Landfills are leaking PFAS 'forever chemicals' in 41 Minnesota counties

Jennifer Bjorhus, Star Tribune
·6 min read

Minnesota's battle with PFAS "forever chemicals" began years ago with leaking landfills in the eastern Twin Cities. Nearly 20 years later, landfills are again center stage with pollution regulators ringing an emergency bell for more money to tackle them.

Nearly 60 closed dumps around the state are leaking high levels of the toxic man-made chemicals into Minnesota's groundwater, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) announced Thursday.

Groundwater at one, near the Iowa border, shows PFAS contamination more than 1,000 times the state's drinking water health standard — worse than levels at the former Washington County landfill near where 3M Co. manufactured the chemicals.

The MPCA released its landfill findings at a virtual news conference, sounding an urgent request for more resources to understand the full scope and magnitude of the pollution, and to what degree drinking water is being contaminated.

The closed dumps the agency 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 going forward 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.

At the moment, 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 the Dem-Con facility in Shakopee. The fire appears to be out now, the MPCA said, but crews need to assess potential damage to the cap and monitoring equipment.

A 'sleeping giant'There is no way to estimate how much it will cost the state to tackle the problem until it looks at more landfills and gets a grip on the scope, said MPCA Assistant Commissioner Kirk Koudelka.

A handful of lawmakers, along with the state director of Clean Water Action, spoke in support of giving the agency more authority to use the investment fund.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, called the closed landfills a "sleeping giant" that is waking up angry. He questioned why the public must always foot the bill for cleanups, and suggested the state examine existing agreements with PFAS manufacturer 3M Co. for funds to release.

"I'm concerned that when we open up the [investment fund] that we drain it too quickly," Hansen said.

The MPCA said it plans to create a strategy for monitoring PFAS releases from all permitted landfills across the state and how to best handle the leachate, or polluted liquid, draining from the sites, Koudelka said. That's part of the comprehensive PFAS Blueprint the state rolled out last month for dealing with the pollution.

PFAS has been linked to a host of health impacts including cancer, thyroid problems, low infant birthweights, immune system effects and decreased fertility.

When asked what responsibility the regulator plays in the long wait to tackle the statewide PFAS situation, Koudelka said the agency has been limited by "resources, technology and bandwidth." The agency has been "stepping up" in recent years, he said: "We acknowledge our responsibility."

The new landfill data highlights critical PFAS disposal issues playing out across the country. The signature feature of PFAS is the super-tight bond between fluorine and carbon, considered one of the tightest in nature.

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 for destroying 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 unused firefighting foam containing PFAS. "There's very little that we have discovered to effectively manage the PFAS contaminated waste that we are surrounded by."

Assessing contaminationThe MPCA's study focused on the landfills in the Closed Landfill Program it runs, which manages about 110 sites.

The old dumps, most of them unlined, largely contain municipal garbage but also contain a mix of materials from commercial, industrial, and construction and demolition sources since many of them operated before stricter environmental regulations.

The agency said it can't pinpoint specific types of waste that are the culprits in the PFAS contamination.

The MPCA said it found some level of PFAS at nearly all the landfills. Of them, 59 showed levels above the state's recommended 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 closed landfills, and found only a handful of contaminated wells. One contaminated well was near the Northwoods site outside Ely, for example, and serves a waste transfer station. Employees are being supplied with bottled water.

The No. 1 site for contamination is the old Gofer Landfill in rural Martin County, where PFAS levels exceeded the state drinking water standard 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 was found in the nearby Elm Creek at levels exceeding the state standards. The creek runs to the Blue Earth River which runs to the Minnesota River.

The 39-acre Gofer Landfill, now a grassed over hill, sits near Fairmont, Minn. The MPCA said it doesn't have a good understanding of which companies hauled waste to the site, which operated 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.

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 problem.

"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," the company said.

3M has been a major manufacturer of the chemicals and Minnesota is considered a birthplace of PFAS. 3M started making the original PFAS at its Cottage Grove plant in the 1950s, disposing of PFAS waste in landfills in 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