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Woodbury takes emergency action to tackle water contamination

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Water tower
A water tower stands near a housing development in Woodbury in 2014. The southeast Twin Cities suburb will build a temporary treatment plant to remove the chemicals known as PFAS, to ensure it has enough clean water to meet summertime demand.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2014

Woodbury is taking emergency action to deal with contamination of its drinking water supply from so-called "forever chemicals."

The southeast Twin Cities suburb will build a temporary treatment plant to remove the chemicals known as PFAS, to ensure it has enough clean water to meet summertime demand.

Woodbury had stopped using six of its 19 city wells because the concentration of PFAS had increased to levels that are higher than the state health department considers safe.

Two types of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, were manufactured by 3M beginning in the 1950s, and used in products such as stain repellents and nonstick cookware. Waste containing PFAS was disposed in landfills in the east metro, where the chemicals leached into the groundwater. 3M phased out production of the chemicals in the early 2000s.

PFAS are extremely durable and tend not to break down in the environment or the human body. Some 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.

In 2018, 3M agreed to pay the state of Minnesota $850 million to settle a lawsuit over PFAS contamination. A plan is in the works to use the settlement money to provide long-term drinking water solutions for the affected communities.

But Woodbury utilities manager Jim Westerman said his city needs a temporary treatment plant to meet summer demand, or residents could face restrictions on water use.

“We believe it is absolutely necessary that we have additional capacity in our system,” he said.

The temporary treatment plant will use activated carbon to remove PFAS from three of the wells so the city can start using them again, Westerman said. He stressed that the city’s water supply currently meets all state and federal water quality standards.

The treatment plant is expected to be ready by this summer. The state and 3M will pay the project cost, estimated at $7.5 million to $8 million, Westerman said.

The Minnesota Department of Health continues to sample for PFAS in private wells in the east metro. The sampling area now spans about 200 square miles.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency also will start testing for PFAS outside of the Twin Cities. 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.