State finalizes payouts from Minnesota's $850 million 'forever chemicals' settlement with 3M

·5 min read

Minnesota's plan for spending the $850 million settlement with 3M for polluting east metro groundwater with man-made 'forever chemicals' focuses on a core concern: trust in the water that comes out of the spigot.

The final plan released Wednesday was years in the making and details the spending for 14 communities with drinking water contaminated by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS.

The huge plume of contaminated groundwater covers 150 square miles and affects more than 170,000 people in Washington County. The toxic nonstick chemicals pioneered by Maplewood-based 3M Co. are linked to a range of health problems such as liver damage, kidney and testicular cancer and thyroid disruption, and don't break down in the environment.

About $700 million from the settlement, plus interest, will pay for large and small projects to get PFAS out of the drinking water in Washington County. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Commissioner Peter Tester said the projects will "ensure a safe and sustainable drinking water supply well into the future."

Tester noted that the plan developed through a public process involving scores of meetings and input from hundreds of residents, local and state officials, community leaders, and 3M itself.

"This plan being announced today is infinitely better because of their feedback, ideas, and willingness to come together as a region," Tester said.

The drinking water plan will finance six new or expanded drinking water treatment plants, drill at least four new public wells, treat more than two dozen existing wells, connect 296 homes to municipal water supplies and install filtration systems for nearly 1,000 homeowners with contaminated private wells.

Not all drinking water with detectable amounts of PFAS will get treated. Only water with PFAS levels that meet or exceed a health index of 0.5 will trigger treatment. That level is half the state's safety threshold for multiple PFAS. How protective a trigger point to use was one of many disagreements during the public process.

The final plan differs from earlier iterations. For example, state officials ditched the idea of building a new municipal water system for rural West Lakeland Township. The final plan calls for providing private affected residents with individual filtration systems.

It also provides more contingency funding, setting aside $183 million to deal with future uncertainties. For example, as scientists learn more about PFAS more cleanup may be required.

The spending varies significantly by community. The state is reimbursing communities for projects, not proactively issuing funding, the MPCA said.

Earlier estimates indicate that Woodbury, for example, one of the largest affected suburbs and home to one of the four local landfills where 3M dumped PFAS-laced waste, could get an estimated $153 million. Cottage Grove could receive about $92 million. The Prairie Island Indian Community could receive about $10 million.

Early reaction was mixed as city officials sorted through the details of 134-page document.

Lake Elmo City Administrator Kristina Handt said she was pleased her city won't be required to hook up to either Woodbury's water system or the St. Paul Regional Water System. But Handt said she also doesn't support the other options provided and was "disappointed."

Other cities noted that they have already been tapping the settlement for "expedited" drinking water projects financed by interest payments on the funds.

Cottage Grove, home to a large 3M plant that handled a lot of the PFAS, embraced the deal. In a news release Mayor Myron Bailey said: "This is a day to celebrate."

"We will use these acquired funds for water infrastructure and operational costs for at least the next 20 years," Bailey said.

Woodbury Mayor Anne Burt issued a statement saying she's "gratified" the city has been able to make progress on PFAS — and that the water is safe.

"Last year, we constructed a temporary water treatment plant — with state funding via the 3M grant — in record time," she said.

Burt said the city is working on expanding that plant, acquiring property for a long-term one and drilling a new well due to PFAS.

The settlement stems from the state's 2010 lawsuit against 3M for natural resources damages. The $850 million deal struck in 2018 is the third largest natural resource recovery in the country's history, said former state Attorney General Lori Swanson, who sued 3M.

"I am pleased that, after seven years of litigation, the east metro is getting some resolution to the water contamination," Swanson said.

The state's PFAS problem, however, is far greater than the east metro plume. PFAS have been found in water, soil and fish across the state. For example, dozens of closed dumps are leaking high levels of PFAS into the groundwater.

Earlier this year the MPCA rolled out an ambitious PFAS Blueprint to identify all the sources of PFAS contamination, prevent it and clean it up.

Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, which has worked on PFAS issues for more than two decades, said the blueprint is good — but not enough. He said he's surprised Minnesota has not been more aggressive.

Michigan, Massachusetts and New Jersey, for example, are among states that have enforceable drinking water standards for PFAS compounds, while Minnesota relies on nonbinding recommended health-based values.

"It's discouraging," he said.

How Minnesota will use the settlement money

Minnesota will spend $850 million, plus interest, from the PFAS settlement on a variety of projects and cost reimbursements.

$700 million: Solutions for clean drinking water.

$125 million: Outside legal counsel, assessments and analysis.

$20 million: Address natural resource contamination.

$34 million: Expedite drinking water projects.

$4.8 million: Reimburse MPCA and DNR costs.

*Total exceeds $850 million because of interest earned on the settlement.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683

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