BEMIDJI -- Water pumped from the city of Bemidji's wells is now leaving free of chemicals thanks to the recently finished treatment plant.

Located near the Bemidji Regional Airport, the new $7.4 million facility is functioning and tests are showing PFA chemicals, which are pervasive in the environment and don't break down over time, are no longer found. Previously, water pumped from the wells, adjacent to the airport, showed signs of PFAs.

Those chemicals were developed by the Minnesota-based company 3M and were previously used in firefighting foams. They ended up in the wells because local fire departments have used the Bemidji Regional Airport as a training ground.

"The water plant has been operating and treating water now for a couple of weeks," Bemidji Public Works Director Craig Gray said on Monday, April 26. "We've tested the water three times and everything is working as it should be. All of the water being pumped out of our wells and through the system has come back with no detection of the compounds we're looking for."

The granular activated carbon tanks inside Bemidji’s new Water Treatment Facility remove PFA chemicals, which are pervasive in the environment and don't break down over time. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
The granular activated carbon tanks inside Bemidji’s new Water Treatment Facility remove PFA chemicals, which are pervasive in the environment and don't break down over time. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

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The city began analyzing solutions to the PFA issue in 2016 to meet environmental and health standards set by state agencies. After an unsuccessful attempt at finding a location to drill a new well, the Bemidji City Council chose to build the facility.

In summer 2020, the council approved the construction of the plant, with two phases planned. The first phase is what has been mostly finished, and the second phase, estimated at $10.1 million, will expand the facility in the future. Gray said all that's left with the first phase is some exterior work such as adding fencing and building the parking lot.

"I'm working with Barr Engineering now to finalize a proposal on the second phase for design services and will be taking that to the city council sometime in May," Gray said. "If they agree with that, we will start designing this summer, bid in spring of 2022 and look to have everything finished by the summer of 2023."

To assist with the project, in fall 2020, the Legislature approved a bonding bill with $10.1 million for the project. Additionally, in March, the city and 3M reached an agreement where the company will contribute $12.5 million to the construction of the facility and treatment operations.