The PFAS contamination in the drinking water supplies of south Washington County might go down as one of Minnesota’s greatest ecological disasters. (Recent coverage: “PFAS found in east metro creeks,” Jan. 15.) To contaminate the drinking water supplies for tens of thousands of people is something that is pretty foreign to Minnesotans. We have certainly had other groundwater contamination issues from Superfund sites, landfills and other industrial processors. The scale of these historic release areas pales in comparison to the countywide PFAS contamination issue we are currently faced with.
We are fortunate in one sense, at least in Washington County, that the company responsible has stepped up and taken some responsibility for the issues. (PFAS — perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are a family of man-made chemicals of which Maplewood-based 3M was a manufacturer and over which it reached an $850 million settlement with the state.) The county was granted a fairly hefty sum to help deal with the issue, and many plans are in the works to help supply citizens with clean drinking water.
One of the issues with those plans is that not enough attention is being paid to private drinking water supplies. Most options that I have been made aware of only see viable solutions in expensive government-owned infrastructure.
These types of solutions have been the main topics in the presentations made to the two workgroups that have been set up to review and discuss solutions. There has been very little discussion about how to preserve and help private well owners, even though there are very viable solutions available that cost a small fraction of what major infrastructure costs.
There are whole-house filtration systems that can very effectively eliminate or reduce PFAS in drinking water. The filter media can even be regenerated and reused, creating minimal waste. Compared with other solutions, they are very inexpensive and ready to be installed right now. As an added benefit, this process would actually help clean up the groundwater over time, because the PFAS is absorbed by the filter media and destroyed through the media regeneration process.
Thinking about the costs alone, we can look at one of the expedited projects in Cottage Grove that was funded through the 3M settlement. This project is going to convert 139 homes from private water systems (wells) to public water pipelines and is estimated to cost at least $9.1 million. Using the whole-house water treatment system referenced above, we could have installed equipment in all 139 homes for less than $300,000. Those systems then would need to be serviced annually at around $800 per system, or around $111,000 per year.
These still sound like big numbers, but when you compare them with the $9.1 million spent on infrastructure, they are a bargain. In raw dollars alone, treatment could have been provided for almost 80 years, far longer than the infrastructure itself will last. If you take into account time and money, this plan would never even spend the principal balance. We could conceivably accrue around $400,000 in interest per year on $8.8 million. If we spend $111,000 per year on maintenance, we could increase the principal $289,000 per year. We would deliver safe drinking water and increase our fund over time so we could deal with more-ambitious projects, like actually remediating the groundwater and restoring the natural resource instead of perpetuating the problem and potentially impacting others as the contaminant continues to migrate through the aquifer.
There is a lot of time and attention paid to municipal water systems, but what about private well owners? Who is considering what we should be doing for them? Do we really think we can run a pipeline to every home in south Washington County? It isn’t practical and might not even be possible, we need to focus on what an acceptable whole-house treatment system looks like and what kind of service it needs, then build a program and invest in it. We can work with organizations like the Minnesota Water Well Association and the Minnesota Water Quality Association to help find the best technology and apply it. We need public leaders to see the value in this plan and help execute it. Let’s do our best to use all of our resources to bring forward practical solutions, because we are better when we work together.
David Henrich is president of the Minnesota Water Well Association.