Burning ‘forever chemicals’ emerges as industry flash point

Sending PFAS to incinerators is drawing lawmaker scrutiny and public outcry, but some experts say it may be the only realistic solution.
Danielle Ternes/Waste Dive; Photograph by abezikus via Getty Images

Earlier this year, federal and state officials prepared a study meant to address one of the biggest issues facing the waste industry. Focused on PFAS, the test would use surrogate compounds in smokestacks to gauge how the chemicals react to traditional MSW incineration. The test would take place in August, at a public sector facility operated by Covanta in Rahway, New Jersey.

Then it fell apart.

In a swift series of events, community members in Rahway united to oppose the planned test over fears it could prove harmful and further compound environmental justice issues facing the area’s low-income people of color. Their resistance led the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to request the U.S. EPA shift the test outside of the state.

What are PFAS?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of thousands of chemicals known for their non-stick properties. Sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals” due to their all but indestructible and persistent nature, PFAS appear in a wide array of household items like frying pans, rain jackets, and dental floss. They are often measured in parts per trillion (ppt) and occasionally in parts per billion (ppb) or parts per million (ppm).

Studies show PFAS appear in the blood of 99% of humans and in far-flung parts of the world, including in Arctic seawater. They have also been linked to cancer, developmental effects, and other severe health issues by organizations including the U.S. EPA. At least two, PFOA and PFOS, have been phased out of production in the United States.

The Rahway decision was hailed as a victory by locals as well as environmental groups, while government officials and Covanta said the decision marked a blow against science. It came shortly after another controversy over PFAS and incineration in Cohoes, New York, one that similarly involved community outcry toward a company and the state environmental agency. Those incidents thrust national tensions over environmental justice into the spotlight, along with escalating scrutiny of both PFAS contamination and best practices around disposal of the chemicals.

Regulations targeting PFAS in the waste stream are growing at the state level, and major companies are lobbying Congress on legislation that would impact disposal. Landfill operators have meanwhile struggled to find a technology destructive enough to break the powerful carbon-fluorine bond in PFAS, leaving incinerators as a potential solution. PFAS are also highly concentrated at military and industrial facilities due to the use of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), and the federal government has eyed incineration as a preferred disposal method for that waste.

Some experts think no other destruction mechanism is as effective as incineration and waste companies say they are equipped to handle the chemicals. Environmental organizations and some researchers disagree, given that little is known about how PFAS react to incineration. They say the potential for PFAS to escape through air emissions could threaten the health of the communities where incinerators are located.

That divide is shaping approaches to disposing of the chemicals at the state and federal levels, leaving the future of PFAS incineration in limbo.

Seeking a solution to an escalating problem

Best practices around PFAS disposal remain a question mark for many researchers and scientists. While a number of treatment methods have been developed for landfill leachate, none promise complete destruction and all involve some level of disposal once PFAS are separated from the wider waste stream.

That has led to heightened interest around incineration. Some operators believe they can play a key role in addressing issues around PFAS disposal through their MSW and hazardous waste incinerators.

“Several years ago, we started to think about how we could think about these materials in our [facilities],” said Paul Gilman, chief sustainability officer for Covanta, noting a major factor is capabilities around temperature. Waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities, Gilman said, are designed “in a way that they could have extended periods of high temperatures,” something mandated by their permitting.

One oft-cited study on the effectiveness of incinerating some types of PFAS is a report compiled in 2003 by University of Dayton researchers. Administered under the direction of 3M, a PFAS manufacturer, that report used a laboratory-scale study to simulate a hazardous waste incinerator. Researchers found no detectable levels of PFOA after two seconds at 1000°C (1832°F). Environmental groups criticized those findings, given their funder. A related 2014 study reached a similar conclusion to the initial report.

Experts including Marco Castaldi, a City University of New York professor and director for the Earth Engineering Center, have pointed to the temperature cited in those reports as an indicator of the heat required to destroy PFAS.

