EPA directs Minnesota officials to address water contamination in southeastern part of state

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has directed Minnesota officials to address nitrate contamination in drinking water in the southeastern region of the state.

The EPA’s Nov. 3 message to authorities at the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) comes after more than 10 environmental advocacy organizations requested that the agency exercise its emergency powers under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

The letter states that Minnesota officials must provide a plan and a timeframe for mediating the groundwater contamination in the Southeast Karst Region, which consists of eight counties in Minnesota — Dodge, Fillmore, Goodhue, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Wabasha and Winona.

The organizations that called on the EPA include the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), Environmental Working Group, Minnesota Well Owners Organization, Center for Food Safety, Clean Up the River Environment, Food & Water Watch, Friends of the Mississippi River, Izaak Walton League Minnesota Division, Land Stewardship Project, Minnesota Trout Unlimited, and Mitchell Hamline Public Health Law Center.

The report states that over 9,000 people in the Karst Region were or still are at risk of consuming water contaminated with nitrate.

Consuming too much nitrate can result in a disorder called methemoglobinemia, which affects how your blood carries oxygen, according to MDH. The disorder is especially dangerous for babies, who can face serious illness or death as a result of consuming too much nitrate.

The EPA identifies three immediate objectives: identify residents impacted by nitrate contamination, provide notice to residents of potential exposure to elevated nitrate concentrations, and provide the opportunity to get alternative drinking water until nitrate contamination falls within acceptable levels.

The agency says it is primarily focused on mitigating the immediate health concerns of drinking water contamination, although a plan for a long-term solution is required to be submitted by state officials within 30 days of receiving the report.

The plan should address groundwater contamination in the region and include aspects like communication coordination, identifying impacted residences, education and outreach, drinking water testing, provision of alternative water, maintaining and regularly publishing public records, and communicating with the EPA, the agency’s letter states.

The EPA says it will be closely monitoring the situation to ensure groundwater contamination is addressed.

In a press release regarding the EPA’s report, MCEA’s director of strategic litigation, Leigh Currie, said, “It’s significant that this is addressed to multiple agencies because this problem calls for a ‘one Minnesota solution.”

Currie added in the release that she’s hopeful Governor Tim Walz’s office will see the benefit in enacting a multi-agency response to the crisis. “We know what causes this pollution. It’s time for Minnesota’s agricultural lobby and the Department of Agriculture to come to the table and agree to real solutions to eliminate this public health threat,” Currie said. 

The MPCA, MDA and MDH released a joint statement on the EPA’s report, saying in part, “Minnesota state agencies share the EPA’s concern and commitment to protecting drinking water quality and residents’ health by addressing nitrate contamination in southeastern Minnesota. Porous geology makes the area uniquely susceptible to groundwater contamination produced by agricultural runoff, wastewater, and faulty septic systems, especially as extreme weather events brought on by climate change continue to put additional pressure on groundwater resources.” To read the agencies’ statement in full, click here.

The EPA also suggested that Minnesota review its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) and State Disposal System (SDS) permits to potentially change monitoring requirements for manure, litter, and wastewater.

Furthermore, EPA officials recommended Minnesota reconsider the state’s standards for applying manure and processing wastewater, in addition to reviewing guidelines for applying commercial fertilizer, the letter states.

The message highlights previous efforts from Minnesota agencies to resolve drinking water contamination in the region but emphasizes that more work needs to be done and the EPA has the power to exercise independent emergency and enforcement authorities.

A copy of the EPA’s letter can be read below or by clicking here.