BEMIDJI -- After two decades of discovery and research, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has developed a state-wide plan to address substances known as forever chemicals.

On Wednesday, the agency unveiled its blueprint to handle per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly referred to as PFAS. According to the MPCA, the chemicals are pervasive in the environment and don't break down over time, hence their "forever" label.

The chemicals are manmade and have been used across the economic sectors since the 1930s. In the last 20 years, they've become considered an emerging contaminant.

Over the course of their existence, PFAS have been used, among other products, in air conditioning fluids, windshield wiper fluids, cement additives, non-stick material on pans and firefighting foam. The latter has become a problem for the city of Bemidji, which is now in the process of building a treatment facility to address the chemicals.

A group walks toward the new Bemidji water treatment plant on Oct. 29, 2020 during a tour of the facility, which is located near the Bemidji Regional Airport. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
A group walks toward the new Bemidji water treatment plant on Oct. 29, 2020 during a tour of the facility, which is located near the Bemidji Regional Airport. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

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In its state plan, the MPCA notes that PFAS can accumulate in blood, as many of their structures mimic common fatty acids. In pregnant women, the PFAS that have accumulated over many years can be passed to the developing fetus, which are especially vulnerable to toxicants.

Additionally, in the PFAS chemical family, some compounds have shown to have carcinogenic effects and others have shown to have immunological effects in infants. Additionally, some PFAS have been known to affect thyroids, livers and metabolism.

While there are some dangers researched, though, MPCA leadership said Wednesday that there is more data to be collected, which the agency will set out to do with its blueprint.

"Every day, these 'forever chemicals' are produced, used, processed and released into the environment, yet we aren't fully aware of the toxicity and dangers of PFAS," MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop said. "Using almost two decades of knowledge and experience in researching and managing PFAS, Minnesota has developed a comprehensive, statewide blueprint to protect communities and families from PFAS contamination."

How the process started and where it's going

In its blueprint documents, the MPCA notes its PFAS related work began in 2002, when the St. Paul-headquartered 3M alerted the MPCA about PFAS in Cottage Grove's drinking water wells. Soon after, additional sites were located in the eastern area of the Twin Cities metro.

In 2010, the state filed a lawsuit against 3M seeking payment for natural resource damages caused by the company. In 2018, a settlement was reached, with 3M providing $850 million to Minnesota to be used on drinking water and natural resource projects.

As the state looks ahead, the following key priorities were listed by the MPCA:

  • Pollution prevention: Because treatment of PFAS is expensive and not always feasible, an effort is needed to limit non-essential PFAS use and find alternates when needed.
  • Investigation of PFAS discharges: The MPCA intends to learn where PFAS have been or are still being used and how they end up in the environment.
  • Environmental monitoring: An initiative to gather more detailed information about which PFAS are in the environment.
  • Toxicity research: Continued studies to better understand the toxicity of PFAS to people and living organisms.
  • Regulatory development: PFAS are not yet incorporated well enough in environmental regulatory programs. Program development is needed to consider necessary and appropriate changes to incorporate PFAS monitoring, limits, or best management practices into facility permits.

In the short term, to address these priorities, the MPCA intends to develop statewide water quality standards for PFAS and create a plan for monitoring PFAS in groundwater at active landfills. Additionally, the MPCA will develop a plan for monitoring PFAS at pollutant elimination facilities.

Meanwhile, for the long term, the MPCA is looking to require mandatory reporting on air toxins, including PFAS, from facilities, while also providing financial and technical assistance to businesses for switching away from products with PFAS.

Additionally, the MPCA will work to develop an epidemiological study of residents exposed to PFAS through drinking water and limiting or banning PFAS in known non-essential uses.

State and local actions this year

According to documents shared during Wednesday's announcement, the MPCA and Gov. Tim Walz have requested the following in financial support for the blueprint:

  • $400,000 for the next two years to sample fish and water for PFAS.
  • $1.4 million to understand elevated levels of PFAS in waste streams.
  • $500,000 to evaluate PFAS contamination at landfills, compost facilities and wastewater treatment plants.
  • $700,000 to fill data gaps in PFAS understanding.

Additionally, the MPCA has made the following proposals to the Minnesota Legislature:

  • Give the agency authority to request data regarding potential environmental concerns related to PFAS contamination.
  • Formally define PFAS as a hazardous substance under the Minnesota Environmental Response and Liability Act.

Assistant MPCA Commissioner Kirk Koudelka said Wednesday that defining PFAS as hazardous will allow local government units to easier approach industrial entities that create and release PFAS to cover the cost of cleanup, so it isn't put on taxpayers.

The latest action by the MPCA isn't its first move to mitigate the PFAS issue though. Over the last several years, the agency, as well as the Minnesota Department of Health, began to adjust its levels of how much of the chemicals is considered acceptable.

The new water treatment plant is located near the Bemidji Regional Airport and once finished will treat the city's nearby water wells. The plant will remove chemicals, known as perfluorocarbons, to meet standards set by state agencies. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
The new water treatment plant is located near the Bemidji Regional Airport and once finished will treat the city's nearby water wells. The plant will remove chemicals, known as perfluorocarbons, to meet standards set by state agencies. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

At this same time, the city identified the chemicals in its water wells, which is located near the Bemidji Regional Airport. The airport has been known as a training ground for local fire departments which used foams containing types of PFAS.

Over the years, those chemicals made their way into the city's water wells. To address the issue, at one point the city considered drilling a new well to provide an alternate water source for residents, as the amount of chemicals in its existing wells would surpass state standards.

However, no suitable site was found. As a result, the city instead initiated a plan to build a treatment plant which will remove the chemicals from the water. Last June, the Bemidji City Council approved a $7.34 million project to construct the first phase of the facility.

The next phase will be to expand the building to increase the amount of water that can be treated by the facility. In mid-October, the Legislature passed a bonding bill during one of its special sessions with $10.1 million for the second phase of the project.

According to Bemidji Public Works Director Craig Gray, the facility is expected to be in operation at phase one capacity in the second week of March. Along with its treatment plant, the city also has litigation underway against 3M which developed the chemicals.

On Wednesday, Koudelka said the Bemidji situation highlights the need to get in front of the problem with prevention efforts.

"We're really hoping to get in front of it, so that we can help prevent this issue from happening in other communities," Koudelka said. "We're looking at pollution prevention to do that work. In addition, there are proposals about making sure we are able to sample drinking water facilities."