State pollution regulators have found high levels of the toxic compounds called PFAS in two east metro creeks, prompting them to alert neighbors and question the effectiveness of a long-running effort to control the spread of the “forever chemicals.”
In addition, they have notified 3M Co., the chemicals’ original manufacturer, that it needs to submit an improved abatement strategy within 45 days.
Elevated levels of the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, called PFAS, turned up in naturally occurring foam in Raleigh Creek in Oakdale in Washington County, and in Battle Creek in eastern St. Paul in Ramsey County.
State officials have not identified a threat to human health, but they’re warning people to avoid the contaminated foam, to wash thoroughly if they come in contact with it and to keep their pets away from water where they see it.
The foam carries much higher concentrations of the harmful chemicals than the creek water itself, which is safe for recreation. But it is a symptom of PFAS in the water, said Kirk Koudelka, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). “It’s significant, and it’s the first time we have confirmed the presence of PFAS in foam,” Koudelka said.
The foam in question develops when wind whips up organic compounds, such as decaying leaves or pollutants. It is not related to the special PFAS-laced firefighting foam that has polluted several locations around the state.
The discovery is the latest development in Minnesota’s longtime effort to address PFAS, a family of man-made chemicals that have been detected in wildlife across the globe, from polar bears to eagles, as well as humans. First manufactured by 3M Co. in the middle of the last century, the compounds have been used by industry for decades in products such as Scotchgard and Teflon because of their ability to repel water and oil, but have been linked to a range of diseases, including certain types of cancer.
The MPCA sent letters Tuesday to about three dozen homeowners whose properties abut Raleigh Creek in Lake Elmo and Oakdale. The matter will be addressed at two public meetings on Wednesday at Woodbury City Hall.
About 30 residents heard the news Tuesday afternoon in Cottage Grove at a meeting of the Citizen and Business Group, a panel advising officials on how to use money from an $850 million court settlement the state reached with 3M in 2018 over environmental and drinking water contamination from PFAS. The settlement focuses on Washington County.
Jeff Holtz, a Lake Elmo resident, called PFAS contamination an emergency that motivated him to serve on the work group. The 35-year-old father fought back tears as he talked about his two young children being exposed to PFAS.
“Hopefully as this process unfolds, we are able to add a sense of safety for residents, that they don’t have to worry about their kids when they’re turning on those faucets,” Holtz said. “We all have seen the stories of Flint — different chemical, but it’s the same underlying fear of drinking water that you are dependent upon others making safe.”
In its testing of Battle Creek, the state so far has lab results from just one foam sample, but crews tested about a half-dozen other locations on the creek on Friday. Test results are due back in February; affected residents will be contacted then. Battle Creek runs west from Battle Creek Lake in Woodbury to Pig’s Eye Lake and the Mississippi River. The contaminated foam was found at a spot just south of Interstate 494 near McKnight Road in St. Paul, not far from 3M headquarters.
State officials said they don’t know where the PFAS in Battle Creek are coming from, a question that is part of the larger investigation underway.
Regulators also found samples of contaminated foam in Raleigh Creek, which flows through a private disposal site in Oakdale that 3M used for years. The landfill is now a state and federal Superfund site, and officials suspect that’s where the PFAS originated.
The Oakdale site is one of four landfills in Washington County where 3M dumped chemicals and PFAS-contaminated waste in the 1950s and 1960s, which leached into surrounding groundwater and the drinking water.
3M has been remediating the Oakdale disposal site for years, removing contaminated soil and pumping out contaminated groundwater, for example. But the contaminated foam indicates that the compounds are somehow bubbling up into nearby surface waters. “More needs to be done at this site,” Koudelka said.
The MPCA’s Jan. 10 letter to 3M informs the company that the agency needs more information to determine if the company’s remediation activities at the Oakdale site are effective. It also calls on the company to submit a new “action plan” for the site.
In a statement released Tuesday, company spokeswoman Fanna Haile-Selassie said: “3M is committed to continuing our working relationship with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to monitor former disposal sites. We will review the MPCA’s full report and take appropriate steps consistent with our regulatory obligations and our commitment to environmental stewardship.”
As part of the 2018 court settlement, regulators are also investigating whether a flood control effort called Project 1007 might be playing a role in the spread of PFAS. Project 1007, completed in the 1980s, was a system of dams, stormwater pipes and channels to move surface water away from the flood-prone Tri-Lakes Area near the city of Lake Elmo that doesn’t drain well.
Staff writer Kim Hyatt contributed to this report.