Warnings that a large-scale plastics recycling plant planned along a floodplain in Central Pennsylvania could flush toxic PFAS into the Susquehanna River, a major source of drinking water for millions, are stirring a budding opposition movement.
The Houston-based startup company Encina, which proposes to build the $1.1 billion advanced recycling plant in Northumberland County, says it will not produce any of the synthetic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in its manufacturing process. The industry uses the term “advanced’’ to include recycling processes that convert plastic waste into chemical ingredients for new plastic products or fuel.
But Graham F. Peaslee, a professor of physics at Notre Dame University who researches PFAS and plastic, said that PFAS would “absolutely” be a “serious issue” for a recycling operation that washes vast quantities of post-consumer plastic and discharges the wastewater into a river, as Encina plans to do. Some of that plastic waste would likely be coated in PFAS, he said, and some of them would escape from the plastic during the washing stage and get into the river.
The result could be trouble for drinking water systems downstream from the proposed Encina plant, said Peaslee, a co-author of a recent study that detected PFAS in an entire class of commonly used plastic containers. “I suspect somewhere downstream, some utility will find that water is not a great source of drinking water,” he said.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a large group of synthetic chemicals used in consumer products since around the 1950s. They keep food from sticking to packaging or cookware. They make carpeting and clothing stain-resistant, outdoor gear waterproof and dental floss slippery.
They are known as forever chemicals because their carbon-fluorine bond at the atomic level is exceptionally strong: PFAS can remain in the human body and elsewhere in the environment for decades. The Environmental Protection Agency says there are thousands of different types with potentially varying effects and toxicity levels. Researchers have linked them to reduced liver and kidney function, cancer, birth defects and hormone disruption. Drinking water is considered a major pathway for human exposure.
Encina, which unveiled the proposal a year ago, is navigating the permit process with local, state and regional officials. This is taking longer than the company had initially projected, and it now estimates that full operations will begin in late 2026, about two years later than originally planned.
Regional economic development officials bought the 100-acre site in Point Township and have leased it to Encina, citing economic benefits from the company’s financial investment like providing 750 construction jobs and 300 full-time jobs at the plant.
But some area residents are worried about the specter of PFAS contamination, along with other environmental effects like truck traffic, air pollution, the transport of hazardous chemicals by railcar and damaged riverfront views.
The proposal has stirred spirited debate and in March was blocked, at least temporarily, by the zoning board in Point Township because one of the plant’s buildings would be 80 feet tall, far exceeding a 50-foot height limit.
Several public drinking water treatment plants eight to ten miles downstream from the proposed Encina site draw water from the Susquehanna River, as do others further south in the vicinity of Harrisburg, water officials said. In all, the Susquehanna is a drinking water source for millions of people, including some as far away as Baltimore and Philadelphia. The river is also popular for boating and fishing. And each summer an inflatable dam at Sunbury, near the confluence of the West Branch with the main stem, turns a stretch of the river into Lake Augusta, a water skiing destination.
“There’s concern about PFAS already in the river,” said John Zaktansky, who runs the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper group, part of the national Riverkeeper Alliance. “I assumed they would have a game plan for tackling PFAS, but when they said they did not, that was alarming. He was referring to Encina’s recent responses to questions he posed, including one in which the company wrote: “Our facility does not produce PFAS.”
Asked to detail its plans for addressing concerns about PFAS, an Encina representative replied with a general statement. Encina is “committed to always following the law and applicable regulatory frameworks,” Sheida R. Sahandy, the chief sustainability officer and general counsel for Encina, said in an email.
“In our planning and design, we are evaluating the most effective technologies for ensuring the water we put back into the Susquehanna River will not have negative impacts, which aligns with our overall company mission of advancing a more sustainable, circular environmental future,” she said.
PFAS and their health risks are a growing concern for the EPA. Last month the agency issued a proposed rule to limit six of the thousands of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are used by industry and found in drinking water systems across the country. The rule does not apply to wastewater treatment plants, however, and there are no EPA regulations limiting PFAS in wastewater discharges, though the agency is beginning to weigh such action.
A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which regulates wastewater discharges, declined to comment on the potential presence of PFAS in the Encima plant’s wastewater.
Homing in on the Washing Process
Advanced recycling, sometimes called chemical recycling, is a big part of what the chemical industry promotes as one answer to what the United Nations has described as a “triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss and pollution.”
Because chemical recycling can involve subjecting plastic to very hot temperatures, turning some of the waste into gases that are burned to generate more heat, environmentalists have criticized the process as another form of incineration.
