fertilizer fresh from the plant.

Spreader tank taking on biosolids for land application at the Essex Junction plant.

I discovered that plants use disk filters to polish effluent before it passes through UV lights for disinfection; operators explained that the filters help extend the service life between cleanings on light racks.

All of the plants running digesters were using the methane gas for heating and power generation, and some, coupled with solar, were able to greatly cut power costs.                    

Some plants were not set up for sludge thickening and have to truck the material to other plants to process.  The plant where I work is in the same situation, so our town is considering upgrades to add machinery that will eliminate trucking costs.  In the past, our facility was rarely used by haulers, but recently surrounding towns have set limits on daily amounts being accepted. Along with rate changes, this results in an increase in truck traffic.

My Vermont tour allowed me to ask people about maintenance issues with the septage receiving units, as I noticed we all share the same brand of equipment. There are so many different thoughts on septage; some plants are able to handle the loads better, while others are limited in capacity.

I spent my final day at GMWEA’s trade show, where I was able to meet with sales reps and get information on all of the newest technology for treatment plants. The event  also included trainings for operators; I went to the morning Basic Math class and was pleasantly surprised at how much information they got across in an hour, with a very good instructor who understood how to keep it simple. Later, I sat in on the polymer course, and I was pleased to walk away with useful information that I can share with coworkers.

If I had to pick out one thing that stuck with me from the exchange program, it’s how well every one worked together between the different towns and operators.  You get the sense that everyone is working toward the same goal: protecting the environment and producing skilled professional operators.

As operators we need to take time to thank groups like Green Mountain Water, who are willing to invest in us.  Consider signing up and being a part of something that can make a difference!

Submitted by Ernie Smalley

Year of the Waynes

Congratulations to Wayne Elliott and Wayne Graham!!  Both were honored at the New England Water Environment Association (NEWEA) Awards Banquet in January, held at the Marriott Copley Place in Boston. The awards were presented in recognition of their dedication and contributions to the wastewater industry.

Left to right: Wayne Graham, Chris Robinson, and Wayne Elliott

Wayne Elliott, principal at Aldrich & Elliott,  Essex Junction, Vermont, received the 2018 Alfred E. Peloquin award.  This award is given annually to an individual who has shown a high level of interest and performance in wastewater operations and who has made a significant contribution to the wastewater field in such areas as improvements to the environment, cost effective plant operations, public relations, innovative process controls, industrial pre-treatment, training, Association contributions and related activities.

Wayne Graham, wastewater specialist at Vermont Rural Water Association, also based in Essex Junction, Vermont, received the 2018 Operator award.  This award is given annually to an individual who has shown a high interest and performance in wastewater operations and has made a significant contribution to the wastewater field.

If you happen to know someone who is deserving of either of these awards, please contact your NEWEA State Director, Chris Robinson, at crobinson@shelburnevt.org.  Nominations close on June 1st.

Contributed by Chris Robinson, GMWEA board member, NEWEA state representative, and water quality superintendent of the Town of Shelburne. Photos by Shannon Robinson.

To return to GMWEA’s website, CLICK HERE.

What’s the Big Idea? (1)

This is the first of a series of posts about big numbers, big systems, and big ideas.

Most water quality professionals don’t have time to worry much about the big picture.  People like facility operators, town managers, and DPW administrators are kept plenty busy treating their allotted gallons per day, fixing busted equipment, eliminating contaminants, completing reports, or searching municipal budgets to find money for maintenance.

But big ideas are crucial.  They provide inspiring visions — or warnings — that can move us to make good choices for the future.  No matter how well disciplined a ship’s crew, or how well maintained its mechanical systems, the first thing a ship needs when it leaves port is a destination.  

When it comes to how we manage water, we need to have the guidance of a larger vision.  We need to have an idea of where we ought to go.

First, we should remember that only about 1% of the world’s water is readily usable for us. That is, it exists as fresh (not salty), liquid (not frozen) water. Then factor in our ever-growing demand for it and our increasing pollution of it.  Obviously, we need a long-term vision for our management of this life-sustaining resource.

Next, we need to update our traditional vision of the “water cycle.”  In grade school, most of us learned a tidy four-part sequence: 1) water falls from the sky as rain or snow; 2) flows into rivers and lakes and oceans; 3) evaporates back into the sky; 4) condenses into clouds and falls again as precipitation.


Where are the homes, office towers, factories, power plants, and farm fields in this old-fashioned schematic?

But now we know there’s another phase in the cycle.  Humanity’s use and pollution of water requires that it go through extensive cleansing processes before it can return to the ground or surface waters, and before we can safely use it again. 

To understand why that’s so, we need a realistic sense of scale – how much water we use. 

Talk about “big!”  In the U.S., our  daily domestic use averages about 95 gallons per day, per person (variable by region).  When we flush, brush, shower, do the laundry, and water the lawn, we use about 32,000,000,000 gallons per day. Where does it all go?

32 billion gallons.  Per day.  Domestic use only. Just in the U.S.

Now consider that domestic use constitutes only about 13%, one-eighth, of the total amount of fresh water we use daily.  We use the other 87% in thermoelectric plants, irrigation, manufacturing, mining, and other functions. 

Not a drop of that water leaves our sinks, toilets, lawns, fields, pipes, or factories unpolluted.  That’s why 53% of America’s river and stream miles, 71% of our lake acres, 79% of our estuarian square miles, and 98% of Great Lakes shorelines are classified as “impaired” by at least one criterion in a 2018 U.S. EPA survey.

If you’re not daunted yet, be sure to read the next post on the bigness of our water infrastructure and the bigness of cost needed to make it work.  Then, on to some inspiring, solution-oriented Big Ideas offered by the U.S. Water Alliance!

Source for data and charts: U.S. EPA: https://www.epa.gov/watersense/how-we-use-water

To return to GMWEA’s website, go to www.gmwea.org.