Dozens of closed dumps are leaking high levels of the toxic man-made PFAS "forever chemicals" into groundwater around Minnesota, and pollution regulators want more money to determine the full scope of the problem.
Groundwater at one landfill, near the Iowa border, shows PFAS contamination more than 1,000 times Minnesota's drinking water health standard — worse than levels at the former Washington County landfill near where 3M Co. manufactured the chemicals.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) released the findings at a news conference Thursday, sounding an urgent request for more resources to address it.
The closed dumps it studied are a small fraction of the landfills operating across the state.
"They are in suburbs, greater Minnesota, regional centers and small rural communities," said MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop. "They are next to our homes, our business and our farms."
Bishop said she has asked the Legislature for authority to tap the state's Closed Landfill Investment Fund to address the situation, instead of waiting for lawmakers to appropriate it. The fund currently has about $122 million.
"Minnesota families and communities should not have to wait until the Legislature acts to release the funds," Bishop said.
The MPCA said it urgently needs $100,000 to investigate an underground fire that burned for several months at one of the dumps with a high PFAS reading, the closed Louisville Landfill near Shakopee. The fire is out now, but there could be damage to the cap and monitoring equipment, it said.
There is no way to estimate how much it will cost the state to tackle the problem until it examines more landfills, said MPCA Assistant Commissioner Kirk Koudelka.
A handful of lawmakers, along with the state director of Clean Water Action, voiced support for giving the agency greater authority to use the investment fund.
A 'sleeping giant'
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, called landfills a "sleeping giant" that is waking up angry. He questioned why the public must always pay for cleanups, and suggested the state examine existing agreements with PFAS manufacturer 3M Co. for more funds.
"I'm concerned that when we open up the [investment fund] that we drain it too quickly," Hansen said.
The MPCA said it's creating a strategy for monitoring PFAS at all permitted landfills and determining how best to handle the leachate, or polluted liquid, draining from them. That's part of the comprehensive PFAS Blueprint the state rolled out last month.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been linked to a host of health impacts including cancer, low infant birthweights, immune system effects and decreased fertility.
When asked why it's taken so long to address the landfills, Koudelka said the agency has been limited by "resources, technology and bandwidth."
"We acknowledge our responsibility," he said.
Because the chemicals don't break down it's very difficult to get rid of them. It is not clear that even hazardous waste incineration destroys all PFAS, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is actively researching several new technologies to destroy them.
"There is this kind of circular nature of this contamination," said Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz, staff attorney with the advocacy group Earthjustice, which sued the U.S. Department of Defense last year for incinerating firefighting foam containing PFAS. "There's very little that we have discovered to effectively manage the PFAS-contaminated waste that we are surrounded by."
The MPCA's study focused on dumps in the Closed Landfill Program it runs, which covers about 110 sites, most of them unlined.
The MPCA said it found some level of PFAS at nearly all the sites. The groundwater at 59 of them showed levels above the state's drinking water safety standards; more than a dozen exceeded those by at least 10 times.
So far researchers have sampled drinking water wells near 39 of the landfills and found only a handful of contaminated wells. One well was near the Northwoods site outside Ely, for example, and serves a waste transfer station. Employees are being supplied with bottled water.
The worst contamination was found at the old Gofer Landfill near Fairmont in rural Martin County. There, PFAS levels exceeded state drinking water standards by more than 1,300 times. That's nearly double the second-highest level found, at the Freeway Landfill in Dakota County.
None of the drinking water wells within a mile of the Gofer site were contaminated, the agency said, but PFAS is seeping into nearby Elm Creek. The creek runs to the Blue Earth River, which runs to the Minnesota River.
The MPCA said it doesn't have a good understanding of which companies hauled waste to the 39-acre site, now a grassy hill, that operated as a landfill from 1972 to 1986.
Maplewood-based 3M Co. has operated a plant in Fairmont since 1946, making Velcro-type hook-and-loop fasteners and 3M Bumpon Protective Products that include the small rubber bumpers for cabinet doors.
'Kind of scary'
Billeye Rabbe, director of Prairieland Solid Waste Management and the Faribault & Martin County Solid Waste coordinator, said this is the first she's heard of the Gofer contamination. "It's concerning and it's kind of scary," Rabbe said.
A 3M spokesman issued a statement saying that the closed landfills contain waste from a variety of sources.
"We decline to speculate on potential PFAS sources at the Gofer Landfill," it said.
3M started making the original PFAS at its Cottage Grove plant in the 1950s, disposing of PFAS waste in landfills around Washington County.
The chemicals leaking from those sites polluted the groundwater over a 150-square-mile area in southern Washington County — a drinking water crisis that was the focus of the state's $850 million settlement with 3M in 2018.
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683