New advocacy report creates a path to reduce PFAS pollution from wastewater streams
By Mair Allen
New advocacy report creates a path to reduce PFAS pollution from wastewater streams
On an especially hot day in late July, MCEA Staff Attorney Jay Eidsness hopped in his truck and left the office to meet Water Program Director Carly Griffith at a creek in the St. Cloud area. They expected to put her canoe in for a paddle, but when they reached the park, they found a trickling ribbon of water in the midst of the summer drought. The two ended up wading in from the bank instead. It wasn’t a leisurely day off of work, though; they were meeting Dr. Matt Simcik, a professor at the University of Minnesota and national PFAS expert, to take water samples and see where the toxic forever-chemicals are showing up in Minnesota watersheds.
The idea to test surface water came up when Griffith was brainstorming new strategies to advocate for further removal of PFAS from our environment following the PFAS ban MCEA and our allies helped pass last legislative session. Recognizing that the exciting win was only one step in a long fight, MCEA started meeting with other environmental law advocacy groups to determine what we should do next.
“One conversation in particular was pretty impactful,” Griffith recalls. That conversation was with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). The nonprofit’s testing at the Burlington Wastewater Treatment Plant in Vermont showed high levels of PFAS coming into the facility and then discharging into the Haw River. Further testing showed that at least some of the chemicals were coming from textile manufacturing and landfills that send wastewater to the treatment plant.
The SELC used the evidence to file a notice of intent to sue if the wastewater treatment plant did not reduce PFAS discharges to the Haw River. In August 2023, they reached a settlement that requires polluting facilities to remove PFAS from their wastewater before sending it to the treatment plant. The outcome was significant because as it stands, treatment plants haven’t installed the costly technology needed to remove PFAS, and the treated water they discharge into lakes and rivers often also serve as drinking water sources downstream.
The story inspired Griffith to do similar testing in Minnesota in the hopes of finding evidence that supports controlling PFAS contamination at the source in our own state. The results, which MCEA published in a report this October, undoubtedly help build that case. Right now is a crucial time to push for stronger source reduction controls because Minnesota is poised to have much more stringent federal and state drinking water protections to contend with that will require PFAS in drinking water sources to be reduced to much lower levels than currently allowable.
The changes follow new scientific findings that suggest exposure to PFAS is dangerous at levels lower than previously thought safe. This past May, MCEA’s attorneys Heidi Guenther and Jay Eidsness submitted comments in support of the new proposed federal drinking water standards for PFAS, and in October 2023 they submitted comments urging the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to pass drinking water standards at the state level that are at least as protective.
All of this means that source reduction controls for PFAS at wastewater treatment plants are more critical than ever because without effective source reduction, taxpayers will be on the hook for the high costs of remediation through public water treatment systems, rather than those who created the contamination in the first place.
“The hope is this report, created in partnership with a known expert in the field, will signal to the MPCA the changes we want them to make in a really clear way,” Griffith says.
So far the state agency has taken a limited and voluntary approach to managing PFAS in wastewater streams. Rather than write PFAS controls into its wastewater permits, it asks 91 of Minnesota’s waste-water treatment plants to voluntarily monitor the water that comes into their facilities for PFAS contamination, but without any requests to monitor the water they discharge into lakes and rivers, such as the Mississippi River, which serves as a major downstream drinking water source.
Testing for PFAS in wastewater streams and where biosolids are used
With the PFAS ban “Amara’s Law” not set to take full effect until 2032, and decades of PFAS contamination already ubiquitous throughout our environment, remediation of existing pollution will be a key component to Minnesota’s ongoing PFAS fight. To be successful, Minnesota needs to know where the forever chemicals are coming from.
In addition to wastewater streams, MCEA’s report highlighted the role organic matter leftover from the wastewater treatment process, known as “biosolids” or “sewage sludge,” plays in PFAS contamination in soil and groundwater when it is applied as a fertilizer on agricultural fields across the state. Using biosolids as fertilizer is a common practice in our state.
Until MCEA’s report, there wasn’t a lot of state-level data that proved biosolid application was an additional source for PFAS in the environment, and Griffith knew that she had to have evidence to support that part of MCEA’s advocacy work when communicating with agencies, law-makers, and people who will be impacted by this contamination. Partnering with Dr. Simcik was key because testing for PFAS is difficult and expensive - each test is about $500 - and by using his lab at the University of Minnesota, she could be sure we were getting the most accurate results possible.
It wasn’t a surprise to Griffith when the tests revealed substantial concentrations of PFAS in the tested surface waters within watersheds known for biosolid applications as well as downstream from wastewater treatment plants. Still, it was bittersweet to have her assumptions confirmed. Her first reaction was, “Oh good, we saw what we wanted to see,” but it was quickly followed by “Oh no, we saw what we wanted to see.”
Because wastewater plants across Minnesota collect water from various contaminated sources and don’t have the technology to remove the PFAS, both the discharge of “treated” water and these biosolids will continue to be primary pathways of these chemicals into our environment if something doesn’t change. On both fronts, the state isn’t doing enough, even though it would be much more effective to remediate PFAS from wastewater streams and biosolids before they are released into our soils, lakes, rivers and groundwater. In fact when it comes to biosolids, Minnesota has no requirements to even monitor for the presence of PFAS.
MCEA’s report makes clear that the state needs to take stronger actions now to reduce PFAS in both sources - wastewater and biosolids. “The costs of protecting drinking water from these chemicals are going to be extraordinary,” Griffith says. “We are facing down the barrel of that gun and we don't have any more excuses not to use the source reduction tools that we have. PFAS pollution controls need to be written into our wastewater permits.”
What’s next for Minnesota’s PFAS problem?
One of the most exciting parts of the report is that it focuses on solutions that other states have been using in their own work to protect people from what Griffith calls, “the emergent contaminant of our time.” Stopping PFAS pollution in our water at the source is one example of a change that can be made that puts the responsibility on the polluter, rather than taxpayers, and it makes sense logistically. “We have more technologies readily available that can help us treat at an individual industrial discharger, to treat at one source, rather than hundreds of millions of gallons of water at a large municipal plant,” she says.
Requiring these industrial facilities to remove PFAS from their wastewater before it reaches our municipal treatment plants is important, but there are other steps state agencies can also take to help curtail this contaminant. One is adding PFAS as a pollutant under Minnesota’s Biosolids Rule, which sets limits for contaminants when sewage sludge is being used as a land-applied fertilizer. Another is requiring wastewater treatment plants to monitor the effluent, or the treated water that leaves the facilities as well as biosolids for PFAS.
States like Maine, Michigan, and Vermont have already begun taking these steps. “The bad news is that what we've learned from those places is that when you look for legacy contamination, you'll find it,” Griffith says. “It's a really scary leaf to think about turning over, especially for farmers who don't want to have an impact on their operations, but it's really important for us to start to get a handle on the extent of legacy contamination.”
Griffith is looking forward to connecting with community members, legislators, and farmers at a townhall in St. Cloud in January. Keep an eye on your email for more details about that event and read the full PFAS advocacy report here.