Some locals refer to the man-made mountain of garbage greeting visitors to the Finger Lakes region in Seneca Falls as Mount Trashmore.
The small town two hours east of Buffalo is best known for the wineries that dot Cayuga Lake and for being the Birthplace of Women’s Rights. But the town is also home to the state’s largest dump, Seneca Meadows landfill, whose expansion request with the state could impact residents here in Western New York, even though barely any of the roughly 2 billion tons of trash buried there is from this region.
The wastewater, or “leachate,” from Seneca Meadows and at least four other landfills, is treated at the Bird Island Wastewater Treatment plant to remove contaminants before being discharged into the Niagara River.
Environmental advocates have long been against the practice, but escalating worry over fluorinated alkyl substances, or “forever chemicals,” brought a new sense of urgency to their efforts.
State testing over the past few years found high concentrations of two common forever chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, in landfill leachate, including at Seneca Meadows.
In addition, the groundwater beneath hundreds of closed landfills is contaminated, and so are more than 100 drinking water wells near some areas tested.
Environmental advocates are concerned that the Bird Island Wastewater Treatment Plant is not equipped with technology that can completely remove forever chemicals from the water it discharges into the Niagara River, the drinking source for thousands of residents downstream of Buffalo.
In addition, the state does not require wastewater treatment plant operators to regularly test for the compounds in treated water, although that step is under consideration. Landfills, on the other hand, test the leachate for emerging chemicals, such as PFOA and PFOS, for at least five years, but only when a new landfill cell is opened.
Critics who have reviewed the leachate testing wonder why would any wastewater treatment plant operator want to treat this toxic soup? One reason could be money.
News 4 Investigates reviewed hundreds of documents obtained through two Freedom of Information law requests, and found that being the welcome mat for landfill leachate has earned the Buffalo Sewer Authority at least $5.6 million in revenue over the past three years.
BSA permits some trucking companies to dispose of up to 60,000 gallons of landfill leachate per day at the Bird Island plant. State records show the plant treated 40 million gallons of toxic leachate from just Seneca Meadows this past year, which was more than 60% of the landfill’s total volume.
Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, said they have already found traces of forever chemicals in 100% of local waterways tested by the nonprofit. Therefore, sewer authorities like Buffalo should reconsider “importing this kind of waste into our community,” she said.
“First off, sewer authorities, in general, are in the business of clean water,” Jedlicka said. “Their goal is to help maintain the health and integrity of our waterways and protect people, but unfortunately the sewer authorities are also responsible for discharging pollution into our waterways as part of that process.”
Forever chemicals are added to everyday consumer products, such as clothing and furniture, carpets, non-stick cookware, and cosmetics. The qualities that make them more dangerous are their man-made durability and how they increase in potency inside the living bodies that consumed them.
Tiny amounts are considered toxic, and health risks from prolonged exposure include increased risk of cancer, liver and kidney diseases, immunodeficiencies, and reproductive complications.
While none of the public water providers downstream of Buffalo has exceeded the state’s drinking water limit for these chemicals, researchers say little is known about the quantities that persist through the treatment process and end up in our waterways.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation released guidance in March for private businesses, which will eventually lead to changes in the permit process for a smaller, “priority” group of businesses to reduce forever chemicals in any of their effluent discharged into waterways designated for drinking water.
The DEC is also considering rules that require landfill operators to pre-treat leachate onsite to reduce concentrations of chemicals, including PFOS and PFOA, before being discharged at a wastewater treatment plant or directly into a waterway.
O.J. McFoy, the general manager of the Buffalo Sewer Authority, said Bird Island is the second-largest treatment plant in the state, and has the capacity to treat leachate.
McFoy said it could cost Buffalo more than $100 million to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant to further reduce the concentrations of forever chemicals in the treated water discharged into the Niagara River.
As a result, McFoy urged regulators not to pass costs down to ratepayers and wastewater treatment plant operators, neither of whom are responsible for this problem.
“Just like every other chemical, every other pharmaceutical, every other emerging contaminant, it starts elsewhere and makes its way to us,” McFoy said. “We have a responsibility to clean. When that responsibility becomes very costly, that’s not where we should be, not a community like Buffalo.”
PFOS/PFOA contamination common at landfills
Jim Malley, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of New Hampshire, said many people are surprised that forever chemical compounds started to appear in consumer products after World War II.
