Bemidji settles with 3M over water treatment for ‘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 to test for PFAS from a private well in West Lakeland Township, Minn., on Nov. 15, 2019. To the north, the city of Bemidji recently reached a settlement with 3M to help pay for treating PFAS contamination in the city's water supply.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

The city of Bemidji recently reached a settlement with 3M to help pay for treating contamination in the city's water supply.

3M will pay $12.5 million toward building and operating a new treatment facility to remove chemicals known as PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances.

The city discovered elevated levels of PFAS in its wells in 2016. It’s believed that the source of the contamination was firefighting foam used during training at the regional airport, which is located near the wells. 

3M manufactured PFAS used in aqueous film-forming foam used for suppressing fires for decades.

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PFAS is a broad category of man-made compounds sometimes known as “forever chemicals” because of their tendency not to break down in the environment. Some PFAS have been linked to negative health effects including low birth weight, kidney and thyroid problems and some cancers.

The agreement was a “long time coming,” city manager Nate Mathews said. He said there was a lot of anxiety in the community when the PFAS were discovered.

"I think people in Bemidji are feeling a good sense of relief that we addressed the issue,” Mathews said. “It was a big, complicated project and a long, long process, and it's good to get some conclusion to that."

The city started the first phase of the $16 million project last year, and it’s expected to be online within the next couple of weeks, Mathews said. It will use granular activated carbon to capture and remove PFAS from the water supply. 

Construction on the second phase, which will allow the city to treat more water, will start this summer or fall and take about two years to construct. 

Bemidji also received about $10.1 million state bonding money last year for the project. 

Cities across the United States are dealing with similar contamination from firefighting foam or other sources of PFAS, including industrial plants and landfills.

In 2018, 3M agreed to pay the state of Minnesota $850 million over PFAS contamination in the east Twin Cities metro area.