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Statewide View: Pollutants have become a crisis for Minnesota anglers

From the column: "This isn’t just a Twin Cities problem. Unless aggressive measures are taken, PFAS are coming to your favorite lake, river, or stream."

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This weekend, more than 500,000 Minnesotans are expected to drop a line into one of our cherished lakes and rivers in search of walleye, northern pike, trout, and other gamefish. For many, the fishing opener marks the true beginning of the year, a momentous occasion that promises excitement and a chance to enjoy fresh fillets for an upcoming meal.

Unfortunately, the growing spread of “forever chemicals” in our lakes and rivers threatens to upend this tradition and reshape Minnesotans’ relationship with a shore lunch — forever.

Found in food packaging, firefighting foam, and an array of other products, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — better known as PFAS, or forever chemicals — are a family of nearly 5,000 chemicals that have been used for decades to make products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. Until quite recently, PFAS were commonly found in items many of us use almost everyday, such as carpet, non-stick cookware, shampoo, and food packaging.

PFAS in discarded consumer products can leach into groundwater and make their way into lakes and rivers; this poses a serious public health risk. The science is clear: Ingesting even trace amounts of PFAS can disrupt multiple organ systems, increase developmental and autoimmune disorders, and cause cancer. The problem is so bad in the eastern suburbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where 3M manufactured products using PFAS for decades, that the nearly $700 million devoted to cleaning up these chemicals in the groundwater is likely not enough.

But this isn’t just a Twin Cities problem. Unless aggressive measures are taken, PFAS are coming to your favorite lake, river, or stream, which could put an end to your Friday night fish fry.

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PFAS are prized in industry for their durability, but that quality also means they do not naturally break down in the environment. And many PFAS chemicals bioaccumulate, meaning they persist in living things and can be transferred through food chains, accumulating at the top.

Minnesotan’s most-prized fishing targets — including walleye, northern pike, and bass — are at the top of the food chain in our lakes. Well, not exactly. If you eat the fish on your hook, you are at the top.

Hundreds of anglers line the mouths of the streams and rivers flowing into Lake Superior every spring to scoop up the running smelt. Because of PFAS, the Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan state health departments have advised people to limit their consumption of Lake Superior smelt to just one meal per month.

In Washington County, the Minnesota Department of Health advises people not to eat any species of fish from six different lakes, including the 257-acre Lake Elmo, which is filled with trout, crappie, pike, and more, all indefinitely off the menu.

In total, there are now fish-advisory limits on nearly two dozen waterways in Minnesota, including three in St. Louis County. What was once thought of as an eastern-suburban Twin Cities problem is now a statewide crisis.

Thankfully, our state agencies are paying attention. The Department of Health is currently updating ingestion guidance limits for a number of PFAS chemicals, and the Pollution Control Agency is developing water-quality standards for PFAS. These moves will provide state agencies additional regulatory tools to combat this growing and insidious problem in Minnesota’s waters.

But more needs to be done. So far, the state has balked at passing legislation to classify these chemicals as hazardous substances under Minnesota law, and constant attacks on our regulatory agencies’ budgets threaten to disarm the state’s response to this issue as PFAS spread into waters across the state.

If, like me, you enjoy a fresh walleye sandwich pulled up from the depths of your favorite fishing hole, you will contact your state legislator and urge them to take action on these forever chemicals. While municipal drinking water supplies can be fortified against these toxic substances, the fish in our lakes and rivers are at risk of being poisoned forever.

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Jay Eidsness of Minneapolis is a staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (mncenter.org), a St. Paul- and Duluth-based nonprofit. He wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.

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Jay Eidsness

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