Minnesota plans to spend $700 million to reduce ‘forever chemical’ water pollution in east metro

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, Minn. in 2019. At the time, the Minnesota Department of Health was sampling private wells and community water systems in the east metro area to identify areas that could have been impacted by PFAS contamination.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2019

Three and a half years after a major settlement over man-made chemicals found in east metro water supplies, the state of Minnesota plans to start spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade water treatment in the east Twin Cities metro.

Whether a household’s drinking water comes from a private well or city water system, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) interim Commissioner Peter Tester acknowledges Minnesotans expect that water to be safe when they turn on the faucet. Tester heard from many Minnesotans throughout a three-year planning process.

“We’ve had hundreds of comments submitted by citizens, cities, towns and community leaders. The plan being announced today is infinitely better because of their feedback,” Tester said.

The comprehensive drinking water plan released Wednesday affects approximately 174,000 east Twin Cities metro residents. It specifically addresses PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances — chemicals known for their ability to repel water and tendency not to break down.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

The plan costs upward of $700 million and will add several new wells and water treatment plants in areas to maintain access to clean drinking water. It also connects homeowners to city water supplies and provides treatment options for those on private wells.

The MPCA and Department of Natural Resources have been working on the new water treatment plan since Minnesota’s landmark 2018 legal settlement with 3M over the impacts of PFAS. The $850 million settlement will cover the cost of the new treatment plan as well as contingency costs.

The chemicals were used in the manufacture of a variety of consumer products, including Teflon cookware, Scotchgard stain repellent and food wrappers.

Beginning in the 1940s, 3M produced two PFAS compounds at its Cottage Grove, Minn., plant. It disposed of waste containing the chemicals at sites in the east metro, where they contaminated the groundwater over about 150 square miles, affecting the drinking water of tens of thousands of people.

3M phased out production of the two PFAS by 2002. But cities such as Cottage Grove, Woodbury, Lake Elmo and Oakdale have been dealing with the impacts on their drinking water supplies.

Some cities have had to stop using wells or install costly new treatment systems because of PFAS levels that exceed state health guidance values.

Studies have linked long-term exposure to certain levels of PFAS in drinking water to health problems, including liver and thyroid disease, developmental issues and certain types of cancer.

Assistant commissioner for the Minnesota DNR, Jess Richards, said workgroups had to weigh a number of factors like cost, long term maintenance and sustainability over the years-long planning process.

"We had to make a number of difficult decisions and constantly weighed the benefits, risks and costs of any given path forward. We had to consider the individual wants and needs of each community and private well owners, and then we evaluated all of those in the greater context of the entire metro area,” Richards said.

The state’s plan includes building six new or expanded drinking water treatment plants across the east metro, connecting 33 different municipal wells. On the private side, the plan connects close to 300 homes to municipal water, on top of more than 400 that are already connected. Approximately 1,000 households on private wells, who don’t have options for municipal connections, will receive home treatment systems.

The state officials said the plan will be implemented immediately. They reminded residents in those areas that the drinking water is already safe from detectable levels of the harmful chemicals that had been discovered.

Dave Schulenberg, executive director of the Minnesota Water Well Drillers Association, called the plan a “good step forward in ensuring water quality for well owners in the impacted areas." Schulenberg continued,  "Many communities and families prefer to stay connected to their wells, and this plan largely allows them to do so. Now, as we move towards its implementation, it’s important we come together to connect well owners with the resources they may need in order to provide clean water for their families.”

The MPCA’s Tester said when it comes to the future of safe drinking water, cities and states have to manage and clear any existing contaminants, but the key to prevention lies in removing harmful chemicals from products to begin with.

“The more that we can push up efforts in eliminating chemicals, whether PFAS or another chemical, from other companies from getting into the environment and getting into the stream of commerce, that is more effective.”