Environment

Health department says 22 Minnesota water systems have PFAS above new federal limits

water flowing out of a faucet
The Minnesota Department of Health says 17 communities, a veterans’ home and four mobile home parks have levels of so-called “forever chemicals” higher than new federal limits.
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The Minnesota Department of Health says 17 communities, a veterans’ home and four mobile home parks have levels of so-called “forever chemicals” higher than new federal limits.

For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency has set enforceable drinking water standards for six PFAS. Water systems will be required to monitor for the chemicals and remove them if they're above the allowable levels.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are human-made chemicals manufactured since the 1940s. They’re found in a variety of consumer products, including firefighting foam, carpet, stain-resistant clothing and cosmetics.

PFAS don’t break down in the environment, and some are linked to health problems including kidney and liver problems and cancer.

The health department said the communities with PFAS levels above the new standards are Battle Lake, Brooklyn Park, Pine City, Princeton, South St. Paul, Wabasha, Alexandria, Cloquet, Hastings, Lake Elmo, Newport, Pease, Sauk Rapids, Stillwater, Swanville, Waite Park and Woodbury. 

The Minnesota Veterans Home in Hastings also is affected, as are mobile home parks in Lake Elmo, Austin, Bemidji and Shakopee. Water systems with PFAS above the new standards will have five years to address the issue and remove the chemicals.

Some of the communities in the east Twin Cities metro area are getting financial help to address their PFAS problem through the state of Minnesota’s $850 million settlement with 3M, which produced the chemicals for decades. But others are not part of that settlement, and face substantial costs to remove the chemicals from their water supplies.

Minnesota clean water advocates and DFL lawmakers are cheering the new federal standards. At a news conference on Wednesday, state Rep. Athena Hollins of St. Paul said the EPA’s action is a vindication of work she and others in Minnesota have been doing to regulate PFAS.

“PFAS is not a future problem,” Hollins said. “It’s something we needed to regulate years ago, and I'm thrilled to see the fed stepping in to take this on.”

Lawmakers passed a sweeping ban last year on the non-essential use of the chemicals. It was named for Amara Strande, who grew up in Oakdale, and died of cancer at age 20.

Her father, Michael Strande, said the EPA’s action will help protect people’s health.

“We thank them for putting human life before the desires of corporations,” he said. “We thank them for giving us the opportunity to live free of these insidiously toxic chemicals.”

Minnesota Now host Cathy Wurzer talked with Hastings public works director, Ryan Stempski, about the city’s plans to treat the water and how to pay for it. Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: There are now a number of Minnesota cities with water systems that have levels of so-called forever chemicals that exceed new federal limits. The EPA has enacted new rules on PFAS, chemicals that linger in the environment and can cause a host of health problems.

There are now 10 metro area and 12 greater Minnesota cities that have the next five years to reduce PFAS contamination in their water. They include Cities like Brooklyn Park and Stillwater, Wabasha, Cloquet, Alexandria, and Hastings. The director of public works for the city of Hastings Ryan Stempski is on the line with more. Ryan, welcome.

RYAN STEMPSKI: Thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: When you look at your water system, how much PFAS is in your system right now? Has it always been above this new limit?

RYAN STEMPSKI: Yes. We have six wells here in Hastings. All wells have the concerning PFAS, elements the PFOA and the PFOS. And really the levels, and are high as well, is about five times above the new EPA MCL.

CATHY WURZER: So have you been aware of this for a while in terms of PFAS in the water in Hastings? When I first saw this, it seemed new to me.

RYAN STEMPSKI: Yeah. No, we have been aware of this. Department of Health does come out and test our wells on a frequent basis in Hastings. We've picked up PFAS for about two decades out here in Hastings.

So our levels have remained very consistent for nearly 20 years, kind of proving the forever chemical that does not break down in the environment theory. So we've known about these levels. We've just been under the previous health based standards, and so no call to action has been instigated until yesterday's findings.

CATHY WURZER: And have Hastings residents known about this for the past number of decades?

RYAN STEMPSKI: We got word of the new regulations about two years ago. And as soon as we started hearing these discussions and hearing about draft MCLs, we've been kind of on a rigorous path to update our city council at workshops, brought professionals in from the department of health, seeked funding, and really started to try to define the plume of PFAS here in the Hastings region. So it's been about a two-year process of several updates and trying to get this information out once we knew the standards were potentially changing, which now have.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So what's the plan at this point to lower the limits in your city water system?

RYAN STEMPSKI: Yeah. So the plan to mitigate for PFAS, we have completed a feasibility study that we worked with our partners at department of health to get approved. We looked at all sorts of options, but really, the feasible option is a series of decentralized treatment plants.

