Some 20 years after first confronting the contaminating-effects of human-made “forever chemicals,” the state of Minnesota introduced a blueprint Wednesday for how to prevent, manage and clean up contamination from those chemicals.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's blueprint seeks legislative solutions, including the designation of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, as hazardous substances. The blueprint also seeks funding to begin broader sampling for the presence of PFAS in drinking water, fish and places such as Duluth’s Western Lake Superior Sanitary District.

Legislators speaking at a news conference Wednesday described bipartisan will to tackle and learn more about the substances, an enormous family of chemicals used in grease-resistant food wrappings, clothing, medicine, nonstick coatings, carpeting, firefighting foam and scores of other goods and manufacturing processes.

The chemicals are known to have adverse health effects in humans, including high cholesterol, low birth weights and cancer.

In January, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources advised residents to eat only one meal of Lake Superior rainbow smelt per month after high levels of the substances were found in smelt tested along the lake’s South Shore.

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The Wisconsin DNR last month issued a fish consumption advisory calling on people to limit meals of Lake Superior rainbow smelt to just one per month due to high levels of the PFAS family of chemicals. (Bob King / 2018 file / News Tribune)
The Wisconsin DNR last month issued a fish consumption advisory calling on people to limit meals of Lake Superior rainbow smelt to just one per month due to high levels of the PFAS family of chemicals. (Bob King / 2018 file / News Tribune)

State Sen. Jen McEwen, D-Duluth, was part of the MPCA’s rollout of its blueprint, and said growing concern about PFAS was among the first things brought to her attention as a new legislator.

“I’ve just been really shocked to learn of yet another environmental issue we have to tackle,” McEwen said. “Ultimately, it affects everything, right? The water, our economy, it’s all interconnected.”

She has since co-authored legislation that would ban PFAS in food packaging and create a working group to investigate PFAS contamination in water and soil. She said the chemicals threaten public health, wildlife and the environment.

Minnesota District 7 Senator-elect Jen McEwen
Minnesota District 7 Senator-elect Jen McEwen

Duluth’s WLSSD has been targeted within the past year by St. Louis County commissioners from the Iron Range critical of the plant for discharging PFAS-containing landfill leachate into Lake Superior.

The blueprint addressed a funding proposal in the Legislature that would facilitate WLSSD, and plants like it throughout the state, to sample for PFAS and further investigate upstream sources of PFAS in order to mitigate the presence of the chemicals at the end of the line.

“Such that we don’t have to require expensive treatment at the end for hundreds of wastewater treatment facilities across the state,” said Katrina Kessler, assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Marianne Bohren, executive director for WLSSD, appreciated what she termed a “holistic” blueprint that addressed the sources of the PFAS, and doesn’t pass the burden for solutions solely onto treatment facilities. PFAS is not treated by WLSSD’s existing processes; the substances are designed not to stick to anything, and require innovative and expensive treatment processes.

“We’re fully committed to being a part of this,” Bohren said. “But the real impact on people’s health is finding a solution and product substitutions in their homes.”

Bohren cited a 2019 MPCA study of compost at sites across the state, including WLSSD. The study confirmed the presence of one or more PFAS chemicals at concentrations above "intervention limits" at all sites sampled.

"The compost itself was the food waste and scraps off people's tables," Bohren said. "So, that’s why I'm encouraged the state is looking at all of the products that people use on a day-to-day basis that have PFAS-type chemicals in them, because we can't address that at a wastewater treatment plant."

The blueprint seeks to require Minnesota companies to submit information on the use of PFAS and other contaminants in products and processes should monitoring show unexplained presence of contaminants in the surrounding environment.

Great Lakes environmental groups in 2019 called on state and federal governments to work faster to find and clean up toxic PFAS contamination across the region. The chemicals are widely used, including in flame retardants.  (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
Great Lakes environmental groups in 2019 called on state and federal governments to work faster to find and clean up toxic PFAS contamination across the region. The chemicals are widely used, including in flame retardants. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

The use of PFAS is so widespread it presents a daunting challenge. When the dental industry was forced to discontinue the use of mercury in tooth fillings, the amount of mercury going to treatment plants plummeted. But with PFAS, there is no one target industry. With more than 5,000 structures and over 9,000 identified chemistries, PFAS are present in the environment and will remain so for generations, the MPCA said.

In Minnesota, the first discovery of PFAS contamination occurred in the early 2000s, when drinking water contamination was found in the east metropolitan area of the Twin Cities. Since then, PFAS have been detected in water, sediment, soil, and fish all across Minnesota — from Duluth and Brainerd to Lake Bde Maka Ska and Pine Island and places in between.

“It’s a big problem,” Representative Rick Hansen, D-South St. Paul, said. “It doesn’t mean it should be an ignored problem.”

Samples of water taken into Duluth's Lakewood pump house last summer did not reveal any concerns about the safety of the drinking water.

MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop said the agency still isn’t “fully aware of the toxicity and dangers of PFAS,” but the Clean Water Action and the Healthy Legacy Coalition issued a statement saying there is more than adequate proof the chemicals are harmful to human health and the environment.

“Though the scope of the issue and its challenges can be daunting, the blueprint identifies some of the ways we can start down the right path in Minnesota,” said Deanna White, state director of Clean Water Action and director of the Healthy Legacy Coalition.

Sen. Karla Bigham, D-Cottage Grove, said lawsuits and litigation have been among the reasons why it’s taken 20 years to get to this point.

“A lot of data needed to be collected and sorted through,” she said. “(But) it is unfortunate. I really don’t think it should have taken 20 years.”

The MPCA said the blueprint puts Minnesota on par with other states which are leading the way in addressing PFAS.