Governor proposes $46 million to combat chemicals invented in Minnesota 

By: - March 23, 2023 4:55 pm

3M still manufactures perfluorochemicals in Cottage Grove, as well as Cordova, Ill., Decatur, Ala., Zwijndrecht, Belgium, and Gendorf, Germany. Photo by Chad Davis

Gov. Tim Walz has proposed spending nearly $46 million to prevent, manage and clean up chemicals invented and manufactured by 3M that are now contaminating Minnesota’s soil, water, air, people and wildlife. The administration would hire 13 additional employees in the state Pollution Control Agency to do it.

The money would be used for grants to plan public water supplies in contaminated areas, help businesses reduce their use of the chemicals, improve monitoring of water and fish and bolster state health department’s efforts. 

State health and pollution control officials said Thursday they need the funding to help combat the chemicals, which have spread across the globe and don’t break down — hence the moniker, “forever chemicals.” They support bills that would ban the chemicals in firefighting foam; require manufacturers to disclose which products contain them; ban the chemicals in all but essential products and allow people exposed to the chemicals to sue companies for the cost of monitoring their health.

Kirk Koudelka, MPCA assistant commissioner, said state agencies welcome the legislation, because prevention is the best option.

“Ultimately, we are not able to clean our way out of this problem,” he said during a Thursday press conference on the governor’s budget proposal. “Many times it feels like we’re filling a hole that someone behind us is still digging.”

Some of the money would help the state respond to newly proposed EPA drinking water standards for six types of chemicals — called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

The EPA is considering limiting contamination of two types of PFAS to 4 parts per trillion — pretty much the lowest level they can be detected — which may require changes to management of drinking water supplies. Koudelka said about a dozen water systems in Minnesota exceed the thresholds, but that number could go up with more testing. He estimated it could cost over $1 billion to upgrade water systems.

Daniel Huff, assistant commissioner of the Department of Health, said the state has tested 88% of community drinking water systems in Minnesota, and found PFAS contamination in 42% of them, although few are above the state health risk threshold. 

And 84% of Minnesota bodies of water contaminated by the chemicals have significant levels in their fish.

He said Minnesota is a national leader in regulating the chemicals. But Minnesota has been addressing the chemicals far longer than most states, because they were invented here. In the 1940s, Maplewood-based 3M began making the chemicals in Cottage Grove, where it continues to make them today — as well as in other plants around the globe. 3M is one of the world’s largest makers of PFAS, although the company announced in December plans to exit the market, from which it nets about $1.3 billion annually, a fraction of its overall revenue.

The MPCA began investigating the chemicals in 2002, two years after a 3M toxicologist resigned and blew the whistle, telling the EPA the company had stalled environmental studies for two decades.

“It is difficult, endless work with inadequate resources and limited regulatory authority but dedicated agencies across the interface are delivering results across Minnesota,” MPCA Commissioner Katrina Kessler said.

3M had no comment on the governor’s proposal, but has said its products are “safe for their intended uses.” Some of the chemicals they’ve stopped making have been linked to low fertility, birth defects, immune system suppression, thyroid disease and certain cancers. 

The governor’s budget proposal includes:

  • $25 million for grants to design local public drinking water systems; investigate contamination sources to help with cleanup; and test and install treatment systems on private wells. More funds will be needed to build water systems.
  • $10.1 million to expand lab capacity and hire more health department toxicologists, epidemiologists and risk assessors.
  • $4.4 million for grants to help local government and businesses reduce use of the chemicals.
  • $4.14 million to hire 13 workers at the MPCA to enact the state’s plan to prevent, manage and clean up chemical contamination.
  • $1 million to improve ongoing MPCA monitoring of water and fish.
  • $910,000 for the Department of Natural Resources to expand sampling of fish for the chemicals.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.