If drinking water can go bad in Bemidji, it can be contaminated anywhere | Opinion

February 11, 2022 8:17 am

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues in Bemidji, Minnesota. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

As the First City on the Mississippi, Bemidji is a community that values our natural resources and works hard to protect them. Our drinking water has always been safe, abundant, and provided without treatment. We took it for granted.

Sadly, the city of Bemidji was compelled to invest in a water treatment plant after learning our drinking water was contaminated by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), “forever chemicals” that are linked to a variety of health problems including some cancers, thyroid disease, and infertility.

How and why this happened is a cautionary tale for every city and township in Minnesota as we continue to learn how to live in a world that we now know is awash in PFAS. As the mayor of Bemidji for eight years through 2020, I served during the time Bemidji faced this crisis. We needed to make quick, tough decisions to protect our neighbors who relied on our city for clean drinking water.

When our City Council and staff first learned about the contamination, we faced a steep learning curve to figure out what it meant for our community and how to fix it. We also needed to understand how our water supply was contaminated in the first place.

Bemidji was first notified about possible PFAS contamination in 2008, when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency conducted a survey of fire departments around the state to identify possible locations where PFAS-containing firefighting foam had been used for training purposes. We learned that the Federal Aviation Administration-approved firefighting foam used at the Bemidji Airport contained PFAS, and that the chemicals had seeped into the five municipal drinking water wells located near the airport. (Use of that firefighting foam was discontinued in 2009.)

Well testing in 2009 detected PFAS in low concentrations, but later testing by the Environmental Protection Agency showed the concentrations were increasing. When the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) conducted testing again in 2015 and 2016, two of Bemidji’s five wells were above the EPA’s health advisory level for PFAS. We needed to act.

We immediately shut down two wells and blended water in the remaining three to reduce the concentration of PFAS. But as contaminant levels continued rising and emerging science led MDH to lower the PFAS limits considered safe for drinking water, we had to shut down another well. We were at a critical decision point; we could not function on just two wells.

We hired an engineering firm to help identify and test short- and long-term solutions. We considered several options. At first, we thought we could dig new wells; but costs, an efficient location, and finding quality water proved insurmountable obstacles.

We finally determined that building a new water treatment plant to remove the PFAS was the most viable solution. Plus, continuing to pump from the contaminated wells would prevent further migration of PFAS contamination in the aquifer. This was especially important given Bemidji’s location at the top of the Mississippi River watershed.

The problem was that building a new water treatment plant was expensive. Bemidji had been given no reason to prepare for such a cost so there wasn’t money for it in our budget. We also didn’t have time to wait for state bonding assistance, nor could we in good conscience force a 42% rate hike on utility users to cover the cost.

Still, we had to act.  Bemidji decided to construct a smaller-capacity water treatment plant with a more affordable price tag that would successfully remove PFAS, as well as iron and manganese, from enough of our drinking water to meet our short-term needs. The $7 million facility was paid for with a 15% water rate increase. The state subsequently provided $10.1 million for Bemidji to cover the cost of a plant expansion that would increase capacity to meet Bemidji’s future water needs. Unfortunately, the estimated cost of the expansion has grown to $12.5-13 million.

Operating the plant isn’t free and it was only after lengthy legal negotiations that 3M, which produced products with PFAS, agreed to pay the city of Bemidji $12.5 million to run the plant. 

The stressful and costly challenge our city faced with PFAS was uncharted territory in Greater Minnesota. Finding a solution was difficult and required a good deal of investigation, learning on the fly, investing in outside expertise, and navigating unknowns.

The prevalence of PFAS in waters across the state makes this an issue for all Minnesotans, and one our whole state needs to be better positioned to address. Just this month, the city of Woodbury had to shut down municipal wells because of PFAS contamination. What city will be next?

We need comprehensive action to address PFAS contamination, so cities do not have to struggle like Bemidji to provide an essential city service: safe water. The Legislature should step up and fund needed research to better understand how these chemicals are entering our environment; support policies to curb using PFAS in various consumer products; and provide the support and funding needed to help communities address and treat existing PFAS contamination.

PFAS pollution in the East Metro has received a lot of attention, but this is a serious concern across the state. Residents in the land of 10,000 lakes deserve confidence in their drinking water. We must do more to ensure Bemidji’s story doesn’t repeat itself elsewhere.

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Rita Albrecht
Rita Albrecht

Rita Albrecht served ten years in Bemidji city government; two years as a council member and eight years as mayor. She was first elected mayor of Bemidji in 2012 and served four, two-year terms through 2020. Albrecht retired as NW Regional Director at Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 2019. She was appointed to the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources by Gov. Walz in 2021. Albrecht and her husband live in Bemidji and have two grown children and five grandchildren.