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Water tests in Steuben County show high PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ in areas adjacent to sewage sludge spread

Leo Dickson and Sons on Bonny Hill Rd. in the town of Bath.
Natalie Abruzzo
Leo Dickson and Sons on Bonny Hill Rd. in the town of Bath.

Water tests in parts of Steuben County show the presence of toxic PFAS—or “forever chemicals”—significantly higher in local drinking water sources adjacent to where sewage sludge, a type of fertilizer, is spread.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns even trace amounts of some PFAS chemicals found in drinking water may pose health risks.

According to the EPA, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is an umbrella term used to classify thousands of manufactured toxic chemical compounds and is linked to reproductive health issues, developmental delays in children and some cancers.

Last year, the EPA proposed guidelines called maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for some PFAS compounds found in drinking water. High levels of three of these compounds were found in parts of Steuben County.

In December, county residents gathered at the Thurston Town Hall for the results of 83 water tests from the towns of Thurston, Cameron and Bath. The tests were conducted over the course of several months beginning last spring. The findings focus on three PFAS compounds: PFOA, PFOS and PFBS. These three compounds currently have limits defined by both federal and state oversight agencies.

Tests were conducted using Eurofin Labs and Cyclopure Labs to capture water samples in local wells, ponds and streams and then analyze the results.

Results show that PFAS compounds in water sources adjacent to sewage sludge usage—also known as landspreading—were on average nine times higher than in areas not adjacent to landspreading. The adjacent parcels to landspreading historically had sewage sludge spread within the last five years.

Landspreading is the practice of taking sewage sludge—or biosolids—produced from wastewater treatment facilities, and using them to fertilize soil. Biosolids are a combination of human and industrial waste.

Elizabeth Donderewicz is a volunteer coordinating efforts for the water testing initiative. The initiative was funded by the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, Green Amendment for the Generations and private donations. The total cost for the water tests was $9,480.

Donderewicz said she was surprised by the high number of PFAS contaminants.

“When I started doing this work, I really did not anticipate getting a result of eight to nine times as high a total result in one type of location versus another,” explained Donderewicz. “This was a fact-finding mission, as opposed to we’re trying to solve for a specific result. But as it turns out, we did the data and we did the mapping, and the results speak for themselves.”

The water test results in Steuben County exceed the current proposed EPA limits. The maximum contaminant levels for PFOA and PFOS is 4 parts per trillion (ppt) and PFBS is 1 ppt.

Sixty-three percent of the test samples from locations adjacent to landspreading showed PFAS averaged 15.1 ppt.

In comparison, 27% of test samples from locations not adjacent to sewage sludge still averaged 1.7 ppt.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Department of Health (DOH) have different guidelines than the EPA for PFAS compounds found in treated and non-treated water supply systems.

The DEC stipulates water guidelines for human health for PFOA and PFOS at 6.7 ppt and 2.7 ppt, respectively. These numbers refer to non-treated water supply systems, which include rivers and streams.

The DOH limits PFAS contaminants to 10 ppt for drinking water supply systems. However, the state does not regulate private well water, which is the majority of water supply systems in the three towns that were tested.

Gary Ginsberg, director of the Center of Environmental Health at DOH said private wells are the responsibility of the homeowner and the state cannot require testing wells for PFAS contaminants.

Ginsberg said the PFAS regulatory maximum contaminant levels of 10 ppt for drinking water is the equivalent of ten drops of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The 10 ppt is meant to be highly precautionary and protective of public health.

“The lower we can push the number, the more protective," said Ginsberg. "And I guess you could say the safer it is. But safe is a relative term. So it's hard to talk about whether something is absolute safety or not, because some of these agents are carcinogens, for which we know that there's no, absolutely zero-risk level. But the level that we're setting these numbers at, we're minimizing the risk to the greatest extent possible.”

Test results for the three towns in Steuben County in areas adjacent to landspreading were, on average, higher than the state’s current guidance for local water supply use. However, the DEC said streams are not an advisable source of drinking water. And DOH advised homeowners should treat their wells if tests for PFAS are higher than 10 ppt. Guidance for well testing and filtration systems can be found on the DOH website.

Thurston Town Hall in Steuben County.
Natalie Abruzzo
Thurston Town Hall in Steuben County.

Thurston, Cameron and Bath tested for PFAS because of their proximity to Bonny Hill Rd. where a sewage sludge-spreading plant operates. Leo Dickson and Sons operated the plant for decades before parts of its 2,800-acre business were purchased or leased by the Vermont-based company Casella Waste Systems in 2023.

Casella gave the following statement:

“Given the low percentage of tests that were conducted by a certified lab, the methodology of the tests, and the lack of transparency in the sharing of the entire set of data, we find the results to be questionable. Historic practices of land application should not be conflated with today’s methods, and the proper context for PFAS levels is also important when considering this issue.”

The Casella statement goes on to say: “We understand that there are legitimate concerns about the existence of PFAS in our environment, and how best to manage the waste that contains them, but we do not believe that the constant stoking of fears without proper context brings us any closer to finding real solutions, which more likely exist at the beginning of the product life cycle rather than at the end of the waste stream.”

The DEC said in an email that it is “taking a national leadership role in addressing the presence of PFAS compounds in biosolids that are recycled with regulations governing the recycling of biosolids that are based on science and protective of public health and the environment. DEC will continue to work with the town of Thurston and the surrounding community to address concerns and provide comprehensive oversight of the facility’s operations to ensure compliance with all State environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

While New York state allows the practice of land spreading, the three towns in Steuben County are taking different approaches to the issue.

The Thurston Town Board unanimously banned the practice outright last year. Elizabeth Donderewicz, who coordinated the water testing with the Sierra Club, said the town of Cameron has a one-year moratorium on landspreading. The town of Bath, while it passed a moratorium last summer, immediately rescinded the order. Currently, Bath has no policy in place to halt or curb landspreading.

Town officials are looking to Steuben County to weigh in on the public health concerns and provide guidance on PFAS contamination for all towns in its jurisdiction.

However, county officials said it is not within the county’s power to stop Casella or anyone else from spreading sludge.

County Legislator Wendy Lozo, who represents Thurston, said she is “listening and gathering information at this time.”

The new chair of the county legislature, Kelly Fitzpatrick, said the county could do more to provide resources on the subject to areas within its jurisdiction.

“Because the DEC has designated that sludge [as] appropriate fertilizer, there’s really not a lot that we can do,” expressed Fitzpatrick. “But we can start sending out memorializing resolutions. We can put together some resources perhaps to help our towns and other municipalities to fight this. If we found out that there’s something wrong, we’ve got to work on it to fix it.”

A presentation of the PFAS water test results will be delivered to the Steuben County Legislature during a public comment period on Jan. 22.

The EPA expects to set legally enforceable levels of PFAS in drinking water sometime this year.