Minnesota tracking ‘forever chemicals’ in state’s drinking water, braces for changing regulations

For Steve Johnson, a sip of water from the tap seems almost a luxury after the private well on his East Metro property was found to have elevated levels of "forever chemicals."

For months, Johnson relied on cases of bottled water until he recently had a specialized filtration system installed, which is designed to remove per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

Since the 1940s, PFAS compounds have been used to manufacture household items – from nonstick cookware to carpeting to waterproof clothing and more. Man-made chemicals do not break down over time which is why they’re often called "forever chemicals." The compounds have been linked to serious health problems, including an increased risk of cancer.  

The "forever chemicals" seeping into Johnson’s property likely come from Minnesota’s largest known PFAS contamination after manufacturer 3M dumped PFAS waste in the East Metro. It contaminated the drinking water of more than 170,000 people and led to the state’s largest ever environmental lawsuit, which resulted in an $850 million settlement

"Clean water should be a right that everyone has access to, and here in the East Metro, we have a lot of contaminated groundwater," Johnson said. "We're not the only people in Minnesota that are dealing with water problems."

A statewide testing initiative 

The Minnesota Department of Health is currently conducting a massive statewide initiative to collect, test and monitor drinking water from every single community water system in the state. 

"Our goal is to sample all community public water systems in the State of Minnesota… those towns, cities that distribute water to their customers," said Steve Robertson, who serves as a supervisor in the drinking water protection section at the Minnesota Department of Health. 

"The purpose of that is to try to, with that information, be able to protect human health exposure that might take place through drinking water," Robertson said.

So far, almost two-thirds of the state’s nearly 960 community water systems have been sampled. About 1% of those tested systems have exceeded health-based standards. 

"Our results are indicating that while we are seeing PFAS compounds, by and large, though at very low levels as I indicated earlier, there’s just a small percentage of systems that have had results indicate there’s any kind of health-based concern," Robertson added. 

The department also launched an online dashboard to relay confirmed results to the public. 

Elevated Levels

The City of Waite Park is one concern that has been flagged by the health department. All three of the groundwater wells that provide water to the city’s 8,000 residents have been found to have elevated levels of PFAS. 

When asked whether residents should be worried about their drinking water, Waite Park Public Works Director Bill Schluenz said, "they should be knowledgeable about it." 

While the chemicals have been found in the groundwater, an investigation is underway to identify where the contamination is coming from. A cleanup plan is also in the works. 

"As water professionals, we want to make sure that we give all citizens, residents and visitors the safest drinking water we can have," said Schluenz. 

Changing guidelines

The definition of what is considered safe in terms of PFAS could soon change after the Environmental Protection Agency signaled it could lower the regulatory threshold for PFAS. Future changes in regulations could mean even smaller traces of the chemicals could deem a water source unsafe. 

Practically speaking, if the threshold for PFAS is lowered, that could result in more wells within the footprint of the East Metro could qualify for 3M settlement money and stretch those dollars even thinner. 

"That is the type of data that’s going to impact how the future usages of the settlement are going to play out," said Jeff Holtz, who lives in Lake Elmo and served as a member of the workgroup advising on how the multimillion-dollar 3M settlement should be spent. 

"As we continue to improve our ability to detect as more data comes out, that likely is going to impact the health index formula, and it means the dollars will be used in a quicker manner," Holtz said. 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has authority over the 3M settlement money. The agency’s Assistant Commissioner Kirk Koudelka says the agency is aware of the possibility of changing regulations and science and how it could impact the allocation of settlement money. 

"It's very important -- when the state settled with 3M, we had the settlement there, and it says in there what’s also called a consent order behind it that says if the money were to for some reason to run out in the settlement, 3M is still responsible to take care of the drinking water needs for the communities under the consent order," Koudelka said. 

Meanwhile, the state will continue its PFAS testing across Minnesota to locate and identify any contaminated drinking water. 

"We’ll continue to work, looking for the source to have those that are responsible, which we call responsible parties, to cover the costs of the cleanup and providing safe and sustainable drinking water to those that need it," Koudelka said, acknowledging the possibility of more lawsuits.

"Sometimes we're able to work with parties to arrive at a way to make sure communities are addressed without having to go to the lawsuit," said Koudelka. "But if we need to go to the courts to do that, to hold those companies responsible, we will do that."