Minn. agencies roll out plan to tackle ‘forever chemicals’

Hands wearing blue gloves holds a water sample in small plastic bottle.
Minnesota Department of Health student paraprofessional Carolyn Enright holds a water sample from a private well in West Lakeland Township. The Minnesota Department of Health sampled 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 2019

State officials on Wednesday laid out a broad strategy to address a growing pollution concern: a large group of man-made chemicals, known collectively as PFAS, that are pervasive in the environment across Minnesota and are raising alarm in the scientific community about their potential health risks.

“Minnesota’s PFAS Blueprint” calls for the state to enact stronger regulations, including designating PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, estimated to include more than 5,000 different chemicals — as hazardous substances under Minnesota’s Superfund law. State regulators say that would make it easier for the state to hold companies financially liable for cleaning up PFAS pollution.

The plan also calls for additional state funding — about $3 million over the next two years — for researchers to identify sources of PFAS in the environment, including how the chemicals are coming into landfills, compost sites and wastewater treatment plants — and ending up in Minnesota’s waters.

Officials say a comprehensive approach to tackling the PFAS problem could help them prevent the chemicals from entering the environment in the first place, instead of the past approach of reacting whenever new contamination is found.

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Leaders of state agencies, along with several lawmakers, unveiled the plan at a virtual news conference Wednesday. It lays out recommended steps the state Legislature and other agencies could take to address the impacts of PFAS on the state.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop said much has been learned about PFAS since they were first discovered in Minnesota’s environment two decades ago.

“These forever chemicals are everywhere in our carpets, our clothing, medicine, kitchen cabinets and numerous industrial processes and commercial products,” she said. “We found PFAS in our air emissions, wastewater, groundwater and soils.”

However, Bishop said less than 1 percent of PFAS have been tested for toxicity. She said more research is needed to fill gaps in understanding about the effects of PFAS on human health and the environment.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a family of chemical compounds that have been used in a wide variety of products such as nonstick cookware, fabric protector, waterproof clothing, food packaging and firefighting foam.

Often known as “forever chemicals,” they don’t break down and tend to accumulate in the environment, in humans and other living organisms. A growing body of scientific research has linked some PFAS to negative health effects in humans, such as low birth weight, thyroid and kidney problems and some cancers.

Two of the most widely known PFAS compounds — PFOA and PFOS — were manufactured by 3M in Minnesota for decades. The chemicals were discovered in the drinking water supplies of the east Twin Cities metro in the early 2000s. The state settled a lawsuit against 3M over the contamination in 2018 after the company agreed to pay $850 million.

PFOA and PFOS are no longer being produced in the United States. But many other PFAS chemicals are, and little is known about the health effects of many of them.

In recent years, PFAS have been detected in water, sediment, soil and fish across Minnesota, prompting fish consumption advisories in some lakes including Bde Maka Ska in Minneapolis. Cities such as Woodbury, Cottage Grove and Bemidji have had to treat or find alternate sources of drinking water due to PFAS contamination.

The blueprint released by the MPCA, Minnesota Department of Health and other state agencies on Wednesday includes immediate, short- and longer-term strategies for preventing PFAS when possible, and managing and cleaning up pollution when it occurs.

Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed two-year budget includes about $1.6 million to identify sources of PFAS going into landfills and wastewater treatment plants, and more monitoring to determine the extent of PFAS contamination in Minnesota’s water and fish.

The MPCA also is seeking about $1.4 million from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Natural Resources to research the impacts of elevated levels of PFAS in leftover biosolids from wastewater treatment plants and water from compost sites and landfills.

State officials say they also need more tools to clean up PFAS contamination when it occurs.

A bill designating PFAS as a hazardous substance under the Minnesota Superfund program is already being debated at the Legislature.

Kirk Koudelka, assistant MPCA commissioner, said the designation would allow the state to move more quickly to clean up PFAS contamination and hold the polluter responsible without first having to argue over whether the chemicals are hazardous to human health, as it did during the 3M lawsuit.

“So we'll spend our time and resources on investigating and cleaning up or treating drinking water that’s found to have PFAS in it, instead of on the legal arguments and court actions,” Koudelka said.

The proposal has drawn opposition from chemical manufacturers and businesses. At a House hearing on the bill last week, they said not all PFAS have the same toxicological effects, so designating them all as hazardous is an overly broad approach.

“They're not all the same, and a one-size-fits-all approach is an unfair and unscientific way to regulate a chemical class,” said Tony Kwilas, director of environmental policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

Kwilas said designating all PFAS as hazardous would have unintended consequences on the economy and local government. The chemicals are used in a multitude of products, from pacemakers to solar panels to medical gowns, he said.

Cities also have voiced concern that they could be held liable for PFAS that enter their wastewater treatment plants, although they have no control over them.

Another bill under consideration at the Legislature would prohibit the distribution, sale, or manufacture of food packaging containing PFAS.

Environmental groups have voiced support for the proposals. They say there’s plenty of evidence that PFAS are harmful to the environment and human health, and the persistence of the chemicals is creating a serious challenge that cannot be ignored.

“Now is the time for Minnesota to step up and be a leader both by turning off the tap on PFAS and by developing strategies to address the contamination that communities already face,” said Deanna White, state director of Clean Water Action.

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers voiced support for the plan on Wednesday. Several represent districts where PFAS contamination in drinking water has been a costly problem for cities.

“All of us who live in Minnesota — and particularly those of us who live in the east [Twin Cities] metro — have been hearing about PFAS for 20 years,” said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul. “The time is now to act. Just because PFAS are forever chemicals doesn't mean we should wait forever to resolve them.”