DULUTH, Minn. — There are pollutants, known as PFAS, that come from food wrappers, carpeting, firefighting foam, and scores of other discarded items and sources. That are leaking into our groundwater, seeping into our soil, and contaminating our environment. And that are, right now, escaping landfills, water-treatment plants, and elsewhere.
They’re quickly becoming our next big and quite concerning and almost certainly super-pricey pollution problem.
While Minnesota has known about PFAS for about 20 years, ever since chemicals manufactured by 3M started showing up in drinking water in the eastern Twin Cities metro area, it was just last week that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency announced that six closed and capped landfills in St. Louis County are among scores statewide with PFAS levels exceeding state health guidelines.
So, “We need to get beyond this idea that, ‘Oh, it’s a 3M problem or it’s an east-metro problem.’ It is a Minnesota problem … that we have to figure out and tackle and understand,” as the MPCA’s Darin Broten said in an interview this week, held virtually, with members of the News Tribune Editorial Board.
Actually, as MPCA Assistant Commissioner for Water Policy Katrina Kessler said in the same interview, “It is not just a Minnesota issue. We know that PFAS is present across the world, in animals and people and soil and water and products. Where Minnesota comes in is we were one of the first to find it and quantify it 20 years ago.”
Minnesota is also among the first taking ownership for finding solutions, recognizing the need to protect the environment and our public health. A 200-page “blueprint,” a year in the making, was released last week by the MPCA with 10 focus areas; long- and short-term strategies; a call for state, federal, and other partners to assist; and requests, no doubt just the first, for funding.
The blueprint offers promise, even if the road ahead, as suggested by the document, is unquestionably daunting, and even if solutions are still unclear.
“We know they’re everywhere. They’re in carpets, They’re in medicine cabinets. They’re in industrial processes and commercial processes. They’re in food wrappers. We find, unfortunately, PFAS in our air emissions and wastewater and groundwater and soil, and it’s found in human blood as well as in blood from animals around the world,” Kessler said. “There are more than 5,000 PFAS structures … (with more) being invented and … reconfigured every day.”
Getting a handle on where the pollutants are coming from, how they’re ending up in so many places, and the immediacy of their threat is the foundational and necessary first step.
The Minnesota Legislature this session is being asked to approve $1.6 million to begin snuffing the pollutants at their sources, for testing, to gauge risks, and to begin considering cleanup. Additionally, the MPCA is seeking $1.4 million from lottery proceeds and is asking to access millions in a closed-landfills fund for more work and better understanding.
While Minnesota is taking the lead on this emerging pollution problem, other states, especially around the Great Lakes, as well as the federal government, are also working on it. MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop singled out Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota and Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber of Hermantown as federal leaders who “understand the issue well.”
“It is really reassuring that this is on the radar (in D.C.),” Bishop said. “But no, we’re not waiting. We know (federal action) can take time, and whatever they do needs to be complementary to the efforts that we in Minnesota already have underway, as well as the ones that we’re proposing. … We’re not waiting for federal action.”
Minnesota shouldn’t, not with a 200-page blueprint now in play to begin mediating, remedying, pulling together partners, and getting control of a pollution problem that demands immediate attention.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.