So really, that's three treatment plants that need to be stood up in the next five years here in Hastings to pull the PFAS compounds out of our drinking water. And those treatment plants, the technology we've chosen is the granular activated carbon. This is a tried and true method already installed here in the state of Minnesota and elsewhere that really absorbs the PFAS out of our drinking water before delivering it back to the system.

CATHY WURZER: Wow, three plants. That's a lot. And I would presume the price tag for that is pretty hefty.

RYAN STEMPSKI: Yeah. The total project cost that we're estimating at this point is $68.9 million to install the three treatment plants. So yes, it is a large price budget buster per se, so we are on the search for funding and have been for quite a while.

CATHY WURZER: Of course, the legislature right now is in active discussions over the bonding bill. Do you have a bonding request in?

RYAN STEMPSKI: We do. We have a bonding request with this year's bonding bill. We actually have a hearing scheduled Monday to further that bonding bill request along. We've made many trips up to the Capitol and the governor's office in pursuit of that bonding bill funding.

CATHY WURZER: You know, I said I was a little surprised to see Hastings on the list, and then I thought to myself, well, maybe I shouldn't be because you folks are pretty close to Cottage Grove. And there is the 3M plant in Cottage Grove. Were you part of the 3M settlement?

RYAN STEMPSKI: We are not currently included in the 3M settlement nor eligible for the 3M settlement funds. The co-trustees of the state of Minnesota really are our contacts to seek that funding out. We have been told through the co-trustees that a direct connection is required to one of the four disposal sites up in Washington County.

But you are correct. We can throw a football over to the 3M Cottage Grove site. So that really got us thinking and talking with hydrogeologists to understand if there were a connection across the Mississippi River, to which that investigation is ongoing. But we have found-- we've talked with the Minnesota Geologic Survey.

We have very complex geology in Hastings. We have some fault lines that cut deep into the aquifers that cut across the Mississippi River. And we've also done a lot of testing of our wells just confirming all the different fingerprints and type of water that we pull and where is it coming from.

And we're really relearning a lot about our hydrogeology. And some of that work is looking promising of finding a connection. But we still have not been brought into that settlement, so kind of a tough spot to be looking for those kind of dollar amounts that I was just talking about.

CATHY WURZER: OK. Are you pretty confident though? You're looking at various pots of money. Ultimately, do you think that these new treatment plants will be fully paid for or will Hastings residents be on the hook for maybe increased taxes or something like that?

RYAN STEMPSKI: Yeah. I mean, as you maybe can hear from our discussion, we have been looking under every rock. We've been talking with our federal government contacts looking to apply for federal assistance, talking on what we just talked about, the state bonding bill, looking to get involved in the 3M settlement. I mean, you name it, we've been chasing it.

And we have ran some of the numbers. It would be an increase in our ratepayers if we had to burden that ourselves here in Hastings. And like I said, that is a budget buster concerned about those increasing amounts. But yes, everything is on the table. But we will not rest until we try to find additional funding to resolve this issue that really was thrust upon us.

And that's the issue is, we didn't really have a chance to financially plan for this. We knew it was talked about. Like I said, 2022 was really when we got serious about it when we were informed that this could be happening. We jumped right on that. And we've been positioning ourselves and trying to seek funding ever since. But we're still not across that finish line.

CATHY WURZER: You mentioned the sites in Washington County. I mean, obviously this problem goes back decades, right? And there have been some homeowners who've had to have bottled water brought in, that kind of thing. What should folks in Hastings be thinking about here as you're trying to get these new water treatment plants up and running? Is the water safe to drink? Should they be drinking bottled water? What do you think?

RYAN STEMPSKI: Yeah. First, I'd like to start with just know that city of Hastings is trying to do everything it can do, looking at finding that funding. I forgot to mention, we did receive one design grant to date, and that is to complete the design of the water treatment plants and water lines.

We also are including an interconnect with our Hastings veterans home, serving up to 150 veterans in our in our community. And so those elements, we're trying to position ourselves to be shovel-ready yet this summer to stand or begin construction on the first treatment plant. So I do want to note that we're trying to move as fast as we can to get to that full mitigation.

CATHY WURZER: But in terms of water safety right now. What about what about safety of the water right now?

RYAN STEMPSKI: Yeah. And in terms of right now, again, we aren't the health professionals. We run the water system. We really advise people to talk to their health professionals or the Minnesota Department of Health has been a great resource to go online search for your personal decision of bottled water, search for some in-home filters that may or may not be successful.

Those types of things, it's everybody's personal responsibility to also understand what their health risk may be and what steps they may need to do until that time in the future where we're fully mitigated. So we do point folks to their own health professionals and to great resources like the department of health or the Environmental Protection Agency.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Ryan, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

RYAN STEMPSKI: Thank you for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Ryan Stempski is the director of public works for the city of Hastings.

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