Fishbeck drilling

Michael Ingersoll, geologist for Fishbeck, uses a tailgate as a writing stand while two workers from Stearns Drilling Company drill a well in the First Street Business Park on Wednesday, July 7. The well is the first of four they drilled Wednesday to test for contaminants from the Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Drilling began this week in search of contaminants, including “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, at four locations to the north and west of the Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The wells are expected to be installed by July 16 and tested after settling for one month, said David Filipiak, environmental engineer and chemist for Fishbeck, the city’s consulting firm.

Groundwater contamination was discovered around the plant while state-mandated improvements were being made in 2019, requiring the city to find out how far it had spread and what it consisted of.

Groundwater throughout the plant, particularly in its southwest edge, has already exceeded state limits on a variety of chemicals.

24 of 46 wells tested on and around the plant last year exceeded state limits on PFAS concentrations, according to a report prepared by Fishbeck.

In a well on the property’s south edge, 160 parts per trillion of PFOS, a PFAS chemical, was detected. The state limit on PFOS is 16 ppt.

Most of the excessive concentrations of PFAS chemicals were less than 35 ppt.

Various PFAS chemicals have been used in home and industrial products since the 1940s and are still used internationally, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. They are believed to cause low birth weight, cancer and other health effects.

The chemicals are known for their resilience, accumulating in the environment and human bodies rather than breaking down.

But evidence so far indicates Ludington residents are not exposed to the worst of the contamination.

Eleven residential wells east of the plant along Meyers Road were tested last year, and none showed elevated levels of PFAS.

While some were high in arsenic, iron and manganese, it was only enough to affect the water’s taste and smell, not human health, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“Nobody appears to be drinking the impacted water leaving the site,” Filipiak said.

The plant discharges its treated water into the Pere Marquette River and is required to test that water for PFAS twice a year.

Two PFAS chemicals of primary concern, PFOS and PFOA, were not detected in its outflow in June, according to a lab report submitted to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

Discharge of all PFAS chemicals has been within state limits since at least 2018, according to lab reports.

The wells should help determine whether PFAS and other contaminants have spread to areas north and west of the plant. The extent of contamination in other directions is considered to have been found.

If the results are within state requirements, the city can begin working to “identify the source and address that source,” Filipiak said. But if the results exceed the limits, further drilling could be required.

Despite PFAS’ reputation as a “forever chemical,” the goal will likely be to let it dissipate in the ground, since contamination hasn’t yet been found in surface or drinking water.

“(PFAS chemicals) have really long lives in the groundwater,” Filipiak said. “But the idea (of the clean-up regulations) is to control exposure, and we don’t have completed exposure pathways at this point identified.”

Sources of PFAS into the plant have included water from landfills, known as leachate, and wastewater from plating facilities, said Chris Cossette, superintendent of the plant.

While there aren’t currently any platers in town, the plant accepts landfill leachate from Manistee and Scottville, Cossette said.

Manistee was previously required to bring a minimum of 130,000 gallons of leachate to the plant each month, but that has been lowered to 35,000 gallons, he said.

“That’s one means of us being able to reduce our PFAS loadage,” he said.

The state identified the plant as a site of concern in 2017 because of its sludge storage practices.

The plant, built in 1975, formerly consisted of two ponds for water treatment and a third pond where organic matter, or sludge, that settled to the bottom of the other two ponds was pumped.

Not only did the process waste biosolids that could be used for further treatment, but piling such materials in one spot for decades poses a health risk, Cossette said.

“There’s all kinds of different things in these biosolids that could potentially leach down into the groundwater,” he said. “When the city first built the thing, it was an acceptable means of disposal. And then that has changed.”

Now, the sludge pond is no longer in use, and the east treatment pond is only being used to process material from septic tanks until it is fully decommissioned.

The other treatment pond has been converted to a new process called “activated sludge.” It was split into five smaller ponds: two for treatment, two for sludge storage and one for equalization during high flow.

In the new process, sludge will be continually reintroduced to the beginning of the system. An established population of bacteria will repeatedly consume solids in fresh wastewater, Cossette said.

Once the system is complete, the east treatment pond will be fully closed, Cossette said. Its remaining water, along with material from the sludge pond, will be treated. The solids will be pumped into the east pond, and the pond will be capped.

That work will be done in about five years, Cossette said.

Daily News Staff Writer

Justin Cooper can be reached at justin@ludingtondailynews.com.

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