“Normally the temperature should be above about 1000 degrees centigrade,” said Castaldi, writing by email in May. With the correct conditions and full compliance with environmental and safety regulations, he added, destruction at that temperature could be around 99% effective.

Still, research on how incineration impacts PFAS remains minimal. An EPA February 2020 technical brief noted incomplete PFAS incineration can result in the formation of “smaller PFAS products” or products of incomplete combustion, posing a potential safety concern. The agency stated few experiments on PFAS have been conducted that reflect the “oxidative and temperature conditions representative of field-scale incineration.”

That lack of research remains a concern in parts of the world like Europe, where incineration is more common, even though WTE proponents say it could play an important role in PFAS disposal.

“Small-scale experiments have been carried out and the results suggest that waste incineration may be a potential route for the safe management of these substances, up to a certain threshold,” said Ella Stengler, managing director for the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants (CEWEP).

But Stengler also said there have been “no comprehensive large-scale trials” studying PFAS incineration, making it difficult to reach a conclusion.

GHD, a consulting company focused on issues including water and energy treatment, advised in 2018 that incinerating PFAS could be costly but also might be the best disposal method for clients seeking complete destruction.

In an email, GHD Operations Manager Kevin Harvey and Emerging Contaminants Work Group Leader Ryan Thomas both said incineration is the “best available technology,” with very high temperatures required to destroy PFAS. Realities around price points remain an issue, however, especially due to capacity constraints. There are many permitted landfills across North America, but not many incinerators in general, let alone hazardous waste incinerators.

“Incineration is much more expensive than landfill and can cost 10 times more than traditional landfill on a per ton basis,” they wrote. “The costs related to treating PFAS depend on the concentrations observed at the site, remedial clean up targets, and the treatment technology selected.”

Waste generators and disposal facilities are still waiting for regulatory oversight, with the latter group increasingly concerned about accepting PFAS-laden waste due to potential liability issues, according to Harvey and Thomas.

Phillip Retallick, senior vice president of compliance and regulatory affairs for Clean Harbors, agreed more research and data is key to fully understanding the scope of the problem.

“That’s going to help the focus on where the PFAS emissions are from a manufacturing perspective, as well as how much of this waste is being handled by our nation’s landfills and incinerators,” he said.

Clean Harbors operates multiple landfills and incinerators, and Retallick said landfills have a role to play for “low toxicity PFAS” given their prevalence in MSW. But he said certain waste, like AFFF, may require a different approach.

Retallick said his company has a “pretty strong menu of technologies” at its disposal. That includes numerous federally permitted facilities that can receive hazardous waste, with some achieving temperatures of around 2036°F. “We feel very confident that we can destroy the PFAS compounds in our incinerators,” he said.

Others believe that no PFAS incineration can be done without risk to the public and the environment. “You cannot incinerate these chemicals,” said Jane Williams, executive director for California Communities Against Toxics. She went on to say “burying and burning them [is] just like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Many environmental groups and health experts have similar reservations about engaging in a process about which little is known. Researchers with the Environmental Working Group (EWG) authored an upcoming December study in the journal Chemosphere analyzing numerous studies on PFAS disposal. Sydney Evans, an EWG analyst and report co-author, said incineration of PFAS was an area that raised numerous questions during the research process. One major drawback is a lack of knowledge around PFAS in MSW bound for an incinerator.

“No studies we identified look at what happens to PFAS in [those] real conditions,” she said.

The EWG report also includes analysis on the potential for incomplete combustion via air release. Communities have expressed concerns about potential exposure to PFAS through air emissions, an area waste industry researchers also admit remains murky.

“There is no consensus yet regarding what may be considered best practices,” said Bryan Staley, president and CEO of the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF).

Staley’s organization is conducting research into PFAS disposal, which is a central theme for EREF’s science series this fall. He said the biggest takeaway is “more science is needed” and that public conversations have largely gotten ahead of research. Regarding incinerating PFAS, he said “collateral considerations,” including monitoring what emissions may occur, require additional testing.

