Sugar beet harvest. Photo by Larry Mayer/Getty Images.
An environmental law nonprofit group is pushing the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to start looking at the toxic chemicals — sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment — in treated sewage, which is often spread on farmland as fertilizer and is lurking underground.
Minnesota doesn’t regulate PFAS chemicals in sewage or require wastewater treatment plants to monitor the treated sewage for the chemicals.
The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and a University of Minnesota scientist said Tuesday the state should test for chemicals and regulate the sludge as the next front in the state’s battle against a family of chemicals called PFAS.
Many of the chemicals were invented and manufactured by 3M, which settled a lawsuit with the state related to water contamination in the east metro.
Wastewater treatment plants collect wastewater from industrial facilities, landfills, airports, and entities that discharge the chemicals, but the plants aren’t equipped to remove them. So the treated wastewater gets released into rivers and the sewage sludge often gets used on farmland.
University of Minnesota environmental scientist Matt Simcik recently studied streams in the St. Cloud area, where a lot of the sludge is applied to farmland, and found much higher PFAS levels in those with heavy application along the banks. The streams are tributaries of the Mississippi River, which supplies drinking water to the St. Cloud and Twin Cities areas.
Water was also tested at the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant in St. Paul, and chemicals were found to be far exceeding the EPA’s recently proposed limits.
Simcik said Minnesota needs to start checking for high concentrations of the chemicals, joining other states like Michigan and Maine. Maine is investigating some 700 sites once fertilized with PFAS-contaminated sludge.
Simcik said he’s working on technology to capture the chemicals in sewage so they don’t go on to crops or surface waters.
Carly Griffith, MCEA’s water program director, said the Legislature took important steps last session.
“But we can’t just pat ourselves on the back and say we took care of the PFAS problem because we haven’t,” she said.
The Legislature passed one of the nation’s toughest bans on products containing the chemicals, banning them from 13 products beginning in 2025, and by 2032, banning intentionally added PFAS from all products unless regulators decide they’re essential.
A spokesperson for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency released a statement saying it has collected PFAS monitoring data from wastewater treatment plans and is working with cities to use new tools to identify and reduce the chemicals in their communities. The agency plans to do additional monitoring to inform future permitting strategies in programs such as the wastewater program.
Regulating PFAS in farm fertilizer will likely be a political challenge, as the farm lobby has consistently avoided many environmental regulations.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.