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Water filters to fishing piers: How the 3M settlement can be spent

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Officials discuss 3M settlement over PFC contamination in groundwater
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency head John Linc Stine talks about the state's settlement with 3M over PFC contamination. He was joined by Attorney General Lori Swanson at a Capitol press conference on Feb. 21, 2018.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

The settlement agreement Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson reached with 3M this week gives state officials broad authority in how the $850 million will be spent.

While the settlement calls for the money to first go toward addressing contamination from perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, in the eastern Twin Cities suburbs, secondary uses for the money range from addressing the depletion of groundwater aquifers to building fishing piers to allow Washington County residents to fish on lakes not contaminated with PFCs.

"This is fundamentally a natural resources damage lawsuit," Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr told reporters Wednesday. "We sell over 50,000 fishing licenses a year in Washington County."

Landwehr said those anglers are limited to catch and release in some areas because of the contamination. He said $20 million of the settlement will be set aside for immediate projects to address PFC contamination affecting fish and wildlife, and additional funds could be available for things like fishing piers on lakes not affected by PFC fish consumption warnings.

  When PFCs get into surface waters, like the Mississippi River, they settle and accumulate in the bodies of tiny bugs who live there, Landwehr said. Those bugs are at the bottom of the food chain, so as fish eat the bugs and birds eat the fish, local wildlife is raising the concentration of PFCs in their own bodies, he said.

State officials will put together a work group this spring that includes various stakeholders, such as the suburban cities whose water supplies are contaminated. Swanson said leaders of the DNR and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will act as trustees for the settlement and will consider public input before deciding how the money will best be spent.

The area in which PFCs are found in groundwater now covers 100 square miles, and contaminated water continues to move, said John Linc Stine, Commissioner Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He said state officials will look to use the money on longer-term solutions to supply safe drinking water to the people who live in the area.

"The plume keeps moving, and what we understand about these chemicals and the risk to the human body and the environment is also changing," Stine said.

About 650 private wells are pulling water contaminated by PFCs. That problem can be addressed through home filtration systems, drilling deeper wells or by connecting the home to a municipal water supply. For cities, treating drinking water contaminated with PFCs requires advanced filtration that's more expensive than what's usually required.

For example, the city of Cottage Grove recently installed two temporary treatment facilities to ensure its drinking water meets the latest health guidelines for PFCs.

"We need a long-term solution," said Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey, adding that a new treatment plant to address all the city's supply would cost about $50 million.

While treating current water supplies will be the priority, state officials said there's also room in the settlement agreement to address issues of water quantity. The Metropolitan Council has warned that it isn't sustainable for the eastern Twin Cities suburbs to continue to rely on groundwater, especially as the region grows.

Read the settlement here:

MPR News reporter Matt Sepic contributed to this report.