Yet Encina’s potential release of PFAS would not result from the chemical recycling part of its process, in which the company says it will use catalytic pyrolysis to turn waste plastic into benzene, toluene and xylene to serve as feedstocks for new plastics and other products.
Rather, the PFAS could be funneled from a preliminary step that is similar to more traditional mechanical recycling, in which mixed plastics discarded by consumers are sorted, washed and shredded before being molded into other forms of plastic products.
The dimensions of the risks are evident as companies champion chemical recycling with a mechanical recycling component or traditional mechanical recycling as solutions to the global glut of plastic waste, said Jan Dell, a chemical engineer who has worked as a consultant to the oil and gas industry and now runs The Last Beach Cleanup, a nonprofit focused on plastic pollution and waste. Many of the advanced or chemical recycling proposals that aim to take plastic back to their chemical feedstocks rely on washing the consumer-generated waste first, she noted.
“PFAS is all over plastic packaging, and it is water-soluble,” Dell said. “We are seeing it in leachate from landfills. Has it been found in wastewater from recycling operations? I am not sure if anyone has tested for it, but they should.” Along with the tiny microplastics flowing into the ocean and other toxicity issues, she said, the PFAS in wastewater discharged by mechanical plastics recycling have “been overlooked for too long.”
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A spokeswoman for the Association of Plastic Recyclers, Kara Pochiro, said she had “no data to report” on PFAS in recycling wastewater. “The recycling industry will respond should we be called upon by the EPA,” she said.
The risk of water pollution and other concerns have prompted Northumberland Mayor Daniel J. Berard, whose town of about 4,000 people is immediately downstream from the Encina site, to speak out. “If you read their press releases,” he said, “it all sounds wonderful. But once you start digging deeper, the red flags start emerging.”
“They call it a ‘circular manufacturing facility,’” Berard said. “That’s a clever term for a chemical plant. They are taking somebody else’s trash and turning it into BTX,” or a mix of the chemicals benzene, toluene and xylene. “That alone is worth some scrutiny.”
The Ubiquity of ‘Forever Chemicals‘
Last month, Peaslee and Heather D. Whitehead, a Notre Dame graduate student, published peer-reviewed research in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters detailing their discovery of PFAS in fluorinated high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic containers, which are used for household cleaners, pesticides, personal care products and, potentially, food packaging.
Peaslee said the inside of the plastic containers had effectively been sprayed with PFAS to make the plastic more resistant to other chemicals that might be stored in the containers, such as pesticides. He and Whitehead found that the PFAS could migrate from the plastic: Molecules of the synthetic chemicals were sitting on the surface of the plastic containers or enmeshed in it, he said, indicating that such containers could leach PFAS during a recycling operation.
Plastic containers or packaging with a liner containing PFAS would also pose a problem during the washing process, Peaslee added.
“Recycling is a good thing,” he said. “I encourage recycling. But it would be a shame if it contributed to a different set of problems.”
PFAS Found in the Susquehanna
The Susquehanna River starts in Otsego Lake near Cooperstown, New York, and flows through Pennsylvania and Maryland before emptying into the environmentally beleaguered Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary and the focus of a federal and multistate cleanup program to improve its water quality. The Susquehanna provides half of the freshwater entering the bay.
A 2019 study made public two years later by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission found evidence of PFAS contamination in surface waters at multiple locations statewide, including immediately upriver and downriver of the Encina site.
In February, a report issued by the Environmental Working Group, an activist research alliance, showed that fish in the river near the Encina site were contaminated with the substances. The report summarized peer-reviewed data on the impact of PFAS on fish and wildlife around the globe.
Encina has meanwhile been in conversations with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission about its plan to withdraw 2.5 million gallons of water a day from the Susquehanna River and return 60 to 70 percent of it. The company would use the water to wash plastic and for cooling in the chemical manufacturing process.
“While our agency does not regulate water discharges or water quality, we recognize the importance of addressing PFAS contamination throughout the Susquehanna River Basin,” said Stacey Hanrahan, a spokeswoman for the commission. “Advocating to keep PFAS out of the river is certainly within the scope of our mission to protect and enhance water quality within the basin.”
She said the commission understood “the concerns raised by citizens regarding the potential for the proposed Encina plant to be a potential source of PFAS.”
If or when Encina submits a formal application for withdrawing water, Hanrahan added, the commission will review the request while coordinating with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which has oversight for water-quality issues involving discharges into the Susquehanna.