12 Minnesota cities exceed EPA’s proposed limits for forever chemicals in drinking water

Cleanup costs could exceed $1 billion, pollution commissioner says

By: - August 22, 2023 6:00 am

Sprinklers spray water over the grass on 3M’s Maplewood headquarters on Sept. 12, 2022. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

The Minnesota Department of Health has identified 12 cities and two manufactured home parks where at least a portion of the drinking water is estimated to exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed new limits on toxic, man-made chemicals dubbed “forever chemicals.”

The areas are: Alexandria, Cloquet, Cottage Grove, Hastings, Lake Elmo, Pease, Saint Paul Park, Sauk Rapids, Stillwater, Swanville, Waite Park and Woodbury, as well as the Austin manufactured home park and the Roosevelt Court in Bemidji.

The EPA is considering regulating six types of chemicals in a family that contains tens of thousands of compounds called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Maplewood-based 3M is one of the world’s largest makers of PFAS, although the company announced in December plans to exit the market.

The EPA is considering drinking water limits for two types of PFAS of 4 parts per trillion — the lowest level at which they can be detected. The agency is expected to finalize the standards by year’s end.

To comply with the new standards — which would be enforced by the state — communities may have to upgrade their water systems, perhaps with expensive treatment facilities. 

The increasing number of communities affected — and the escalating price tag of cleaning their water — creates the potential for burdensome long-term costs for taxpayers, outstripping money that 3M is delivering following previous settlements, including $850 million in 2018. 

Environmentalists say 3M should pay. 

“We don’t think it should be our financial responsibility … to pay for filtration of different chemicals that were manufactured by multinational chemical companies without significant rigor and testing,” said Jay Eidsness, staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. 

The state has long had its own advisory limits for some of the chemicals, but the EPA is proposing tighter standards.

3M began making the chemicals decades ago in Cottage Grove, where it continues to make them today — as well as in other plants around the globe. They’ve been used to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water, such as Scotchgard stain repellent, Teflon cookware, fast food wrapping and fire retardants.

For decades, 3M dumped its chemical waste into unlined Washington County landfills, where it leached out, polluting 200 square miles of groundwater and four aquifers that provide drinking water to thousands of east metro residents. 

A recent report on the 2018 settlement said “PFAS concentrations emanating from the Oakdale disposal site have not shown notable decreases from the beginning of the investigation in 2019 and no evidence is present that groundwater concentrations are decreasing across the system at this time.”

In other words, the moniker “forever chemicals” remains apt. 

In March, MPCA Assistant Commissioner Kirk Koudelka estimated it could cost over $1 billion to make upgrades to drinking water systems in Minnesota to comply with the proposed EPA thresholds.

The $850 million 3M agreed to pay in 2018 was designated to clean up pollution in 14 Washington County communities. 3M pays for other water treatment projects as a result of a 2007 consent decree with the state.

The health department now estimates it will cost $150 million to $200 million to provide drinking water that meets the EPA standards outside of the 2018 settlement area. 3M has already paid for temporary drinking water treatment systems in Cottage Grove, Oakdale, and Woodbury.

3M says its products are “safe for their intended uses” even though some of the chemicals they’ve stopped making have been linked to low fertility, birth defects, immune system suppression, thyroid disease and cancer. 

A recently released 3M study found both new and old chemicals the company has made in Cottage Grove since the 1950s have contaminated fish in the Mississippi River from St. Paul to Hastings, and a popular shore fishing lake near Hastings — prompting a state health advisory for anglers. Two types of chemicals that 3M phased out in the early 2000s — PFOS and PFOA — were detected in fish.

A Sierra Club review of state records last year found the state’s highest PFAS levels in Oakdale, Cottage Grove, Hastings and Woodbury drinking water. Oakdale had 1,581 parts per trillion, Cottage Grove 1,067, Hastings 625 and Woodbury 388.

“People are going to have difficult choices to make,” said Eidsness, the environmental lawyer. Among their choices until water systems are fixed are bottled water or in-home treatment systems that remove the chemicals with carbon filters or reverse osmosis. 

He added: “It’s pretty scary.”

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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.