See more of the story

Nearly a year after a city well was shut down due to PFAS contamination, Stillwater residents will soon see the first official notice from the government of the problem — a delay that's drawn criticism from former Gov. Arne Carlson.

In a letter to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), Carlson called it "stunning" that people weren't informed sooner.

"This goes well beyond careless management or an administrative snafu. People's lives were placed in danger by the deliberate inaction of their own government," he wrote in a March 20 email to Health Commissioner Brooke Cunningham.

Carlson asked why the public wasn't informed as soon as the first well was found to have contaminants, and why there was a delay in closing the well after the problem was found.

In a reply, Assistant Commissioner Myra Kunas said it's been the agency's practice to notify local officials whenever elevated levels of PFAS are detected in a drinking water system and to recommend that they share that information with residents. It's done this way because there are not yet any actionable federal or state standards for the allowable amount of PFAS in drinking water, Kunas wrote.

"MDH currently has no regulatory authority to act to shut down a water system with any amount of PFAS detected," she wrote.

In Stillwater, a routine test of city well #6 on Nov. 22, 2022, found high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, one of the many types of chemicals in the family of known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Further tests on March 7, April 27 and Aug. 16 of 2023 confirmed levels of PFOS in the well at or near 15 nanograms per liter, the safety threshold.

The Minnesota Department of Health on Oct. 31 sent a letter to the Stillwater City Council, notifying its members that it was issuing a health risk advisory for PFAS at well #6. The letter included two recommendations, the first being to notify the public.

"It is important that people consuming the water be informed about any potential health risks and actions they can take to reduce exposure to PFAS from their drinking water, as well as any actions the water system is taking," the letter stated.

The letter also recommended the city "plan for and take action" to reduce PFAS in the drinking water supply.

City Administrator Joe Kohlmann said the city shut down well #6 on April 17, 2023, after a second test revealed problems. The state Health Department recommends testing over nearly a year to confirm the PFAS numbers and to avoid a false positive, Kohlmann said.

The city didn't go public immediately with the PFAS news. Instead, it hired St. Paul engineering consultant TKDA on a $25,000 contract to craft a PFAS communications plan.

The closure of the well was not widely shared until the consultant's communications plan was placed on an agenda for a March 6 workshop meeting and the contaminated well was reported by the Star Tribune on March 4.

Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski on Wednesday agreed the city could have moved faster, but added that the well was already shut down and that test results showed a small amount of contamination compared to cities like Woodbury or Cottage Grove, where PFAS contamination has upended the water systems.

"The whole way this was presented to us was that this wasn't a big deal," said Kozlowski. "You're a hair above what's considered acceptable ... It was never presented as an urgent situation."

Kozlowski said he spoke to Carlson at length last week, calling it a "really good conversation." "It's unfortunate that Stillwater is one of the examples but the communication on this stuff is tough," said Kozlowski. "We need more help from the state on this."

Kozlowski added that the state's Oct. 31 instruction to notify the public wasn't clear. "What do we tell them? Is it safe? Is it not safe?" Kozlowski said, noting that the city doesn't have a scientist or public relations person on staff.

City residents will see the first official notice of PFAS contamination in the April 1 newsletter. The city has also created a PFAS information page on its website, said Kohlmann.

The health notice was a first for Stillwater, but PFAS contamination has been found worldwide, a result of widespread use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in manufacturing a wide array of products from nonstick pans to stain-resistant fabric and carpets, firefighting foam and some products that resist grease, water and oil.

PFAS, sometimes referred to as a 'forever chemical' because it doesn't easily break down, have been found in water supplies globally, in food packaging, biosolids, food, and solid waste disposal sites. They also have been detected in human blood. The chemicals are considered a health threat; they are known to cause high cholesterol, change liver function and reduce immune response. They're also linked to thyroid disease and kidney and testicular cancer.

In Stillwater, the PFAS story is likely to continue: It's long been known that the EPA will soon lower safety thresholds for PFAS, and based on the new numbers, a second Stillwater well could get flagged. Well #10 has tested at 4.2 to 4.7 nanograms per liter for PFOS, above the new threshold, state health officials said.

More information, including PFAS testing results for community water systems, is available on the Minnesota Department of Health's PFAS dashboard.