Xcel Energy leak: City of Monticello learned of tritium in days, not weeks

The City of Monticello learned about elevated levels of tritium near the Xcel nuclear plant three months earlier than city officials have acknowledged publicly, according to emails obtained from a public records request.

On Nov. 28, six days after radiated water was detected, Scott Johnson, Community Relations manager for Xcel Energy, sent a three-sentence email to Monticello City Administrator Rachel Leonard, informing the city that a monitoring well at the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant "indicated Tritium levels above a reportable threshold." 

"There is no known impact to the health and safety of the public," Johnson concluded in his email.

A press release from the City of Monticello on March 17 began, "The City of Monticello learned about the tritium leak at the Monticello Plant at the end of February 2023."

Asked about the discrepancy between the email and statements, city spokesperson Haley Foster said the earlier Nov. 28 email did not contain sufficient details and drew a distinction between elevated levels of tritium in groundwater and confirmation of a leak at the nuclear plant.

"There was no information at the time about the source of the tritium, any plant leak, or operational issues at the plant, or any information regarding the scope of the groundwater contamination," Foster wrote in response to questions from FOX 9.

The Nov. 28 email from Xcel was also apparently intended for Wright County Commission Darek Vetsch, whose district includes the City of Monticello.

But the email from Xcel misspelled his first name and had the wrong email address. It appears to have been inadvertently sent to a financial advisor with a similar name, according to records.

Three months later, on Feb. 23, Leonard asked for an update from Xcel after the energy company began requesting engineering and building permits.

"I wanted to follow up on the tritium (sic) get a status update. Is it possible to get answers to these questions?" she wrote.

Leonard then asks several questions that likely would’ve been on the minds of residents, had they known about the leak.

"Have there been any additional wells testing positive? What agencies are working on this issue? Is there any danger to groundwater in the area? Is there any danger to the river?" she asked in the email.

On Feb. 24, Foster said, "Xcel informed city staff of the leak, associated tritiated groundwater, and involvement by various state agencies to mitigate the issue. We were assured there was no public risk."

Despite having those details on Feb. 24, three weeks later the city seemed caught off guard by the public announcement of the leak as they tried to compose a basic press release.

Foster maintains that the City’s press release was still accurate.

"As detailed in the emails provided to FOX 9, the City was not aware of the larger issue, including the tritiated groundwater until late February. This is reflected in our release, ‘The City of Monticello learned about the extent of the water leak at the Monticello Plant at the end of February 2023.’"

The key phrase appears to be, "the extent of the water leak…."

Earlier drafts of the statement did not use the word "extent" and said unequivocally the City of Monticello learned about the leak at the end of February 2023. 

But as months went by, even some city employees expressed concern about being left in the dark about the nature of the tritium leak.  

On March 6, Mat Stang, Monticello Utilities Superintendent, writes to an official in the Minnesota Health Department (MDH) seeking information.   

"I am contacting you in regard to some information I received indirectly about a tritium (sic) leak with the Xcel Energy Nuclear Generation Facility. I was told that the leak has been happening for some time now and wouldn’t be repaired until sometime in April," Stang writes. 

Stang, the city’s point person for drinking water, asks MDH in the email, "I was wondering if you have been notified, or if you would have any information regarding this incident? Is there information I would need to know from a public health standpoint?" 

On March 16, John Marshal, an Xcel Regional Vice President of Community Relations, sends Leonard a series of talking points to respond to, "Why are you announcing this now?" Those points were later reflected in the City’s press releases.

"Now that we have thoroughly investigated the issue, contained the leak and mapped out a path forward, we feel this is a good time to provide and update to the public," Marshall writes.

"We want to be fully transparent about the issue and all the steps and protocols we are following to resolve this issue in collaboration with the state and our stakeholders," Marshall continues.

In an email to the City’s attorney on Friday, March 17, Leonard was unhappy with feedback from the public and the tone of questions from the media.

"I reached out to the MPCA because I’m really starting to get angry that this is somehow becoming the city didn’t tell people, but I’ve only been able to leave voicemails and I’m not getting a call back," Leonard wrote.

And yet, the press release she recommends doesn’t convey any of that frustration or uncertainty.

In response, Foster said, "Trying to collect all of the necessary information from a variety of participating agencies partially resulted in the frustration identified in the email from March 17."