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What are Minnesota officials doing about ‘forever chemicals’ in foam and fish?

Lawmakers got an overview Monday of what pollution officials are doing to grapple with chemicals that recently showed up in surface water foam for the first time.

In January, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency announced these chemicals were found along two creeks in the east metro: Raleigh and Battle. Two other states have found PFAS in surface water foam: Michigan and Wisconsin. 

Man-made industrial chemicals called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, have been made and used in everything from nonstick cookware to food packaging to water-repellent clothing since the 1940s. They repel oil and water, but also don’t break down and can accumulate over time in the environment and human body, which can lead to health problems, according to the EPA.

The so-called “forever chemicals” have been found everywhere from the Arctic to Antarctic — “virtually everywhere we’ve looked” — James Kelly, manager of environmental surveillance and assessment for the Department of Health, told the House Water Division. No action was taken.

3M manufactured the chemical at its Cottage Grove plant beginning in the 1950s, and disposed of the waste in several Washington County sites, where it leached into groundwater of nearby cities.

The state sued 3M in 2010, settling in 2018, with the company agreeing to pay $850 million to clean up contamination.

Catherine Neuschler, manager of the water assessment section of the PCA, said the agency has listed 10 bodies of water as impaired and is revising criteria for the level of PFOS safe to consume in fish.

A large survey of PFAS in fish found it “everywhere,” she said: 95 percent of waterways tested had at least one fish with detectable PFOS, 26 percent of water samples had detectable PFOS and at least one PFAS chemical was detected in every water sample.

Neuschler said the state will continue to monitor fish and water concentrations and add sediment testing, adding five new waters to its list this year and monitoring 30 to 40 sites next year. Then the state will determine whether there’s a need for statewide water quality standards for PFOS in fish tissue.

Rep. Josh Heintzeman (R-Nisswa) said this issue probably should have generated more conversations earlier, “but I’m glad we’re talking about it now.”

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