EPA set to limit PFAS in drinking water – so what does that mean for Minnesota?

The Environmental Protection Agency is set to limit the amount of PFAS chemicals allowed in the nation’s drinking water.

On Tuesday, Biden Administration announced its proposal to create the first-of-its-kind national standard to regulate so-called ‘forever chemicals.’

"To have the federal government come out with these new values is just really good news to us," said Sarah Fossen Johnson of the Minnesota Health Department’s Health Risk Assessment Unit.

PFAS is a class of 5,000 chemicals that were developed in the 1940s. They’ve been used to manufacture a host of household items, including non-stick cookware, waterproof clothing and flame retardants. However, the chemicals don’t break down naturally in the environment and have been linked to serious health problems including cancer.

Minnesota has significant experience in managing PFAS pollution, with state agencies working to test water systems and investigate pollution sources.

"We have set the framework already and now with the federal rule in place, we should be able to build off that foundation and be more effective and hopefully even faster in bringing those communities that still have PFAS above standards back down in to compliance," said Sandeep Burman of MDH’s Drinking Water Protection Program.

The health department has tested 870 of the state’s 968 community water systems – those towns and cities that provide water to their residents.

Under the current state standards, a total of five community water systems have been flagged for elevated levels of PFAS. However, it’s unclear how many water systems in Minnesota might be flagged under the new rule.

The EPA hopes the rule will prevent thousands of deaths over time and reduce illnesses for tens of thousands of people.

As Minnesota prepares to bring water systems up to the new federal standard, state officials acknowledge it will be an expensive endeavor, including paying for new treatment centers, investigations and contamination clean-up.

"We know that the cost for implementing in Minnesota will be high. We’re certainly talking in the hundreds of millions of dollars, possibly up to a billion dollars," said Tom Higgins of Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency Superfund.

The EPA is aiming to finalize the new rule by the end of the year while giving time for states to achieve compliance.