Emails shed light on conversations between Xcel, Monticello officials about tritium leak

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It took months for the public to hear about the leak of radioactive water at the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant, and Minnesotans have expressed frustration, asking at community meetings why it took so long.

Officials estimate more than 400,000 gallons of water contaminated with tritium were released from the plant after the leak was detected on Nov. 22, but Xcel Energy, which operates the plant, did not inform the public until March 16.

Emails obtained by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS on Monday reveal more about officials’ early knowledge of the leak.

Xcel Community Relations and Economic Development Manager Scott Johnson sent an email to Monticello City Administrator Rachel Leonard and Wright County Commissioner Derek Vetsch on Nov. 28, a little less than a week after Xcel first detected a leak.

That November email said, “Analysis results from one of the monitoring wells on site … indicated Tritium levels above a reportable threshold. The State of Minnesota as well as the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] were informed.”

The email went on to say, “There is no known impact to the health and safety of the public.”

Almost three months later, Leonard asked Johnson for an update. She asked whether there was “any danger to groundwater” or “any danger to the river.” She also asked whether Monticello will “get confirmation when it’s repaired.”

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked Leonard if communication happened in the time between those emails. She said if she received anything, it was a verbal update that investigations were ongoing.

A message from Monticello Mayor Lloyd Hilgart indicates the city didn’t know about the extent of the leak until the end of February.

In an interview last week, Hilgart said the city didn’t put out an announcement about the leak when it first found out because Monticello officials felt Xcel knew more about what it meant for the general public.

“I think we were still trying to learn about the situation,” Hilgart said. “We didn’t really know what it meant, that’s why we were really pushing for Xcel to put something out because it was out of our scope.”

Since the leak was first reported to the public a week and a half ago, residents have expressed frustration they weren’t told earlier.

Leonard said the city advocated for Xcel and the state to share the information sooner. All throughout, Xcel Energy, as well as the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have maintained the public is not at risk.

Xcel shut the plant down temporarily on Friday to make permanent repairs after a second leak was detected in the same area, spilling “hundreds of gallons” of radioactive water.

Powering the plant down had its own adverse effects. Xcel said on Monday the shutdown caused the Mississippi River’s temperature to drop, killing at least 230 fish. The company said the kill had nothing to do with the tritium leak.