BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — The Buffalo Sewer Authority is the first in the country to test technology from an Ontario, Canada-based company that could benefit the Niagara River and the drinking water it provides to thousands of Western New Yorkers by reducing “forever chemicals” from wastewater.

Right now, the company StreamGo is in a pilot program with the sewer authority to pre-treat 150,000 gallons of landfill wastewater each day to remove fluorinated alkyl substances — also known as PFAS or “forever chemicals” — before the wastewater, also called leachate, enters the Bird Island Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The technology fits inside a semi-truck trailer, and Richard Nie, president and CEO of StreamGo, said the portable, compact size makes it a more economical option for some industries seeking to remove or reduce forever chemicals from wastestreams.

“The goal is to actually have a permanent facility there,” Nie said. “So, this unit would move on to the next location, and then we would manufacture a facility set for this location.”

Forever chemicals are a huge and costly environmental problem.

The chemicals for decades were added to consumer products, such as clothing, food containers, cosmetics and cookery, to make them non-stick or resistant to heat and stains.

They do not naturally degrade, and exposure to tiny amounts can be harmful. Prolonged exposure can increase the risks of cancer, liver and kidney diseases, immunodeficiencies, and reproductive complications.

As a result of their ubiquitous use, regulators and researchers are finding traces of the chemicals in soil, private wells, and public drinking water, as was the case in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., which forced the state to develop the nation’s first drinking water standard.

In May, News 4 Investigates reported how clean water advocates urged the sewer authority to stop treating landfill leachate.

Their chief concern is that the Bird Island Wastewater Treatment Plant is not equipped with technology that can completely remove forever chemicals from the treated water it discharges into the Niagara River, the drinking source for thousands of residents downstream of Buffalo.

The sewer authority has contracts with at least a half-dozen trucking companies that allow them to drop off tens of millions of gallons of landfill wastewater each year from Chaffee, Modern’s Model City, and Seneca Meadows in Seneca Falls, the state’s largest dump and a huge importer of landfill leachate to Buffalo.

Those contracts earned the sewer authority at least $5.6 million over three years, News 4 Investigates found by analyzing documents received through a Freedom of Information Law request. 

“One of the things we want to push back on, and it seems to be that, oh, there’s a profit motive in taking leachate,” said OJ McFoy, general manager of the Buffalo Sewer Authority. “No, there’s really a public health motive in taking leachate. If it doesn’t come to us at a very robust treatment facility, where does it go?”

Bird Island is the second-largest treatment plant in New York state, and McFoy said it can take on the additional loads that smaller plants cannot.

However, McFoy estimated it could cost the city upwards of $100 million to retrofit the plant for technology that can remove forever chemicals for the entire stream of wastewater.

That is a price tag McFoy said he did not want to saddle city ratepayers with when they aren’t at fault for the problem. He prefers the companies that created and proliferated their use should be held accountable for any costs associated with any removal or clean-up efforts.

“Unfortunately, these things are not coming from one particular industry,” McFoy said. “They’re in everything that we have, from your pots and pans to your pants and sneakers and your jackets. It’s everywhere and it has been for decades.

Efforts to hold accountable the makers of these chemicals continue, but a few tentative agreements have been made public.

In June, Chemours, DuPont, and Corteva, considered the big-three makers of “forever chemicals,” agreed to a $1.19 billion settlement for the first group of claims that the makers’ prolific use of the additives tainted drinking water. If made final, the money is expected to go to clean-up efforts of public water supplies contaminated with forever chemicals.

Another forever chemical maker, 3M, tentatively agreed to a deal worth $10 billion to resolve claims in cities and towns across the country.

Nie said StreamGo’s technology could provide a cost-effective path for places like landfills or sewer plants that are not responsible for creating forever chemicals, but are being asked to remove or reduce them from waste streams, such as leachate and sewage.

He said the technology uses foamy bubbles to remove forever chemicals from the leachate. That foam is collected into a concentrate that gets deconstructed into oxygen, fluoride, and water once there is enough volume.

Nie said the expensive part of the process is deconstructing the concentrate into something harmless. The deconstruction process normally does not begin until the StreamGo unit has produced at least 30 gallons of concentrate.

“We concentrate it so much that off of each batch run we make very little of the super concentrate that we want to destroy,” Nie said. “We can run for weeks at a time and make a bucket of this stuff and that’s why it’s so effective for becoming economical.”

McFoy said the authority will discuss an agreement with StreamGo for a permanent pre-treatment facility for the leachate, but he couldn’t disclose the costs yet.

What he did disclose, however, was testing of the finished product did not detect any forever chemicals.

“It’s a huge positive for the city,” McFoy said. “I mean, again, this is state of the art. We’re trying to be as proactive as we can.”

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Dan Telvock is an award-winning investigative producer and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.