Lowell officials are backing away from a controversial deal with a New Hampshire landfill to dispose of chemical-laden wastewater in the Merrimack River amid concerns about contamination and a public outcry.
On Thursday, the city announced it is suspending a contact between the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility and Turnkey landfill in Rochester, New Hampshire, to dispose of runoff polluted with chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. The Lowell plant, located on Duck Island, is permitted by federal and state regulators to treat wastewater before disposing of it in the river.
In a statement, the city said it believes the discharges of treated leachate runoff from the plant do "not pose a threat to public health, including to downriver communities that draw drinking water from the Merrimack."
"Nevertheless, out of an abundance of caution, a decision was made that the acceptance of leachate from the Turnkey landfill at the Duck Island facility will be suspended," the statement read.
The city said it is working with the state Department of Environmental Protection to test PFAS levels at the Duck Island facility and in the Merrimack River.
The move follows a decision by state and federal regulators to renew a permit that allowed the discharges into the river, a source of drinking water for more than 600,000 people.
The new permit, issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, would have allowed the plant to accept up to 100,000 gallons of wastewater a day from the landfill, which is operated by Texas-based Waste Management. The company, which has disposed of wastewater at the Lowell plant for several years, said the discharges are in compliance with the EPA permit.
A Waste Management spokesman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Caitlin Peale Sloan, senior staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, welcomed the decision but noted there are still concerns about what will happen to the chemical-laden wastewater.
"Canceling the Turnkey contract would be great for the health of the Merrimack and downstream residents, but the fact remains that this landfill is still producing toxic leachate that has to go somewhere," she said in a statement.
"We will only be safe from these dangerous chemicals when our elected officials require strict PFAS standards to keep them out of our water."
Regulators approved the permit in September, despite concerns from environmental groups that the wastewater being trucked to the plant was heavily contaminated with PFAS chemicals.
The compounds, once used in everything from firefighting foam to nonstick pans, have been dubbed "forever chemicals" because they take thousands of years to degrade and accumulate in the human body.
The EPA set its PFAS standards three years ago, classifying the compounds as an "emerging contaminant" linked to liver cancer and other health problems. In addition to cancers, studies have found potential ties between high levels of PFAS and increased cholesterol levels and problems in pregnancies.
Despite that, EPA officials noted in the wastewater plant's new five-year permit that it "does not require monitoring for these pollutants.”
Federal regulators say tests of drinking water in 2014 in several Merrimack Valley communities — including Lawrence and Andover — didn't detect unsafe amounts of PFAS.
But, in documents filed with the EPA, landfill operators noted recent tests revealed contamination levels of nearly 10,000 parts per trillion. The 117-mile Merrimack is one of the state's most polluted rivers, with much of its contamination coming from overflow pipes that are part of decades-old sewer and stormwater systems.
Environmental groups devoted to cleaning up the Merrimack say the chemical-laden discharges from the Lowell plant foul the river even further. They say regulators aren't doing enough.
"It's seems to be an issue that regulators really don't have a solid handle on," said John Macone, co-director of the Merrimack River Watershed Council. "But they need to catch up quick, to protect the water supply and the environment."