English and special education teacher Risa Ditty fills up her water bottle on Aug. 31, 2023 at the at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School on the Leech Lake reservation. The tap water cannot be used for drinking or cooking after high levels of PFAS were found in the well. Photo by Maggi Fellerman/Minnesota Reformer.
When students return to school after Labor Day at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School on the Leech Lake reservation, they won’t drink from water fountains or eat food prepared with well water.
Five-gallon jugs of water are propped all over the school and in the cafeteria after manmade, toxic chemicals were found in the school’s drinking water wells.
The discovery is surprising given the “Bug School” is in the middle of the Chippewa National Forest — nowhere near any sort of manufacturing and about five miles from Bena, a town of less than 150 people.
Laurie Harper, director of education for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, said the Environmental Protection Agency offered to test the school’s water in December. In February, EPA officials notified the school that dangerously high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS) were found and the water system had to be shut down immediately.
“They said ‘This is urgent; you need to shut off the water coolers and there’s absolutely no consumption of water,’” Harper said.
By day’s end, all the water fountains had been covered, and the school began buying jugs of water.
Staffers were told it’s OK to wash their hands with the water and students can shower in locker rooms, but nobody should brush their teeth, cook or consume it. A gardening program was halted.
PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” because they linger in the environment, is a family of tens of thousands of chemical compounds that have 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.
Harper later learned the Bureau of Indian Education had also tested the water in November and emailed test results in February.
“It was so vague,” she said. “There was no sense of urgency.”
The email said the BIE would return to re-test within 30 days, but they didn’t return for several months, Harper said.
School and tribal officials have no idea how the chemicals got in the wells; they’re trying to figure out what the land was used for before the school was built in the 1990s. Some residents recall trenches being dug for garbage pits in the 1950s and 1960s, Harper said. Other schools nationwide have zeroed in on floor cleaning products, strippers, waxes and floor polishes that contain the chemicals.
Jay Eidsness, an attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said he’s heard speculation about a former landfill controlled by the U.S. Forest Service.
The situation shows how far the chemicals have spread across the globe, he said.
They can be found in the blood of people across the world, in wildlife in the Arctic circle and drinking water, rivers and streams.
“They’re not just limited to areas in the metro… or where we know where companies illegally dumped waste,” he said, referring to how Maplewood-based 3M began making the chemicals decades ago in Cottage Grove and dumped its waste into unlined landfills for decades.
Between the BIE, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the EPA, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Health Department, the school is tangled up in a bureaucratic maze. The school is controlled by the tribe but owned by the BIE, which leases the land from the tribe.
The BIE can only focus on the school’s 80-acre footprint, and can’t fix what might be contributing to the contamination beyond that. The tribe’s Division of Resource Management is pulling in water quality experts who are working for free, and needs funding to do a hydrology study to determine the source of the chemicals. (Lake Winnibigoshish is nearby.)
They can’t just dig another well, because it could also be contaminated. About 10 monitoring wells have been dug and the BIE has estimated a full fix will cost nearly $500,000, Harper said.
“We do have some allies… some really good folks helping us navigate different pieces,” Harper said. “It’s a system that doesn’t move very fast.”
The school of about 300 staff and students are “rolling with it,” Harper said, but she worries that the community doesn’t understand what PFAS are, and what they can do long term. Some of the chemicals have been linked to low fertility, birth defects, immune system suppression, thyroid disease and cancer.
“They just don’t know what they don’t know,” she said.
In the next legislative session, she said the tribes will push for a bill introduced this year that would allow Minnesotans exposed to toxic substances to sue the responsible companies for the cost of monitoring their health.
The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa recently sued 3M and 23 other companies over water and fish contamination. 3M is one of the world’s largest makers of PFAS, although in December the company announced plans to exit the market.
“Here we are a tribal school, the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School, already behind the eight ball with lower-performing students — students that are not on the same playing field as their contemporaries in a public school setting,” Harper said.
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