Knowledge gaps around PFAS are disconcerting for incineration opponents, who point to what is known about the chemicals — namely, that some have proven extremely dangerous and could be hazardous if they escape a facility. Like others familiar with families of toxic chemicals, Williams compared PFAS to PCBs, calling them “more mobile and more toxic” in the environment. PCBs have largely been phased out due to their threat to public health and Williams said companies should similarly stop producing PFAS.

“They are a contaminant that is extremely hard to get out, and once out, then what do you do with them?” she asked.

Controversy over testing in New York

Concerns about the incineration of PFAS in Cohoes, New York, sparked a lawsuit in February by activists alarmed that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) was sending AFFF to an incineration facility run by Norlite Corp. The site processes hazardous waste into fuel for cement kilns and has a history of past violations over which it settled with the EPA in May 2020.

Norlite’s Indiana-based parent company Tradebe had earlier contracted with DOD to incinerate AFFF, a process that took place in 2018 and 2019. That material reportedly came from more than 60 military sites and occurred without the knowledge of local officials. The February lawsuit contended burning AFFF violated the National Environmental Policy Act.

Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler, who said he had not been informed about the situation, swiftly put incineration at the facility on hold “until the science and the health [research] says that it’s acceptable.”

Testing done near Norlite’s incinerator in Cohoes, New York, found PFAS near a public housing complex.

PFAS are an ongoing problem in other parts of New York like Hoosick Falls, where residents connected their community’s health issues including cancer to PFOA exposure. Bennington College environmental studies professor David Bond and his students conducted research in 2018 and found a high cancer rate in that community. This year in March, testing also done by Bond and his students yielded traces of 10 PFAS compounds near the Norlite facility in Cohoes.

Bond announced those results in April, sharing that soil and water samples indicated PFAS were traveling from the site, decreasing in amount along with distance. PFOS and PFOA were among the PFAS found in the samples and the facility itself is 200 meters away from a public housing complex.

Bond, who has studied PFOA emissions from plastics plants, said the samples pointed to the incineration of AFFF, which has a “very distinctive PFAS fingerprint.” He called the findings “concerning” and concluded Norlite’s destruction efforts had been unsuccessful.

“Far from destroying AFFF, the Norlite facility appears to be raining down a witch’s brew [of PFAS],” he said, adding “more research is needed to better understand the local and regional fallout.”

The Bennington findings generated action by lawmakers. Cohoes passed a moratorium on PFAS incineration and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, called for a federal probe by EPA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Albany County banned AFFF incineration in September, three months after the New York state Assembly and Senate passed a bill banning the burning of AFFF. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has until the end of the year to sign that bill, but Cuomo’s office has noted the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) directed Norlite to cease incineration of AFFF in 2019.

Norlite and Tradebe did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A war of words

A key figure in publicizing the findings was Judith Enck, a former EPA administrator for Region 2 under the Obama administration who teaches at Bennington and heads the group Beyond Plastics.

“This is a fire suppressant. It’s not going to work well in an incinerator,” said Enck, discussing AFFF when the findings were announced. She expressed concerns about PFAS escaping into the air and impacting the environment and public health.

DEC responded to Enck and Bond in a May 14 letter criticizing the Bennington study and calling its findings “deeply flawed and incomplete.” The department took aim at the decision to release the findings prior to review and contradicted many of its central conclusions, including that contamination patterns resembled AFFF contamination. DEC also said the study “did not establish” downwind PFAS impacts and that the findings in fact support “that the observed levels [of PFAS] are attributable to background contamination.”

In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for DEC pointed to a July announcement from the department stating it would launch a soil and water sampling initiative for PFAS in the communities around the Norlite facility. DEC said the department is working with state and local officials to assess the potential impact of Norlite’s past AFFF incineration. Future incineration by Norlite of any substances not previously addressed by its permits will also trigger a requirement to seek a permit modification.

