Sunday: Battling tainted water

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 17, 2007 - 7:05 AM

Across the metro, industrial chemicals have seeped into groundwater we drink. It's a stubborn, costly problem that will take decades to fix.

Groundwater contaminated with industrial chemicals lurks under vast portions of the Twin Cities metropolitan area even though more than $200 million has been spent over two decades to combat the problem. The contamination, a legacy of once-prevalent industrial dumping, persists beneath communities from Edina to New Brighton to Woodbury. In Washington County, the spread of underground pollution is turning out to be worse than anyone thought.

A Star Tribune examination of groundwater monitoring reports, maps and other records has identified 20 significant plumes of contaminated groundwater underlying parts of 35 metro communities. If added together, the polluted zones would equal an area 2½ times the size of Minneapolis.

No illnesses have been directly linked to the pollutants, but the contamination can pose long-term risks to health. And parts of the metro area will be stuck trying to clean up the chemicals for decades, often at taxpayers' expense.

Already 150,000 people served by six suburban utilities drink water that must be specially treated to remove chemicals that leached underground. Two more suburbs with 37,000 people are likely to get such filtration soon.

The discovery of something unwelcome in the water is crashing into the lives of more families like Kim Lindholm's of Lake Elmo.

In May, her telephone answering machine blurted out a warning from the state Health Department: "Do not drink your water. Do not cook with your water. ..."

The family's well had tested positive for a substance that likely escaped from a nearby landfill. "That freaked me out," recalled Lindholm, who has two young boys. More than 1,000 private wells in Washington County contain pollutants from old dumps and industries. Many residents, including the Lindholms, have turned to whole-house filtration units for protection.

Maps issued by the state Health Department in July show low levels of the 3M chemical PFBA in groundwater beneath 99 square miles of Washington County, a quarter of its land mass. In a third of that area, levels of the chemical once used for coating photographic film exceed what the state advises for drinking water.

Other industries have left a taint elsewhere in the region, creating plumes of contaminated groundwater up to 9 square miles, some containing cancer-causing chemicals.

Often the cleanups seem endless. At 15 locations in the metro area, special wells have been extracting and filtering out pollutants from groundwater for up to 39 years.

In other places, regulators hope soil bacteria will render chemicals harmless in the future. One plume of pollution beneath St. Louis Park probably won't be flushed clean for a century or longer.

"It is almost like when you throw dye into a jar of water," said Michael Convery, a supervisor in the Health Department's well management section. "It is hard to get it back again. It just spreads out."

Suburbs bear the brunt

When Jim Altier built a house outside Bayport, Minn., more than three decades ago, he and his family could look across farm fields and see the IDS Tower in Minneapolis.

Trees have matured to block the view, surrounding his house with a canopy of green. He not only escaped the city, he no longer can see it from the back porch.

But there's a crack in this idyllic picture: Altier's well is polluted with an industrial solvent. So are about 260 other nearby wells. He now has an activated-carbon filter, like many other Baytown Township residents, though for at least 14 years he and his family drank tainted water.

"I had mixed feelings about it," said Altier, a retired Air National Guard mechanic who worked around solvents in his job. "... I feel better that the filter system is in there."

He still wonders if the chemical, known as TCE, affected his first wife, Teddie, who died of leukemia in 1997. State health officials have reported no cancer clusters in Washington County, but Altier said he is not sure he believes it.

  • TREATING YOUR WATER

    Many chemicals in drinking water can be removed with small activated-carbon filters.

    What are they? Units that drip into a pitcher, mount on the tap or install under the sink. These point-of-use filters remove many organic compounds, a wide class of carbon-containing chemicals that include pesticides and solvents.

    Do they work on PFCs? Preliminary testing by the Minnesota Health Department suggest small filters remove low levels of PFBA, a 3M film-coating chemical found in groundwater in the southeastern metro area. Further testing of filters is planned.

    For more information, go to www.startribune.com/a3280.

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