After 3M Company paid $850 million to settle a state lawsuit alleging groundwater contamination, funds to solve Lake Elmo’s water issues were in sight.
It turns out, they are just out of reach — for now.
Although 3M settled the state lawsuit in February, Lake Elmo City Administrator Kristina Handt said the city has not received any money to address their water issues caused by 3M groundwater contamination.
While staff from state agencies in charge of dispersing the settlement say they’re following a set process, city staff is frustrated and say the state isn’t moving fast enough.
State officials first discovered groundwater contaminated by perfluorochemicals (PFCs) in 2004. The pollution is a result of materials that 3M legally placed in landfills in the 1970s.
Exposure to high levels of PFCs have been linked to adverse health effects after prolonged exposure, according to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).
Lake Elmo was a co-plaintiff in the state’s lawsuit against 3M for pollution-related issues that resulted in an $850 million settlement in February. The city also has its own litigation against 3M filed in 2016, scheduled to go to court September 2019.
In early April, Lake Elmo city officials shut off well one after the MDH found high, unsafe levels of PFCs. With that well out of commission, Lake Elmo only has two of its four wells operational to supply the city’s water needs.
Several other cities in the east metro area have been affected by PFC contamination including Woodbury, Cottage Grove, Oakdale and St. Paul Park.
Recently, the state asked Lake Elmo to conduct a feasibility study to examine the most cost effective solutions, Handt said.
Kirk Koudelka, assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), said Cottage Grove and St. Paul Park, cities that also shut down contaminated wells, are conducting feasibility studies as well.
After the studies are complete, Koudelka said the state can use funds from the $40 million 2007 consent order, related to 3M water contamination, to help cities pay for short-term clean water solutions.
Citizen, 3M and government work groups will create a water supply conceptual plan by the end of 2019, Koudelka said. That means cities likely won’t see any of the $850 million settlement money until 2020.
“It’s really disheartening,” Handt said. “We want to be able to move forward.”
Mayor Mike Pearson agreed.
“I’m frustrated at how slow the state is moving,” he said. “There’s an urgent need here.”
With half the city wells out of commission, Handt said Lake Elmo doesn’t have the luxury of waiting two years for long-term funding.
Even with Lake Elmo’s even/odd day watering ban, Handt said a water usage spike this August caused well pumps to run for 72 hours straight.
“The real issue with being down two wells... It just means your pumps wear out faster. It just makes us more vulnerable to break downs,” she said.
The city conducted a water usage study last fall that found residents use five times more water in summer than they do in winter, she added.
Additionally, developers are frequently constructing new housing in Lake Elmo. Handt said there are currently about 3,000 households on city water. The city has added 700 homes and various businesses since 2015.
If Lake Elmo residents don’t reduce their summer water usage or the state hasn’t supplied funding, “come next July and August, we will have to institute a total watering ban,” Handt said.
“Watering bans are potential ways to help make sure water is available for those needs,” Koudelka added
Koudelka said the state’s top priority is ensuring each community affected by 3M’s contamination has drinking water that meets MDH health-based values. It’s possible Lake Elmo could receive 2007 consent order funds in 2019 to pay for a short-term solution, he said.
Cottage Grove, for example, used those funds to install a water treatment system.
There are several options for long-term solutions, Handt said: a new well, water treatment, increase storage capacity or blend contaminated well water with clean well water so the PFC levels are below MDH health based values.
While blending water may be cost-effective, Handt said the city does not want to expose residents to any level of PFCs, even if the MDH considers it safe. They could install a water treatment system, but city staff don’t see that as a cost-effective option long-term, she said.
Ideally, city staff hope to acquire settlement funds to drill a new well in an uncontaminated area, an idea the state seems resistant to, she said.
“They don’t think a new well is the most cost-efficient solution,” Handt said. “The city has made the decision that it just prefers to use a clean water source.”
“New wells will definitely be one of the things we look into,” Koudelka added.
To Mayor Pearson, there’s no question. Drilling a new well is the most economical long-term solution to give Lake Elmo residents clean drinking water.
“It seems in line with what the funds are intended for,” Pearson said. “Instead of being good stewards of those funds, they’re acting like those monies are theirs.”
Contact Kim Schneider at firstname.lastname@example.org