SOMERSET, Kentucky (October 18, 2022) — McCreary County resident Darlene Price and former Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler have made claims during the last few months on social media that the City of Somerset is endangering residents’ health and safety by treating landfill leachate at Pitman Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Mr. Girdler has posted an image of a state testing report to social media that he says supports this claim.
The City of Somerset team has spent countless hours responding to open records requests and conducting extensive research to reveal those claims are unfounded and that this state testing report has been misrepresented. What follows is a statement from the City of Somerset about these claims:
First and foremost, City of Somerset is in compliance with its treatment of landfill leachate. The effluent tested as it leaves Pitman Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) but before it enters receiving waters consistently meets highly regulated state guidelines.
Of concern to Ms. Price during the last few months are the equipment deficiencies that exist with the Pitman Creek treatment facility. Pitman Creek WWTP has been under a friendly agreed order with the Kentucky Division of Water since 2018 to add a dewatering system to our plant. This order surfaced during Mr. Girdler’s administration, but it was Mayor Alan Keck’s administration that prioritized the project and secured the funding to make it happen. Before Mayor Keck took office, this infrastructure problem had been ignored.
The Pitman Creek WWTP is permitted to treat landfill leachate through its Kentucky Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. While this facility has received violations from the state in the past, those violations are strictly related to equipment deficiencies within the plant. They are not connected to the plant’s ability to process leachate. The Pitman Creek WWTP team is working diligently to improve treatment processes until the dewatering system can be installed.
The City of Somerset elected to treat leachate as a way of generating revenue and providing an additional level of protection for the environment. Leachate is water that has percolated through a solid waste disposal site and must be treated properly before it is discharged into receiving waters or recycling. Without a process for being treated, it most certainly would be a danger to the public. We are doing our part to protect the environment by treating it, and we are proud of the hard work of the team at Pitman Creek WWTP to provide this service safely and correctly.
We made a public statement in April 2022 addressing Ms. Price’s concerns. Since that time, we’ve continued to receive open records requests from Ms. Price about this issue but felt confident we addressed the concerns raised.
This issue became more alarming in late August, when Mr. Girdler, now a mayoral candidate, made a statement on social media that he was in possession of state test results that confirm highly toxic and dangerous chemicals were detected in Sinking Creek. He directly tied those test results to landfill leachate in a comment, saying “toxins are dumped into the sewer system and streams. The test results are from the leachate that is being dumped into our streams and land.”
Mr. Girdler includes a screenshot in the comments of the test results he is referring to, but the screenshot is cropped in such a way that viewers do not see where the report was generated or the entirety of the results — only the chemicals he claims pose a health risk and the levels detected.
Because Mr. Girdler’s statement (which has now been shared on Facebook more than 1,000 times and has been referenced in a direct mail letter campaign to select Somerset residents) had significant potential to create public panic about the safety of waterways and drinking water, the City of Somerset team began to investigate the source of this report.
Through our own open records requests and conversations with Kentucky Division of Water officials, we now know that Mr. Girdler grossly misrepresented this report. These results were taken on the City of Somerset’s behalf through a grant with the Kentucky Division of Water to create a watershed plan. They in no way represent any information related to leachate.
One important consideration we have learned in our investigation: Chemicals can be detected in every stream in the United States. Some are naturally occurring, some are not — and many are there as a result of the products we use every day. This was confirmed in our conversations with the Kentucky Division of Water’s Water Quality Branch. Just because chemicals are detected in a stream does not make the stream, or the municipality’s drinking water, unsafe. It’s whether the levels of those chemicals exceed state standards for surface water or domestic water supply that is ultimately of concern.
Throughout this process, there has been an unfair and inaccurate connection made between leachate, the deficiencies at Pitman Creek WWTP and the city’s drinking water. The implication is that because the plant has deficiencies and treats leachate, our drinking water is unsafe. This can easily be refuted with our water quality report and we encourage residents to view it on our website.
Below is a detailed summary of what we learned through our research and a timeline of events to provide context:
- In 2019, the City of Somerset began treating landfill leachate at the Pitman Creek WWTP. The leachate undergoes a rigorous and highly regulated treatment process. Our effluent is tested daily to ensure compliance with state standards as it exits Pitman Creek WWTP — just before it enters receiving waters.
- In July 2020, the City of Somerset applied for a Kentucky Nonpoint Source Pollution Control Program grant (otherwise known as a 319 grant) with the purpose of developing a watershed plan for Lower Pitman Creek. The goals of this project were to identify and decrease bacteria levels in the watershed, decrease sediment and stormwater runoff, improve the stream habitat and increase public involvement.
- The city was awarded the grant in October 2020 and the contract was signed by Mayor Keck in March 2021.
- In August 2021, the City of Somerset announced it received a $3 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to upgrade equipment at Pitman Creek WWTP and the Sinking Creek pretreatment facility. Upgrades include the new sludge dewatering facility, which is a result of the 2018 agreed order from the state that has been of interest to Ms. Price.
- Also in 2021, the Kentucky Division of Water’s groundwater team, as part of the 319 grant, began conducting dye-tracing in watershed streams to study stormwater behavior. This has helped the city better map our stormwater system and understand how water is moving through the watershed. This ultimately has helped the city address stormwater challenges during heavy rains.
- In March 2022, the Division of Water’s water quality branch began performing non-point source sampling in streams and springs through the watershed as the next phase of the 319 grant program. These samples are collected regularly over the course of 12 months at 12 different locations along or near Sinking Creek, all of them upstream from our Pitman Creek WWTP. (See map.) There are currently six months left in this sampling window. To reiterate, the Division of Water is the City of Somerset’s partner in this process — the Division is collecting these samples on our behalf to assist in creating a watershed plan.
- On July 13, 2022, the DOW team conducted its monthly sampling at several of these locations. Soon after, this branch began receiving open records requests for this data.
- On Aug. 25, 2022, Mr. Girdler shared a cropped image of a report from one sampling station that was sampled on July 13, claiming it shows results from “leachate that is being dumped into our streams and land.” This is false. This report includes results from a sample of stream water at specific coordinates which is being compiled for the City of Somerset’s watershed improvement grant, and nothing more. Furthermore, reports from any of these sampling stations are irrelevant to any discussion about leachate because they are all upstream from where leachate is treated.
- As mentioned, because there are six months left in the sampling window, this data is incomplete and inconclusive. Nothing other than the sampling data has been recorded. The DOW Water Quality Branch team tells us it will be months before any analysis of this data is provided.
Again, this data was collected for use in developing a watershed plan for Lower Pitman Creek. The sampling is occurring only because the City of Somerset actively applied for and received the 319 grant in an effort to improve the watershed area. The sampling is not intended to measure the effects of leachate on Sinking Creek — a measurement that is effectively impossible to calculate because treated leachate does not enter Sinking Creek.
Sharing this incomplete sampling data out of context from its intended use is dangerous and irresponsible, as it has generated fear that our waterways and drinking water are unsafe. That implication is false. Public safety is the City of Somerset’s No. 1 priority. The city’s employees are dedicated to protecting Somerset’s residents and resources. We will make available any information to help show that our water is safe and that our processes to treat landfill leachate are safe and compliant.