Landfills, leachate, and wastewater treatment plants are hotbeds for forever chemicals, Malley said. However, the operators of these facilities did not create these chemicals, and therefore shouldn’t be blamed.
“The landfill and the treatment plant aren’t really the bad guys,” Malley said. “They just happen to be the concentrators.”
Malley said state and federal environmental regulators are scrambling to balance how to stem the flow of these toxic chemicals in the environment, without dramatically increasing the costs of doing business.
“It sort of hit us like a tidal wave,” Malley said.
The Hoosick Falls drinking water crisis in 2016 led to New York being the first state to pass enforceable drinking water standards for forever chemicals at 10 parts per trillion. For perspective, 1 part per trillion is equal to an eyedrop of water into 20 Olympic-sized pools.
Since then, the state has spent more than $20 million over five years to ramp up testing for a group of forever chemicals at closed landfills across the state. The work included testing more than 1,900 closed landfills and the groundwater beneath them, which can contaminate lakes, rivers and private wells used for drinking water.
Through this work, the state discovered that forever chemicals in groundwater beneath the inactive landfills are relatively common, and some nearby drinking water wells had been contaminated with the same substances.
In fact, about 70% of closed landfills DEC investigated had PFOS and PFOA in the groundwater at levels that exceeded the state’s drinking water limit, according to DEC’s July 2022 report on testing at inactive landfills.
At least 165 wells had elevations of one or both compounds above the state’s drinking water limit. Another 282 drinking water samples had traces of both chemicals below the state’s limit.
The state identified several significant cleanup projects downstate in Putnam and Westchester counties.
For example, testing in 2019 found contaminated groundwater near the inactive WGC Labriola Landfill in the Town of New Castle in Westchester County.
The state sampled at least 224 water wells near the closed landfill, and discovered that 115 of them had one or both of the compounds above the state’s drinking water limit.
The state said it installed at least 78 treatment systems, at no cost to homeowners, and provided bottled water as an alternative drinking source to other affected homeowners.
Due to the initiative’s success, the DEC said the testing will continue, and some investigations could be expanded.
“Very much in the last six years since this PFAS era has really come in front of us, day in and day out, our experts here at DEC have been working hard to really evaluate all the steps we have to take as responsible regulators to protect drinking water and protect New Yorkers,” said Sean Mahar, the DEC’s executive deputy commissioner.
Water tests produce ‘staggering’ results
Stemming the flow of these chemicals into local waterways has become a priority for waterkeeper organizations across the nation, including Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper.
Jedlicka, the nonprofit’s executive director, said first-of-its-kind research by 350 Waterkeeper organizations found 83% of the waterways tested are contaminated with forever chemicals.
Jedlicka said they detected traces of forever chemicals in 100% of the waterways tested in Western New York, including Cayuga and Gill creeks in Niagara County and Scajaquada Creek in Buffalo.
Potential sources of contamination included landfills, wastewater treatment plants, airports, and aerospace and sensor manufacturers. In fact, the Waterkeeper report states that the forever chemicals found in Cayuga Creek were also added to firefighting foam used by the nearby Niagara Falls International Airport.
“The governments aren’t testing this,” Jedlicka said. “Nobody’s done this before, and the results were staggering. Here in Western New York, we discovered a 100% hit rate — every waterway that we tested had some form of PFOS chemical in it.”
Jedlicka said the situation has not reached a panic stage, but more action is needed.
“But these are all signals telling us that we need to act, and we need to act now, before this becomes a problem that is completely out of our control,” Jedlicka said.
Leachate to Buffalo
The Buffalo Sewer Authority contracts with more than a half-dozen trucking companies that can deliver between 30,000 gallons and 60,000 gallons of leachate per day for treatment. 22,400,000
The sewer authority earned at least $5.6 million over three years from trucking companies that haul landfill leachate. In some contracts, the sewer authority charged as little as 4 cents per gallon to dispose of leachate.
Documents obtained by News 4 Investigates show the sewer authority also treats leachate from landfills in Chaffee, Modern’s in Model City, and Ontario County, in addition to Seneca Meadows.
But none export more to Buffalo than Seneca Meadows.
The Buffalo Sewer Authority treats the leachate, mixed with other sewage and wastewater, before discharging it into the Niagara River.
