Forever chemicals add to Minnesota impaired waters list
PFAS in Duluth area lakes, Lake Superior smelt already an issue.
Minnesota regulators on Monday said they have added another 305 streams and lakes to the state’s list of officially polluted waterways, bringing the total to 2,904, including more waterways tainted by the PFAS family of forever chemicals.
This is the first time the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has included greater Minnesota waterways for PFAS and other forever chemicals that have been linked to multiple health problems in humans, including cancer.
The PCA added Wild Rice Lake and Fish Lake just north of Duluth for PFAS contamination as well as Winona Lake in Alexandria and the St. Croix River from the Taylors Falls Dam through Lake St Croix. They join several Twin Cities lakes and streams already listed for PFAS pollution.
The News Tribune first reported in 2010 that fish in Wild Rice Lake just north of the Duluth airport carried PFAS chemicals.
Earlier this year, Wisconsin and Minnesota issued fish consumption advisories for smelt caught in Lake Superior, urging people to limit their meals of smelt to just once per month due to high levels of PFAS. Researchers aren't sure why the smelt are carrying PFAS or where it’s coming from.
“Minnesota’s water is its most valuable resource and everyone expects our lakes and streams to be suitable for swimming and fishing,” Katrina Kessler, MPCA commissioner, said in a statement Monday. “While Minnesota has made progress in cleaning up waters, too many of our lakes and streams are still in trouble, from high levels of phosphorus that grow algae to PFAS contamination in our waters in Greater Minnesota. We still have more work to do.”
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Health officials say PFAS in high levels has been linked to multiple health issues in people, including increased cholesterol levels, decreased vaccine response in children, changes in liver enzymes, increased risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women, decreases in infant birth weight and increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer.
PFAS, perfluorinated alkylated substances, are often referred to as forever chemicals because they don’t break down over time. There are more than 5,000 chemicals in the PFAS family that have been used for decades in everything from firefighting foam, carpeting and nonstick cookware to spray-on water repellant, food packaging and other products. The stuff is showing up in fish and even in deer, in some cases near obvious sources, but in others, including Lake Superior smelt, far away from any obvious source.
Minnesota now has 26 water bodies officially polluted by PFAS in levels that don’t meet water-quality standards. Most waters tested contained lower levels of PFAS.
Officials noted there was some good news this year, including improvements in water quality that allowed them to remove 31 impairment listings from the state list. The federal Clean Water Act requires the state to, every two years, update the list of waters that fail to meet basic water-quality standards. Statewide, the most common reason lakes and streams are listed as impaired is because the conditions are unhealthy for fish or bugs in the food chain. Others are listed because high bacteria levels make them unsafe for swimming, because high sediment levels kill fish or because of high mercury or PCB levels that make fish unsafe to eat.
In addition to traditional pollution, the state also is now listing some wild rice producing lakes for high sulfate levels, which are known to stifle wild rice growth.
Fish Lake and Wild Rice Lake are downstream of Duluth International Airport where the Minnesota Air National Guard base is widely contaminated with PFAS, likely from firefighting foam used during training exercises. The now-closed Duluth landfill in the area may also be a source of PFAS contamination from long-buried products and packaging.
Soil and groundwater near the air base have been found to be contaminated with PFAS, some of which is getting into streams that flow from the site. The U.S. Department of Defense is now surveying nearly 700 locations nationwide where the chemicals were used or may have been released, including the Duluth air base, and expects to complete initial evaluations by late 2023.
In October, the Environmental Protection Agency said it will for the first time set limits on certain PFAS that persist in the environment and will issue restrictions on PFAS discharges from industrial sources by 2022 by establishing “technology-based limits” on the chemicals.
PFAS chemicals are now found in food, groundwater, drinking water, lakes, rivers, fish tissue and even in deer. Several other states have issued advisories to avoid or limit fish due to PFAS contamination, and some areas in Michigan and Wisconsin have PFAS advisories for limiting or not eating venison from deer shot near highly contaminated PFAS sites.
Small amounts of PFAS also have been found in some wetlands and creeks, and some private drinking water wells, in western Duluth near what had been an aircraft firefighter training facility operated by Lake Superior College. PCA officials have said those chemicals were below safe drinking water standards and thus not a health threat. Training center officials said they no longer use any materials that contain PFAS chemicals. The facility, now called the Emergency Response Training Center, has since been redesigned as a structural fire training center.
In Superior, one year after the fire and explosion at the Husky Energy refinery in Superior, traces of firefighting foam containing PFAS were still being detected in Newton Creek.
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Since 2002, state officials have issued nearly 1,100 private well advisories due to PFAS levels. Minnesota's 3M Company manufactured PFAS at its plant in Cottage Grove for decades beginning in the 1950s. 3M legally disposed of waste containing PFAS in landfills in the eastern suburbs of the Twin Cities metro area. The chemicals leached into the groundwater in nearby cities.
The state sued 3M in 2010 and the case was settled in 2018 when 3M agreed to pay $850 million to provide safe drinking water and clean up contamination near their eastern Twin Cities manufacturing facility and waste dumps.
This story was updated at 12:22 p.m. Nov. 8 with additional information from a press conference. It was originally posted at 11:13 a.m. Nov. 8.