3M water settlement could leave east metro communities and families short

By: - April 22, 2020 6:00 am

3M is a member of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which is pushing the Legislature to enact changes to laws governing police. Photo by Hannah Black/Minnesota Reformer.

East metro communities and families dealing with potentially dangerous 3M chemicals that leached into the water supply are still fighting to make sure they aren’t on the hook for millions of dollars in cleanup costs. 

Minnesota and 3M settled a lawsuit for $850 million in 2018 over cleanup of “forever chemicals” that the corporate giant dumped into east metro disposal sites and wound up in drinking water wells. 

But even after the much heralded settlement — the largest in state history — east metro communities and families may wind up paying for ongoing costs. 

The problem: The settlement money will run out, but the chemicals linger on forever.  

If and when settlement dollars run out, then only the most at-risk households would continue to receive money to operate and maintain water treatment equipment, said Kirk Koudelka, assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, or MPCA. 

“Everyone else would be on their own,” he said. 

Minnesota’s lawsuit against 3M said the corporation had dumped per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. The chemicals are used in products like stain repellents, non-stick coatings and firefighting foam. 

These disposal sites — in Cottage Grove, Oakdale, Woodbury and the former Washington County Landfill in Lake Elmo — contaminated nearby groundwater and drinking water wells.

PFAS don’t break down in the environment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And they can gradually build up in the bodies of continuously-exposed people. Though health officials say more research is needed to determine effects on humans, east metro residents have raised concerns over the years about what they say are high rates of cancer in the area, and they worry about raising children there

After legal fees, east metro communities had $720 million for long-term solutions, with priority given to clean and sustainable drinking water. MPCA and the Department of Natural Resources are co-trustees of the money.

The settlement is a lot of money, MPCA’s Koudelka said. But it’s not enough to treat every well in the affected area, and that’s where it gets tricky.

State agencies have sketched out 18 potential scenarios based on population growth and shifts, emerging water treatment technology and a range of other factors.

Accounting for the initial costs, 20 years of ongoing maintenance and operations plus inflation, half of the scenarios would cost more than the settlement amount, according to figures released in February. The most expensive of these scenarios could reach nearly $1.2 billion, $500 million more than what east metro communities are receiving from the settlement.

In many scenarios, families pay

In many of the potential scenarios, if a homeowner receives a water treatment system paid for by the settlement and can’t show a significant health risk, the family may end up having to pay for the ongoing maintenance of the water system, which could pile up and then burden future homeowners, too.

A mitigating factor: If the amount of PFAS in a particular source of drinking water is high enough, a 2007 agreement between 3M and the MPCA requires the corporation to pay for bottled water or treatment.

If any scenario the state chooses ends up totaling more than available settlement amounts, they may begin discussing cost sharing options with communities or families, Koudelka said: “It’s going to be policy choices and preferences that we hear from the public and cities and the townships.” 

Translation: Someone is going to pay. 

There are certainly options where both initial costs and ongoing maintenance could be covered by settlement funds, but it would cover fewer households. 

Koudelka said decisions can’t be made until scenarios have been whittled down further. And those decisions are in the hands of the state government, not local communities. 

Although local governments appear satisfied with the MPCA and DNR’s methods, others — including Cottage Grove and Woodbury — have expressed frustration with what they have called a “top-down approach.” 

“While we wish the process allowed the affected communities to have a larger role in the distribution of the 3M settlement funds, we recognize that (the state) will be the ultimate deciders of the eventual uses of these funds,” said Clint Gridley, Woodbury city administrator, in an email.

In response to a question about potential cost sharing, Gridley reiterated what he said was the city’s goal at the end of the settlement process.

“Our focus is on achieving a fully-funded Woodbury-based water treatment system from our aquifer to serve our 75,000 customers with capacity to eventually provide treated water to around 90,000 in the future,” he said.

In Grey Cloud Island Township, all 300 residents use private residential wells. Ray Kaiser, a township supervisor, said they want money to maintain systems they built for the private wells after the 2007 settlement, so they don’t have to endure the massive expense of a new township water system.  

3M does not admit fault for the presence of PFAS in east metro water — in fact, it was part of the settlement’s terms. When asked for comment, a spokesperson deferred to a Feb. 20, 2018 news release.

“We are proud of our record of environmental stewardship, and while we do not believe there is a PFC-related public health issue, 3M will work with the State on these important projects,” John Banovetz, a senior vice president at 3M, said at the time.

But the eventual doling out of settlement money won’t be the end of the process.

“We’re planning that PFAS will be around for quite a long time,” Koudelka said.

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Hannah Black

Hannah Black is a freelance journalist in the Twin Cities. Most recently she covered city government, public safety and business for an east metro newspaper.