“In the absence of federal leadership and action to regulate these harmful chemicals, New York State is driving policy and solutions to ensure New York’s communities are protected,” a spokesperson for the department wrote in an email.

Enck said the DEC’s decision to do its own testing is a “good thing” but she expressed reservations about the department’s approach, echoing other experts who have asked DEC to also test for toxicants like PCBs and furans, which are combustion-related. She added DEC’s testing seems to mostly mirror what the Bennington researchers did.

“When I tried to learn what technical objections the DEC had to the way Bennington College did their testing, I was not provided with any details,” she said. “Instead, I heard that they were unhappy that they were not given a heads up in advance.”

Environmental justice concerns in New Jersey and a derailed study

Despite the controversy in Cohoes, EPA moved forward with a planned study on PFAS incineration, meant to take place at the Covanta-operated Rahway municipal waste incinerator owned by Union County Utilities Authority.

Gilman of Covanta foreshadowed the study in an earlier interview prior to when the test was planned. He said EPA had a “test method in development” that could yield more answers about incinerating PFAS and clarify any potential contamination issues.

New Jersey DEP officials said the test would have involved surrogate compounds with similar structures to PFAS, carbon tetrafluoride (CF4) and hexafluoroethane (C2F6). It was meant to be conducted over a few days with the facility operating as usual. Officials would also monitor PFAS brought into the facility through traditional MSW during that time, although the chemicals would not be intentionally added to the waste stream.

Judith Enck, the Obama-era EPA administrator for Region 2 connected to the Cohoes findings, learned of the planned test and shared the information with local groups, including Rahway’s NAACP chapter. Quanae Palmer Chambliss, who heads the chapter, said in an August interview she had not previously heard much about PFAS, but as she began to do research she became alarmed.

Covanta has said more research on PFAS incineration is needed. The company is interested in working with state and federal agencies on future studies.

“For me it’s almost like a David and Goliath-type of story,” she said, “with the David being the people and Goliath being Covanta and all the agencies who have a vested interest financially in being able to make more profits off…[burning] garbage and other substances in environmental justice communities.”

Palmer Chambliss and others in Rahway said the situation felt familiar: a company and government officials exposing a lower-income Black community to potential toxics. They were also alarmed by the prior incident in Cohoes. “As an African-American, I always know that everything is never okay, everything is never alright, that we must always be suspicious and constant and questioning,” Palmer Chambliss said.

That pushback came as New Jersey moved forward with an environmental justice bill, one with significant permit implications for waste sites. That legislation has been a major part of Gov. Phil Murphy’s agenda, coinciding with heightened national attention to systemic racism.

DEP Commissioner and Chief of Staff Shawn LaTourette called a press conference with reporters several days after news of the test circulated in late August. He announced DEP had asked EPA to move the test to another state, largely because all of New Jersey’s incinerators are located in vulnerable communities that would raise concerns similar to Rahway. LaTourette emphasized the test would have involved no actual PFAS incineration and indicated the decision was ultimately due to perception.

“We’re not putting down the pursuit of the science,” he said, adding DEP remains “happy to talk more with EPA, and indeed will pursue those conversations.”

He rejected comparisons to the events in Cohoes, which involved AFFF, and said the state was specifically looking to see how solid waste incinerators broke down PFAS, as opposed to their hazardous waste counterparts. LaTourette maintained New Jersey has taken an aggressive approach to regulating PFAS relative to other states.

EPA, New Jersey, and communities at odds

Enck said government officials failed to communicate the intricacies of the New Jersey study to the public and applauded the decision to abandon the test. Expressing concerns about what the agency might do with findings around incinerating PFAS, she said EPA should instead investigate “non-incineration disposal technologies that will not put the public health or the environment at risk.”

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler issued an Aug. 25 statement laying blame for the incident squarely on Enck and accusing her of “unprofessionalism, personal ignorance, and dishonesty.” He said the study was canceled due to Enck’s actions.

