Environmental Management Commission approves new compost rules; PW investigation spurs regulators

By: - September 12, 2019 12:33 pm

State environmental regulators will have the power to require most composting facilities to test for emerging contaminants, including perfluorinated compounds (PFAS) and 1,4-Dioxane, according to new rules approved today.

The Environmental Management Commission this morning voted to amend and readopt state rules over the 50 composters regulated by the Division of Waste Management.

Provided they clear the Rules Review Commission, the new standards are scheduled to go into effect Nov. 1.

After that date, DWM can require facilities to test their “feedstock” — the material that is used to make compost — and their finished product for 1,4-Dioxane, a known human carcinogen.

Compost facilities already must test their product for a small number of contaminants: bacteria and viruses, plus eight metals, such as arsenic, copper and lead. The draft version of the latest compost rules contained no provisions for emerging contaminants and “forever chemicals,” such as PFAS.

PW investigation prompts change

The changes were prompted by a Policy Watch investigation published in April that revealed high levels of 1,4-Dioxane in wastewater sludge entering the McGill composting facility in Sampson County.

Policy Watch collected sludge samples from seven tons that had been delivered to McGill by DAK Americas, a plastics manufacturing plant in Fayetteville. Policy Watch sent the samples to an EPA-certified laboratory for testing, which showed levels of more than 20,000 parts per billion, higher than levels the EPA has found at some hazardous waste landfills.

However, even at those levels, the presence of 1,4-Dioxane is legal; there are no federal or state regulations for the compound or other emerging contaminants in compost or feedstock.

The finished compost did not contain 1,4-Dioxane, possibly because it evaporated as the material dried.

The state conducted subsequent testing of McGill’s compost, which showed it contained 20 types of perfluorinated compounds totaling 136.8 parts per trillion.

One likely source of these contaminants is sludge — wastewater residuals — which McGill and other composters receive from municipal and industrial treatment plants. Traditional treatment systems can’t remove 1,4-Dioxane and PFAS, which then persist in the wastewater and sludge.

Once at the composting facility, the sludge is mixed with other materials, like peanut shells, animal waste and untreated wood. It’s likely that compost at other facilities also contains PFAS if it is made with sludge.

Like most composters, McGill sells its product to gardeners, farmers and local governments as turf builder for parks and soccer fields. These compounds persist in the environment for decades. Once in soil, PFAS can threaten the groundwater as they seep below the surface.

Several people and environmental advocates also submitted comments about their concerns regarding 1,4-Dioxane and PFAS in compost. “These comments did not go unnoticed,” said EMC member Shannon Arata, who was the hearing officer for the rules readopting process.

Regulators respond

In response, the Division of Waste Management wrote that it “agrees with the comments that possible PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane contamination in compost is a serious concern.”

DWM officials said they are working with other divisions within DEQ, as well as the EPA and academic and research organizations to establish appropriate standards or other regulations. When standards are established for PFAS, DEQ can revise rules under their authority if additional changes are needed.

The changes affect only the 50 composters under the Division of Waste Management. Another 20, including McGill, are regulated by the Division of Water Resources (DWR) because of the type of material they accept. For example, because McGill receives wastewater sludge and animal manure, it is regulated by DWR.

Updated rules for composters under DWR went into effect a year ago. It’s possible, though, that those rules could be revisited.

Michael Scott, director of Division of Solid waste, told the EMC that in the case of McGill, Water Resources staff is working with the facility to eliminate these compounds from their feedstock.

More work to do

Despite these new provisions, yesterday the EMC’s Groundwater and Waste Management Committee declined to move ahead on permanent standards for several contaminants in groundwater, including two types of perfluorinated compounds: PFOA and PFOS.

The Division of Water Resources had proposed a permanent groundwater standard — known as a 2L rule — of 0.07 parts per billion for PFOA and PFOS combined.

Currently, there is a permanent standard of 0.07 ppb for PFOS, but not for PFOA. Although manufacturers have phased out these two compounds, they don’t break down in the environment and are widespread in groundwater and drinking water.

State environmental regulators can enact and enforce interim maximum allowed concentrations, called IMACs, but they are intended to be only temporary. They are set by the director and are not subject to public comment.

By contrast, the permanent 2L rule process is more elaborate and requires the EMC to accept public comment and to hold public hearings. Based on public feedback and DEQ’s input, the EMC finalizes the rules. It is possible that after public hearings, the groundwater standard could be stricter.

New EMC member Donald van der Vaart, the previous DEQ Secretary under Gov. Pat McCrory, suggested that the Science Advisory Board analyze the 0.07 ppb figure. The SAB has done similar work for GenX, another type of perfluorinated compound, because there are no toxicity standards for it, and the health effects are only now becoming known.

Science has established toxicity standards and health effects for PFOS and PFOA, though, based on a recent landmark study of 70,000 people who lived near, or worked at, DuPont’s Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, WV. The study showed exposure to PFOS and PFOA was linked to testicular and kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis, high blood pressure during pregnancy, thyroid disorders and elevated cholesterol.

The study was part of the settlement of a multi-million class action suit filed against DuPont by people who had been harmed by the compounds.

Van der Vaart said he wants to see a list of standards set by other states. But those comparisons can be difficult because some states don’t regulate groundwater, particularly as a source of drinking water; nor does the EPA.

EMC Chairman Stan Meiburg noted the 0.07 ppb threshold is not as stringent as those in other states. “We want to try to make sure the groundwater standard is as protective as a standard for drinking water.

According to the PFAS Project, which tracks regulations on these compounds, the few states that have enacted enforceable groundwater or drinking water standards have set much lower, and thus protective, thresholds — in the parts per trillion. The National Conference of State Legislatures has compiled similar findings.

The EMC is expected to reconsider the issue at its November meeting.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.