The concern advocates have is that wastewater treatment plants do not have the technology to completely remove the compounds through the treatment process. Researchers said there hasn’t been enough work to determine the quantity of forever chemicals that persist through treatment and end up in our local waterways.
With that said, none of the public water providers with intakes downstream of Buffalo has exceeded the state’s drinking water limit for PFOS and PFOA.
And that’s good news, but advocates said they would still prefer the Buffalo Sewer Authority stopped treating landfill leachate until more is known about available technologies and other less-costly options.
Right now, McFoy, of the sewer authority, said the costs to treat forever chemicals at a facility as large as the one in Buffalo would be “astronomical.” But if that’s a route the state eventually takes, McFoy said city residents should not be saddled with paying for any of it.
“We are not the producers” of these chemicals, McFoy said. “We’re looking at $100 million for the process of treating at a facility like Buffalo.”
The Seneca Meadows Landfill, owned by Waste Connections based in Texas, was expected to close in 2025.
But the election of two landfill allies to the Seneca Falls Town Board in 2021 provided the majority Waste Connections needed to push for its 47-acre expansion.
Yvonne Taylor, vice president of Seneca Lake Guardian, said the expansion would add 14 years to the landfill’s lifespan.
Over that time, the landfill would produce roughly a billion more gallons of leachate, which could be transported to Buffalo’s wastewater treatment plant and others in Watertown, Chittenango, and Steuben County.
“They want to continue operating through 2040, and that’s not the direction we need to go in, not only for our community, but all of the communities that are impacted by this landfill across New York state,” Taylor said.
McFoy said there are plans to test for these compounds in both the wastewater that enters the treatment plant and the treated water discharged into the Niagara River. That work will help determine how effective the plant is at removing the compounds from wastewater.
“And I know the big push has been how much closer can we get to zero, and they need to understand that that comes with a cost,” McFoy said. “If that cost is aimed at the right promulgators of this stuff, then that’s fine. If it’s aimed at the communities that are going to have to bear the cost, then it’s wrong.”
Wastewater treatment plants next?
Lawmakers in New York and other states have proposed or passed legislation in attempts to address the problem.
State lawmakers already banned the use of PFAS in food packaging, and a similar ban on apparel begins next year.
Both state and federal lawmakers also pitched legislation to require more testing for forever chemicals, and have urged regulators to craft regulations that reduce these chemicals in the effluent of wastewater treatment plants and other entities.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s Clean Water Standards for PFAS 2.0 Act would require the EPA to develop guidelines and standards to keep forever chemicals out of wastewater treatment plants.
“My job is to get more resources to clean up any water that’s polluted with PFAS, and that’s what I’m committed to doing” said Sen. Kirtsen Gillibrand.
The DEC this past month provided guidance for a yet-to-be determined number of manufacturers and industrial plants to add requirements in their permits to reduce forever chemicals in the effluent they discharge into waterways designated for drinking water.
But wastewater treatment plants are not included in this phase.
Mahar, the DEC’s executive deputy commissioner, said one option the agency is reviewing is requiring landfill operators to pre-treat all leachate before it gets transported to treatment plants. The state also modified permit applications to eventually require wastewater treatment plant operators to test for emerging chemicals.
Seneca Meadows pre-treats about one-fifth of its leachate through a reverse osmosis system, before it is discharged into the local sewer system. But it is unclear if the landfill has capacity to pre-treat more leachate. Landfill representatives did not respond to numerous emails.
“It’s our responsibility to figure out the next steps to take, and that’s very much what we’re in the middle of now, and why we’re looking at our permitting authorities, why we’re looking at our regulatory programs, and how we’re looking holistically at the laws of the state to make sure that we’ve got the right protections in place,” Mahar said.
Meanwhile, McFoy, of the Buffalo Sewer Authority, agreed he could end the practice of treating landfill leachate, but he’s not sure that will solve the problem.
“Yes, we can, but I always offer this up: We’re doing our public health duty,” McFoy said. “If we’re not taking it, where is it going? Is it going into our rivers, lakes, and streams without any treatment? Where is it going to go?”
Concerned about forever chemicals in drinking water? Both granular activated carbon filters and reverse osmosis systems have proven effective at reducing PFAS in drinking water. Click here for more information. However, it is critical to replace the filter as often as the manufacturer recommends, or you risk contaminating the water with the dirty filter.
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.