Covanta expressed disappointment with the turn of events. Spokesperson Nicolle Robles said Covanta committed to working with EPA on the study but that the facility owner had not approved the test. She also refuted comments from some officials and community members about Covanta’s outreach.

“On community outreach, assertions that Covanta did not notify the local community are not true. We notified local leaders and presented the idea of the study on a call with community members,” she said, noting the company will consider “any future opportunity” to continue studying PFAS.

LaTourette similarly called for ongoing attention to the issue and expressed disappointment with EPA’s language around canceling the test rather than moving it elsewhere.

“This material is in our waste stream, period, full stop,” said LaTourette. “We have to develop the research and the understanding, and then if necessary, the capacities to deal with that.”

Fast-unfolding regulations and a focus on AFFF

Both federal and state-level scrutiny of PFAS has largely centered on drinking water standards. The EPA has a drinking water health advisory of 70 ppt in place for both PFAS and PFOA, and states are moving to set lower mandatory regulations. But concern about AFFF has drawn significant attention at the state level and generated several pieces of federal legislation.

Last year, Rep. Ro Khanna introduced H.R. 2591, the PFAS Incineration Ban Act, which would require EPA to promulgate AFFF disposal regulations. That bill’s language was later folded into H.R. 535, a sweeping PFAS bill seeking to designate the chemicals as hazardous substances under federal Superfund law. It ultimately passed the U.S. House of Representatives before stalling in the U.S. Senate amid a veto threat from President Donald Trump, despite the support of around two dozen Republicans in the lower chamber.

Another bill reauthorizing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), S. 1790, was signed in 2019 and requires DOD to phase out its reliance on fluorinated firefighting foam by October 2024. The legislation also allots EPA two years to determine whether more types of PFAS will be added to the Toxics Release Inventory, including considering any for which there are drinking water measurement methods. Any state governors may also enter into a deal with DOD to clean up PFAS-contaminated drinking water.

That bill states DOD must dispose of PFAS-laden firefighting foam via incineration at “a temperature range adequate to break down PFAS chemicals” while also accounting for any air emissions. The bill does not specify a temperature, but any facility performing that action must be permitted to receive waste regulated under the Solid Waste Disposal Act’s Subtitle C.

Several of the solid waste industry’s largest players declined or did not respond to multiple requests for comment about how they are approaching PFAS in the waste stream broadly. But financial filings and lobbying records indicate the area as a point of focus for the two biggest waste companies.

Disposing of PFAS-laden AFFF is a priority for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Waste Management, the industry’s largest player, lobbied in 2019 on issues including H.R. 2591. The company also reported lobbying on the NDAA’s PFAS components during the first two quarters of 2020. Republic Services meanwhile broadly lobbied on PFAS every quarter since the second quarter of 2019 into this year. Republic declined to comment on the issue while Waste Management said the company is committed to disposing of all waste in compliance with regulations and did not offer further comment on its approach to PFAS.

Other companies in the sector also remain watchful. A spokesperson for Veolia North America declined to comment about how the private company is approaching PFAS. But Veolia COO Bob Cappadona said in an interview last year the company has a PFAS group and has looked closely at how to manage PFAS in waste. Then-CEO Brian Clarke also said last year Veolia is looking “to see if there’s an opportunity for us to provide service” around PFAS.

Covanta lobbied in 2020 on federal issues including “monitoring legislative and administrative actions related to PFAS.” Gilman said his company is not deeply concerned about federal regulations, but that legislative efforts have moved faster than research. “They kind of reflect [that] people don’t know and so, in the absence of knowledge, they are saying people shouldn’t do this,” he said.

Wheelabrator, another company active in the incineration space, did not respond to a request for comment.

