Minnesota is rolling out an ambitious statewide strategy to tackle the toxic cancer-linked "forever chemicals" polluting the state's rivers, lakes and drinking water.
Minnesota's PFAS Blueprint would move the state well beyond its environmental damages settlement with 3M Co. to nail the sources of ongoing contamination, prevent it and clean it up. The plan calls for clearly designating the entire class of man-made chemicals called PFAS as a "hazardous substance" in state law, for example, and would require companies to disclose any PFAS they use to regulators.
Many of the changes require state money and legislation — key challenges for implementing the plan. There are at least a half-dozen PFAS measures in play at the Legislature, including one to ban PFAS in food packaging such as takeout containers and French-fry bags.
Leaders of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Agriculture, along with several lawmakers and environmental advocates, released the blueprint Wednesday in a Zoom event.
"These forever chemicals are everywhere," said MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop. "And new PFAS are being invented, used in industry and incorporated into commercial products, and released into the environment every day."
"Despite our learnings, less than 1% of PFAS have been tested for toxicity. The gaps in our understanding of the effects of PFAS on human health and the environment is one of the primary reasons Minnesota needs a coordinated, strategic approach to PFAS."
The issue is not new for Minnesota where regulators have been investigating PFAS for two decades. When the group was asked why it's taken so long for a statewide strategy, Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, said that litigation, research and difficulty passing legislation posed challenges. She called it "unfortunate."
"I really don't think it should have taken 20 years," Bigham said.
MPCA assistant commissioner Kirk Koudelka said the agency has been constantly learning about the chemicals.
Industry and cities expressed some targeted opposition to measures at the Legislature, fearing unintended consequences. Tony Kwilas, environmental director at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said there is so much at play with PFAS in Minnesota and nationally that he is still getting his arms around the proposals.
"It's kind of all over the place," Kwilas said. "This is really far reaching."
Kwilas said companies are trying to move away from PFAS "where there's an opportunity." But it's a diverse class and not all the compounds have the same toxicological effects, he said.
PFAS is in an array of products including food packaging, pacemakers, fabric stain protectors, MRI machines, solar panels, car waxes and polishes, cosmetics and dental floss.
The compounds have shown up in the environment across the state, not only in Washington County where 3M Co. dumped PFAS-laced waste decades ago.
PFAS has contaminated city drinking water wells in Bemidji and leached into wells and lakes near the Air National Guard base at Duluth International Airport where firefighters trained with special fire suppressants.
They've popped up statewide in drainage from landfills, in lakes from Lake Superior to Bde Maka Ska and in foam frothing up in east metro creeks. The chemicals have been in human blood for years.
Sen. Jennifer McEwen, a Duluth Democrat who spoke at the Zoom event, noted that the Wisconsin DNR just issued a fish consumption advisory for smelt in Lake Superior due to high PFAS levels.
"That's tragic," McEwen said.
In an interview, Jamie Konopacky, Midwest director for the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, said a core strength of Minnesota's plan is that it works on both the front and back ends of the pollution.
"This is a really critical step in acknowledging the PFAS environmental and human health impacts threaten greater Minnesota as well as the east metro area," Konopacky said. Yet the state needs to "go farther, faster," she said. Michigan is a leader on PFAS regulation, she said, and Minnesota is behind.
Michigan has enforceable drinking water standards, she said, while Minnesota relies on nonbinding recommended health-based values. Konopacky said the blueprint does not change that, and should.
But the blueprint borrows other pages from the Michigan playbook, such as requiring companies to screen PFAS out of their discharge before sending it to a public treatment plant.
The MPCA has been investigating which facilities may be releasing PFAS, such as landfills, manufacturing operations and incinerators.
"This is broader than 3M," said the MPCA's Koudelka.
PFAS compounds are characterized by an ultra-strong fluorine-carbon bond that makes them slippery and repel oil and water. The flip side is that they don't break down in the environment and accumulate in fish, animals and humans.
PFAS has been linked to kidney and testicular cancers, liver damage, thyroid disruptions, low birth weights, fertility problems and other adverse health effects. It may also suppress the immune system, potentially reducing the body's ability to respond to vaccines, such as those for COVID-19.
The state's new plan calls for listing the entire PFAS class as a hazardous substance in state law, a list that includes chemicals such as sulfuric acid, arsenic and lead.
The official 'hazardous' stamp would allow the MPCA to deal more effectively with PFAS pollution under the state's Superfund "polluter pays" law.
Koudelka said that when a substance isn't clearly designated hazardous, the state gets tied up in costly legal debates with polluters over the matter.
"When someone doesn't want to do something, that's the first thing they go to," he said.
If it becomes law, Minnesota would be among the first states to declare the entire class of PFAS as hazardous substances. Delaware has made a similar class-wide designation.
There's been opposition from Minnesota cities, wastewater professionals and industry who fear the hazardous substance designation is too broad. In a House committee hearing last week they expressed concern it would open local government and wastewater treatment plants to lawsuits.
"It would paint a big target on our back for liability claims," said Craig Johnson, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been working toward designating the two original PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — as hazardous, but has not yet made the final call. That's something President Joe Biden has pledged to do.
PFAS Blueprint's immediate legislative asks
Some of the requests in the state's new PFAS action plan:
• Designate the entire PFAS class as a hazardous substance in state statute
• $400,000 to sample fish and water for PFAS
• $200,000 to expand the MPCA's project tracking facilities suspected of releasing PFAS
• $500,000 to speed studies of how waste going to landfills, compost facilities and wastewater treatment plants affects the water leaving the facilities
• $1.4 million to study the impacts and treatment solutions for PFAS in waste, such as biosolids from treated sewage applied as fertilizer to farmland
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683