Testing for ‘forever chemicals’ widens as cities wait for solutions

A woman crouches beside a private well in the front yard of a home.
Carolyn Enright, a student worker with the Minnesota Department of Health, takes coordinates of a private well in West Lakeland Township, Minn., in November. The Minnesota Department of Health has been sampling private wells and community water systems in the east Twin Cities metro area to identify areas that may have been impacted by PFAS contamination.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Nearly two years ago, Minnesota settled a lawsuit with 3M over water contamination in the eastern Twin Cities metro area. Ever since, residents of the affected communities have been waiting on a plan outlining how the settlement money will be spent to provide safe drinking water for the long term.

There are signs that a draft plan could be coming soon. State agencies and advisory groups tasked with deciding how to spend those dollars say they expect to release a list of options, along with estimated costs, in the next month or so.

In the meantime, the Minnesota Department of Health continues to monitor wells in the east metro for PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, sometimes known as “forever chemicals” because of their tendency not to break down in the environment or the human body.

The area under scrutiny has widened as sampling methods have gotten more sophisticated, the plume of contamination has shifted and the state has toughened its drinking water advice for the chemicals.

“As our methods improved and we could detect lower concentrations, and as our drinking water advice continued to ratchet down as we've learned more about the chemicals, we've had to expand our sampling program,” Ginny Yingling, a hydrogeologist with the state Health Department.

That sampling area now spans about 200 square miles, including areas such as West Lakeland Township, where PFAS weren’t initially detected when monitoring began in the early 2000s.

A woman wearing glasses and a blue jacket.
Ginny Yingling is a hydrogeologist with the Minnesota Department of Health.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Since 2016, state health researchers have sampled more than 3,000 wells, some multiple times, Yingling said.

"We want to be sure we know every well that's got any PFOA or PFOS, no matter how little, so that we can keep an eye on them over time,” she said.

Soon, the sampling area will expand even more. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said it will start testing for PFAS chemicals outside of the Twin Cities metro area.

Researchers plan to sample water and soil at 10 sites in Stearns, Dakota, St. Louis and Olmsted counties, where industries might have used the chemicals, said Jamie Wallerstedt, remediation section manager with the MPCA.

"Our understanding of PFAS over the last 15 years has really evolved. There's been a lot of national research out there,” Wallerstedt said. “And so it's a priority for the agency to understand where PFAS is in the environment."

Seeking clean, sustainable water

For decades, 3M produced two PFAS compounds, known as PFOA and PFOS, at its plant in Cottage Grove before phasing out their production nearly two decades ago. The chemicals were used in a variety of products, including nonstick cookware, food packaging, firefighting foam and water resistant clothing.

Waste containing the chemicals was legally disposed in landfills in the east metro area, where they leached into the drinking water supplies of communities such as Cottage Grove, Oakdale, Woodbury and Lake Elmo.

In 2018, 3M agreed to pay $850 million to settle the state's lawsuit. The state’s top priority for using the settlement money is to ensure a safe, sustainable drinking water supply for the east metro area.

Figuring out how to provide those long-term solutions is complicated and could look different for each community — and maybe even each neighborhood.

Options could include connecting residents with private wells to city water systems, building a joint water treatment plant to serve multiple cities or even drawing water from a nearby river, such as the Mississippi or the St. Croix, to avoid contaminated groundwater.

Hands wearing blue gloves holds a water sample in small plastic bottle.
Carolyn Enright holds a water sample from a private well in West Lakeland Township.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Meanwhile, as concerns grow over the potential health effects of PFAS, Minnesota has tightened its rules over the level of chemicals it considers safe to consume. That's forced some cities to stop using municipal wells where the amount of PFAS now exceed the state's advisory levels.

Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey said his city is installing an additional temporary treatment facility to avoid a repeat scenario of 2017, when residents were temporarily banned from watering their lawns because several city wells had shut down due to PFAS levels.

"In the summer months sometimes, when everybody's using more water and sprinkling, you start drawing the more wells,” Bailey said. “We don't want to get to that point and still have to wait for the permanent solution."

Due diligence

Some city officials and residents have grumbled about how long it’s taken to come up with a long-term plan for the settlement money. But Kirk Koudelka, assistant commissioner of the MPCA, said there's a reason for the cautious pace.

"The reason we're doing the planning is we don't want to, [in] 30 to 40 years, look back and say, ‘If we’d spent just a little bit more time, we would've had a much better option in place,’” he said.

Koudelka said the estimates will include not just how much each option will cost to build, but also to maintain.

“The settlement is a lot of money, but is not infinite,” he said. “We do want to make sure that we can cover not only upfront costs, but the ongoing costs into the future.”

Some of the 3M settlement money has already been distributed to meet more urgent needs to solve contamination issues.

Not long after Kate Hoeschler moved to Cottage Grove three years ago, a water test revealed that her private well was contaminated with PFAS. 3M provided her with a carbon filter system to use until a long-term solution is in place. This spring, her neighborhood will be connected to the city water system.

A person holds a small plastic bottle as she takes notes outside.
Enright makes notes before taking a water sample from a private well in West Lakeland Township.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Hoeschler said at first, she wasn’t thrilled about having to pay a city water bill. But then she learned that the 3M settlement will cover the initial connection cost.

If she chooses not to hook up to city water now, she’ll be responsible for the cost to hook up later. And selling her home in the future with a contaminated well would be tough, she said.

“So there’s really not a choice there — or a very expensive choice,” Hoeschler said.

Growing concern

In the meantime, 3M has been providing bottled water or carbon filters to homes with private wells where PFAS has been detected.

And officials have worked to assure residents that city water supplies meet all state and federal standards. Bailey said he frequently uses himself as an example in Cottage Grove.

“I’m drinking the water. My grandkids are drinking the water,” he said. “I trust my staff to make sure that the filtration system is working.”

But it can be a difficult sell, especially as awareness of PFAS contamination grows across the nation.

PFOA and PFOS have been linked to negative health outcomes in animals and humans, including developmental effects in babies, liver and thyroid disease and certain types of cancer. They are part of the broader class of man-made PFAS chemicals that include more than 4,000 compounds, most unregulated.

3M, DuPont and other companies that produced or used PFAS are facing lawsuits over contamination in states across the country. Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is moving forward with a plan to set federal limits on PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.

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