Some activists believe further legislation could center on AFFF, as DOD is tasked with its disposal, and many states have already targeted the foam with a range of regulations. A DOD list obtained by the environmental group Earthjustice shows nine hazardous waste facilities permitted to burn AFFF by the Defense Logistics Agency. In addition to Norlite’s Cohoes site, those include: Clean Harbors facilities in Arkansas, Nebraska, and Texas; Ross Environmental Services and Heritage Environmental Services facilities in Ohio; and Veolia facilities in Arkansas, Illinois, and Texas.

Companies say the incident in Cohoes should not be used to gauge the efficacy of incinerators handling PFAS. Retallick of Clean Harbors said there are technical, thermodynamic, and operational differences between the kiln design used in Cohoes and the incineration technologies his company uses for the destruction of hazardous waste.

Gilman similarly said the sector is heavily regulated, and pointed to the New York DEC letter to Enck and Bond as an indicator the findings in Cohoes may have been an outlier. Still, he emphasized Covanta’s support for further research and testing, and said he welcomed guidance from the government.

“We’re trying to understand how those materials are treated in our system,” he said. “We care about the incidental PFAS in the waste stream.”

At least 14 states have passed regulations or laws that target PFAS in firefighting foam to some degree

States with regulations and laws targeting PFAS in firefighting foam

An uncertain future

Concerns about incinerating PFAS haven’t shifted current realities around disposal — namely, that few destructive options exist to begin with. Still, companies have largely been reluctant to speculate about PFAS incineration as a business opportunity, even as they have emphasized the role they could play in helping to deal with the issue.

“We’re not going to have a conversation [about opportunities] until we know the science better,” said Gilman.

Retallick of Clean Harbors positioned his company as a player available to help combat a public health threat, saying PFAS offers “just another opportunity for us to help clean up the environment.”

Some waste experts maintain a destructive technology for PFAS won’t be on the market for five to seven years. Until that time, they say incineration may be the most reliable form of disposal despite high costs and mounting scrutiny.

Harvey and Thomas of GHD said some of the emerging technologies used to treat PFAS in landfill leachate, like granular activated carbon and ion exchange, require additional disposal, as they generate a concentrated waste stream. EWG’s December findings look at research on the transfer of PFAS-laden ash from incinerators to landfills, with some analysis concluding “PFAS concentrations were the lowest in leachate from landfills where the ash was generated from incineration at the highest temperatures.”

Such realities could bolster interest in incineration, even as concerns linger about safety and the potential for future regulations. Stengler of CEWEP said assessing PFAS incineration has become a “challenging political task” in Europe — indicating an uphill battle in the United States, where the practice faces more resistance from lawmakers and communities. Multiple waste experts said many questions remain around PFAS incineration and that the issue is likely to be politically unpopular until more research is conducted.

“We are not taking a particular side,” said EWG Vice President of Science Investigations Olga Naidenko, adding stakeholders have “different perspectives, but we should at least all agree that we should do research.”

Opponents of PFAS incineration believe EPA is seeking to conduct the research at another facility following the agency’s decision to scrap its planned study in Rahway. The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives urged recipients of its August newsletter to “contact your state environment commissioner and urge them not to let trial burns for PFAS chemicals take place in your state.” A spokesperson for EPA said the agency is evaluating all available destruction and disposal options for PFAS, including incineration.

EPA is also turning its attention to alternatives. On the same day as the Rahway test cancelation in late August, the agency announced a partnership with DOD and state agencies “seeking detailed plans for…non-thermal technologies to destroy PFAS, without generating hazardous byproducts.” EPA’s main focus is the destruction of AFFF, with up to $50,000 offered for best concepts, along with the potential for partnering in field testing.

How research findings play out will be pivotal in determining the future of PFAS disposal options and the role incineration may play in that process. No clear consensus has emerged regarding landfill disposal or incineration for PFAS, leaving operators without a clear understanding of best practices. Regulators and lawmakers meanwhile remain under ongoing pressure to limit PFAS incineration, with more state and federal legislation all but certain.

As conversations about the chemicals continue at every level, those realities will keep stakeholders in a state of limbo — one that will impact the industry for years to come.