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State pollution control deems Duluth drinking water safe

MPCA responded to St. Louis County commissioners who sought action about leachate discharged into Lake Superior.

FILE: WLSSD
Covered tanks and buildings at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District facilities on the St. Louis River in Duluth. (File / News Tribune)
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Samples of water taken into Duluth’s Lakewood pump house “did not reveal any concerns about the safety of the drinking water drawn,” said a top state official in a letter to St. Louis County last week.

Commissioner Laura Bishop of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was responding to concerns from four county commissioners , who in their own letter last month sought immediate action to address solid-waste leachate discharged into Lake Superior.

Of particular concern to them were per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — human-made chemicals with oil and water resistance commonly used in nonstick cookware, fast-food packaging and firefighting foam.

Bishop’s response came within two weeks.

She said her department consulted with the Minnesota Department of Health, which oversees drinking water quality in the state.

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Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop delivers remarks at the EPA Lab in Duluth in 2019. News Tribune file

“In regards to your particular concern about PFAS, the MDH has tested finished drinking water drawn from the Lakewood pump house for PFAS in studies in 2014-2015 and again in 2019,” Bishop wrote. “PFAS was not detected in any of the samples.”

During Tuesday’s County Board meeting, Commissioner Frank Jewell, representing downtown and central Duluth, noted the timeliness of the response.

“It does point out the facts related to this and that it is a careful process for assuring that the drinking water to nearly 100,000 people … is safe,” Jewell said.

Only Commissioner Keith Nelson, of the four who issued the County Board’s letter, spoke to the response. Commissioners Mike Jugovich, Keith Musolf and Paul McDonald also signed the letter. They represent the Iron Range and areas surrounding Duluth.

“Their concerns with PFAS are well-noted in the last paragraph of that letter,” Nelson said.

In the paragraph, Bishop wrote that “MPCA acknowledges there are many unknowns related to this group of chemicals. To help fill information gaps and better characterize risks we are actively working on many fronts, within the state and regionally, to understand the issues with PFAS, and to develop an appropriate and coordinated (response)."

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The MPCA, she said, is participating with other Great Lakes states in a PFAS Task Force, which recognizes that PFAS are a pervasive threat and there is need for a unified response to protect the Great Lakes as a drinking water source.

Leachate is a liquid byproduct of compressing landfill waste. The leachate processed at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District in Duluth is trucked in from landfills throughout the region.

The commissioners' original letter cited an annual discharge of nearly 5 million gallons of municipal solid-waste leachate into Lake Superior. WLSSD confirmed the figure, calling it 0.04% of the 13.9 billion gallons of effluent treated annually at the Duluth-based plant located on the St. Louis River Estuary leading into Lake Superior.

Finally, Bishop added in her letter that “the Lakewood pump house is sampled and tested for many parameters before distribution.”

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