Minnesota officials press fight against 'forever chemicals'
Minnesota pollution and health officials made the case at the State Capitol on Thursday for legislation to restrict nonessential uses of “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, and for the $45.6 million that Gov. Tim Walz has requested in his budget to prevent, manage and clean up the ubiquitous compounds.
State agencies launched a drive two years ago to protect communities from PFAS, which don't break down in the environment but accumulate in human bodies. They've already tested water supplies for 98 percent of the state's population, pioneered new clean-up technologies and started statewide monitoring.
"PFAS is an urgent public health and environmental issue facing Minnesota and the nation,” Katrina Kessler, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said at a briefing for reporters.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluorinated substances, are widespread and expensive to remove from water. They’ve been linked to a broad range of health problems, including low birthweight and kidney cancer. The chemicals had been used since the 1940s in consumer products and industry, including in nonstick pans, food packaging and firefighting foam. Their use is now mostly phased out in the U.S., but some still remain.
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week proposed the first federal limits on PFAS in drinking water, a move the agency said will save thousands of lives. Kessler said that affirmed the work Minnesota has already done, while setting new goals that will need more resources to achieve.
While PFAS are usually found at low levels in Minnesota, there are hot spots across the state. They've been found in 42% of Minnesota's community water systems, not including private wells, said Dan Huff, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health. While very few systems are at levels considered at risk, he said, more tests are expected to be completed later this month.
“Minnesota has become a national leader in protecting residents of Minnesota from PFAS," Huff said. "Now, while we're proud of this, maintaining the status quo is not an option. Protecting Minnesotans from PFAS requires much greater pollution prevention. It also is going to require additional resources that only our Legislature can provide.”
A key item in the governor's PFAS budget proposal is $25 million to support the planning and design of drinking water systems for affected communities. But Kirk Koudelka, assistant commissioner of the pollution control agency, said that's just a “down payment” and that “hundreds of millions of dollars” will be needed later to build those facilities. He noted that the EPA's draft standards are more restrictive than Minnesota's current standards, and said some of the state's public water systems will exceed them.
Woodbury, for example, will probably need over $100 million, while Cottage Grove will need around $60 million and Bemidji will need about $25 million, he said.
Democratic Rep. Jeff Brand, of St. Peter, is the lead House author of legislation supported by the two state agencies that seeks to eliminate nonessential PFAS from products for children, cookware, dental floss and thousands of other consumer goods. He said he expects it will get added to the main environment budget bill this session.
“We need to turn off the faucet in our state,” Brand said. “The PFAS prevention package will hold manufacturers accountable for their direct impacts in the community, and will help to shut off the faucet, so that way we can focus on costly but necessary cleanup measures.”