Cities grapple with costs of removing PFAS from drinking water

A man stands on the side of a road
Mayor Myron Bailey stands next to the planned PFAS water treatment site in Cottage Grove on Nov. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In a field south of Highway 61, Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey watched as bulldozers moved dirt for a new, $39 million treatment plant to remove so-called “forever chemicals” from the city’s water supply.

“It’s taken 17 years to get here,” said Bailey, referring to how long it's been since human-made PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, were first detected in his city’s water. 

Cottage Grove previously built five temporary plants that remove the chemicals. But this fall, it finally broke ground on a long-term solution.

“We’re excited that we’re finally going to get a permanent treatment facility here in Cottage Grove,” Bailey said.

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Money from 3M’s $850 million settlement with the state of Minnesota over PFAS contamination in the east metro will pay for the plant, as well as a second, larger one Cottage Grove eventually plans to build. 

But other cities across Minnesota that weren’t part of the 3M settlement are faced with the dilemma of how to pay the hefty costs for removing PFAS from their drinking water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new, enforceable limits on six PFAS that are much lower than the state’s current advisory limits. If they’re adopted, about a dozen Minnesota cities likely will need to install treatment systems or find a new water source.

The science behind new proposed PFAS limits

“The question is, who’s going to pay for all of this?” said Matt Simcik, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. “A lot of the costs will most likely be passed on to the end user.”

A man stands among pipes and water tanks
Public works director Ryan Burfeind stands amid tanks in a temporary water treatment facility built in 2017 in Cottage Grove on Nov. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Costly solutions

In Cottage Grove, the first permanent plant — the city’s largest infrastructure project to date — should be up and running in 2025. 

It will use granular activated carbon to filter PFAS out of the water, a proven technology, said Ryan Burfeind, the city’s public works director. Similar filters in the temporary plants already reduce PFAS down to a level that can’t be detected, he said.

Cottage Grove has been the epicenter of the PFAS problem. 3M began producing the chemicals at its Cottage Grove plant in the 1940s, and historically disposed of them in landfills in the east metro, where they leached into groundwater.

The chemicals were used in a variety of consumer products, ranging from nonstick cookware to stain-repellent clothing. They’re extremely durable, and don’t break down easily. PFAS have been found in water, soil, wildlife and humans around the globe. 

Some PFAS have been linked to health effects, including kidney and thyroid disease, low birth weight and some cancer.

Last year, 3M announced its plan to discontinue the manufacturing and use of PFAS in its products. Minnesota passed a wide-ranging ban on non-essential uses of PFAS starting in 2025.

But cleaning up PFAS already in the environment is proving to be a vexing and expensive problem.

Money from the state’s settlement with 3M also will pay for a second, larger permanent treatment plant Cottage Grove plans to build to treat drinking water north of Highway 61. It also covered the cost of hooking up 183 homes with PFAS-contaminated private wells to the city’s water system.

But even if the city wasn’t getting 3M money, Bailey said they’d still have to build the treatment plants, “because we want our water to be safe to drink.”

“What that would mean is that would mean that our citizens are having to pick up the tab, if you will, and pay much, much higher taxes,” he said. “I do feel for those cities out there that may have to do that.” 

In Hastings, treatment costs ‘a budget buster’

The city of Hastings, 8 miles southeast of Cottage Grove, faces a similar problem, but without the financial help.

PFAS have been detected in all six of the city’s wells. They’re below the levels the state considers safe for drinking. But city administrator Dan Wietecha said scientific knowledge of the human health impacts of PFAS is constantly changing.

“More recently, we just have better understanding, better epidemiology, and finding that these chemicals are worse than previously thought,” he said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed setting enforceable limits for some PFAS close to the lowest level tests can detect. If that happens, Hastings would be required to take action. Wietecha said they’re not waiting.

“We’re trying to be in a position so that we’re moving ahead, knowing that the standards are coming,” he said.

Concrete pipes sit on a construction site
Concrete pipes line the site of a planned water treatment plant in Cottage Grove on Nov. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

City officials considered various options, from digging a deeper well to connecting to St. Paul’s water system 20 miles away. The most cost-effective solution, Wietecha said, is to build three new treatment plants over the next three years. They come with a big price tag: $69 million.

Unlike Cottage Grove, Hastings hasn’t received funding from the 3M settlement, because state officials haven’t conclusively tied the city’s PFAS contamination to the company's disposal sites. An MPCA official said they’re still trying to figure out if there’s a direct connection that would make Hastings eligible for settlement money.

In the meantime, Hastings is asking state lawmakers for bonding money for the new plants. Without it, city residents would see their water rates double within three years, triple in five years, and continue to rise, Wietecha said.

“If we had to shoulder the burden, it’s a budget buster,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Sauk Rapids: PFAS’ source undetermined

About 75 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, Sauk Rapids is one of about a dozen cities where testing by the Minnesota Department of Health detected PFAS in the water supply. The source of the chemicals hasn’t been determined.

“What’s been happening is not unique to us,” said city administrator Ross Olson. “It’s been there for a while. We just now have the ability to detect it better than we used to.” 

Of the city’s five active wells, two had PFAS, including one that was slightly above the health department’s recommended level for drinking water. It would also exceed the proposed EPA standards, Olson said.

The city decided not to wait and spent more than $1 million to drill a new well. It’s requesting $7 million in bonding money to add two more wells and route the water to its treatment plant to meet the city’s water needs.

If Sauk Rapids doesn’t receive the bonding money, it will still build additional wells, but utility bills probably will increase significantly, Olson said. He said other small cities could face even tougher financial impacts.

“There’s little communities out there that have one well. That’s it,” Olson said. “If that gets hit with some significant PFAS, they may or may not be able to afford it.”

The Legislature did approve $25 million last session for cities outside of the east metro to design water treatment systems to combat PFAS, and to test and treat private drinking wells. But that money is just a start. 

An early estimate of the costs for cities outside of the east metro to meet the proposed EPA standards is around $150 million to $200 million, but that number could change, state officials said. 

Two large water treatment tanks
Water treatment tanks in a temporary facility in Cottage Grove are pictured on Nov. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will ask state lawmakers for $170 million in bonding money in the upcoming session for cities to start building treatment plants, said Andri Dahlmeier, who coordinates the 3M settlement work group for the MPCA.

Some Minnesota cities have signed onto national class-action settlements against 3M, Dupont and other PFAS manufacturers, hoping to recoup some of their costs. But that could take years. 

Current treatment methods are costly, and have drawbacks. Activated carbon systems remove PFAS but don’t destroy them, and are less effective with certain types of PFAS with shorter carbon chains. 

Simcik said the new EPA standards could speed up the development of new technologies to combat PFAS.

“Now the entire United States has to meet these enforceable standards,” he said. “My hope is that will drive innovation to remove these from drinking water, as well as wastewater and other places.”

Several companies are working on methods of destroying the chemicals, but it’s still too early to tell whether they could be scaled up treat a city’s water supply, said Rebecca Higgins, senior hydrogeologist with the MPCA’s east metro unit.

The MPCA also has been testing other technologies, including a system it’s piloting in Lake Elmo that injects air into PFAS-contaminated water, turning the chemicals into foam that can be separated and destroyed.

But the state’s plan to tackle PFAS also focuses on keeping the chemicals out of drinking water supplies in the first place, Higgins said.

“Cleanup is much more expensive than prevention,” she said.