$700M clean drinking water plan takes shape for east metro cities affected by 3M groundwater contamination

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More than 170,000 people in the east metro are receiving new answers about the long-term plan for their drinking water.

After years of debate, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources released their $700 million plan Wednesday.

It provides a framework for safe and sustainable drinking water for 14 communities affected by groundwater contamination by 3M.

Some of the larger cities involved include Woodbury, Cottage Grove, Lake Elmo, Oakdale and Maplewood.

"The residents of the east metro, they didn’t ask for [polyfluoroalkyl] contamination from 3M," MPCA Commissioner Peter Tester said during a media briefing Wednesday.

The MPCA said the groundwater contamination happened from the 1950s through the 1970s, when 3M disposed of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAs. Those are synthetic chemicals the company developed to make products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water, such as nonstick cookware.

The company dumped those chemicals at four sites in Washington County, leading to widespread drinking water contamination, which was first detected in 2004.

In 2018, the State of Minnesota and 3M settled for $850 million for the damages to the state’s natural resources.

Some of those funds were spent on immediate, temporary solutions to treat water in the east metro so it could be safe to drink.

For the past three years, state agencies have evaluated various options for how to use the remainder of the money on long-term solutions to fix the water supply.

The MPCA and the DNR said they held nearly 80 public and workgroup meetings and fielded hundreds of comments in crafting their final plan.

The plan presented Wednesday involves building or expanding six new water treatment plants, treating 33 municipal wells, connecting 296 homes to city water and giving filtration systems to homes on private wells.

The state provided a detailed city-by-city breakdown of what that looks like.

"We will work with individual communities, for instance, Woodbury or Oakdale or Cottage Grove, and they will move forward and do the actual design work, construction work and the state will make sure they have the funds for it," said Kirk Koudelka, assistant commissioner of the MPCA.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked when the plan will start being implemented.

"That could start today. For instance, we have already put out the materials to start putting together the process to get dollars to the local communities to start design and planning work on the municipal systems," Koudelka said.

He noted the water systems themselves may not be in place for several years.

"That’s going to take a little bit of time, based on the community. Some of these projects will take three to five years. Some of these larger systems, some communities are going to need some more time to figure out what they want to do in their designs," Koudelka said.

"Over the next 10 years or so, all of the communities should have their capital improvements put into place. Again, safe drinking water will be provided in the meantime through the temporary systems we have on municipal systems and private wells, so everybody will still be having safe water while these projects are being implemented."

Koudelka said both the current temporary systems and the long-term plan will ensure clean drinking water throughout the east metro.

"It doesn’t just clean a little bit of it up, it really does clean out the PFAs of concern all the way down to where we’re no longer detecting it," Koudelka said.

5 EYEWITNESS News reached out to some of the cities impacted for their reaction to the new plan.

Woodbury Mayor Anne Burt said the city had already used some funds from the 3M grant to build a temporary water treatment plant and is now planning on expanding that facility’s capacity and looking toward acquiring land to build a long-term water treatment plant.

"Today’s release of the state’s long-term water supply plan to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) contamination in east metro drinking water culminates many years of hard work by state agencies and impacted communities," Burt said. "Ensuring a sustainable water supply for future generations has been a specific strategic priority for the city since 2015, and we have worked closely with the state – advocating for our residents and businesses – in developing a long-term treatment plan."

In a statement, a Cottage Grove spokesperson said the city will receive $91 million through the 3M settlement that will go toward the construction of new water improvement projects, including two permanent water treatment plants and a new well. In the past few years, the city has built three temporary treatment plants using state-distributed funds.

"This is a day to celebrate. Our residents have been patient and city teams have continued to diligently work toward this day. We have already been using 3M settlement proceeds to extend city water and improve water treatment throughout the City, and I can assure you, we won’t delay in using these newly allocated funds," Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey said in a statement. "As Cottage Grove continues to grow at a rapid pace, our teams have designed a water system to accommodate that growth. We will use these acquired funds for water infrastructure and operational costs for at least the next 20 years."

In a statement provided by Lake Elmo, the city said it does not support either of the options included in the MPCA and DNR’s final recommendation.

"Lake Elmo should be able to construct wells in the northern part of the City to avoid PFAS and costly treatment plants. We are disappointed to learn that future neighborhood connections and funding for sustainability efforts have been removed. We look forward to finishing the work that started three years ago to ensure safe and sustainable drinking water in our community," the city said.

The MPCA and DNR will host a virtual open house to share details with the public and take questions on Sept. 21 at 6 p.m.