Communities need action to meet new PFAS limits

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last week, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced new nationwide protections to limit PFAS chemicals – a class of stubborn substances that contribute to cancer – in drinking water systems. These limits will phase in over the next several years and require drinking water utilities to take steps to reduce their levels of the “forever chemicals” if they are found to exceed the new limit.

In Minnesota, that means that at least 22 community water systems will need to take action to improve filtration and other measures for keeping PFAS out of their water, as their current levels are above the new standard. The Minnesota Department of Health identified these communities at a press conference Wednesday; they range from Cloquet to Austin, from Stillwater to Alexandria.

Forever chemicals’ long Minnesota history

PFAS chemicals have a number of useful properties, like resistance to water, stains, and heat, and are used in products like Scotchguard, nonstick cookware, and firefighting foam. Their unique qualities made them lucrative products for Minnesota-based 3M. 3M produced these chemicals in Cottage Grove for decades, resulting in PFAS infiltration of the water and soil in much of the East Metro.

Unfortunately, PFAS chemicals also don’t break down in the environment or in animals or humans, giving them the “forever chemicals” moniker. Once thought to be harmless, many PFAS substances are now known to contribute to fertility issues, thyroid disease, various cancers, child development issues, and many other conditions.

Nowhere was this fallout more visible than in the East Metro. Mounting health costs of the contamination there led the state of Minnesota to sue 3M, eventually settling for $850 million in cleanup assistance and water treatment dollars. That money is unfortunately a drop in the bucket compared with the billions of dollars in cleanup and treatment costs originating with 3M’s PFAS production.

Students at Oakdale’s Tartan High School have been perhaps the most visible victims, suffering much higher than usual rates of cancer. One such student, Amara Strande, passionately advocated for PFAS protections during the 2023 session before passing away from cancer at the age of 20.

Her efforts made a difference for all Minnesotans: the Legislature passed Amara’s Law, one of the nation’s strongest packages of PFAS policies that will bolster cleanup efforts and phase out most uses of these chemicals in Minnesota over the next decade.

The long road ahead

The good news for Minnesota is that we have proven methods available to keep water customers safe from PFAS. But these methods can be expensive for many communities, so we hope the Legislature passes capital investment dollars for PFAS treatment this year.

Unfortunately, forever chemicals currently in the environment aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and that’s a long-term problem for humans as well as fish and other wildlife. It will be a long and costly road to clean up PFAS, but the sooner the world phases out their continued production – a business that even 3M is departing – the better off we’ll be.

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