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Water works: Bemidji explores options after PFCs found in water wells near airport

BEMIDJI--The city of Bemidji has hired an engineering firm and a law firm as it addresses chemicals found in two now-shutdown water wells by the Bemidji Regional Airport.

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BEMIDJI-The city of Bemidji has hired an engineering firm and a law firm as it addresses chemicals found in two now-shutdown water wells by the Bemidji Regional Airport.

The city and state have been aware of the chemicals called perfluorocarbons, or PFCs, since about 2008, according to City Engineer and Director of Public Works Craig Gray.

State officials learned the chemicals were often used in firefighting foams and as a result, a survey of airports where the foams had been used was conducted. The survey was then narrowed down to which cities, if any, had water systems near those airports.

"Bemidji was one of five or six communities where that was found," Gray said. "So, since 2009, the Minnesota Department of Health has been working with us in testing our water for those compounds."

The first few test years, there was hardly any chemicals detected. But as time went on, and lab analysis improved, Gray said PFCs were detected in two of the city's wells about four years ago.

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In total, the city operates five wells located near Bemidji Regional Airport. The wells are Nos. 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. To create a safe water product from those wells, Gray said the city uses water from all five wells and pumps various quantities from each to make a blend that's able to be distributed.

PFCs were found were in wells 4 and 7. The PFC levels, however, were well within the standards set by state agencies. But a move by the health department this April, though, meant the city would have to take action.

The department opted to lower its health-based advisory values for PFCs, which are separate from the standard level it also uses in testing the water.

"With the health-based advisory level, you can be above that and still meet the standards set by the state," Gray said. "When they made that decision, though, it put wells 4 and 7 over the health-based advisory and because we were concerned, we decided to shut off those wells."

The city has hired Barr Engineering and the law firm Gray Plant Mooty to help address what the next steps should be.

"We want to be out in front on this. Everything's working fine now, but we wanted to look at this long term," Gray said. "We need to look at whether we should build a treatment plant out there for the PFCs or if we need to shut the well field down and construct a new well field, or even a combination of the two. That's what Barr is working on right now."

The Gray Plant Mooty firm, meanwhile, was hired to assist the city with permitting processes, at the suggest of Barr and City Attorney Al Felix and City Manager Nate Mathews.

"They will help us in the event we, for example, want to build a new well field," he said. "They would assist in that process with the department of health and the MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency)."

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A preliminary report on options the city can take should be ready within a few months, Gray said, and a work session with the City Council will likely take place by the end of the year to review findings and see ballpark costs.

Because the numbers aren't available yet, Gray said the matter isn't in the 2018 capital improvements plan. However, Gray said he has gone over the subject with City Finance Director Ron Eischens.

"We won't wait until 2019," Gray said. "We will do something when we know what the best option is. This would all be funded out of the water utility fund, too. It's not a situation where it would be part of the tax levy or that budget process."

While the chemical has been found in the two wells, Gray said the water in Bemidji remains safe to drink because of the inactivation of 4 and 7 and the blending process from those that are still operating.

Matthew Liedke is a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He is originally from International Falls and now resides in Bemidji. He's a 2009 graduate of Rainy River Community College and a 2012 graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead. At the Pioneer, he covers government, politics, health and economic development. He can be reached at (218) 333-9791 or by email at mliedke@bemidjipioneer.com.
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