fbpx Press Release: Environmental Protection Agency instructs MN agencies to take immediate steps to address nitrate contaminated drinking water crisis, protect public health  | Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
Nov 08, 2023

Press Release: Environmental Protection Agency instructs MN agencies to take immediate steps to address nitrate contaminated drinking water crisis, protect public health 


Environmental Protection Agency instructs MN agencies to take immediate steps to address nitrate contaminated drinking water crisis, protect public health 


DATE: 11/08/23   CONTACT: Sarah Horner, MCEA, shorner@mncenter.org, 612-868-3024


St. Paul, Minnesota – The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has put Minnesota on formal notice that it needs to work across state agencies to urgently address the nitrate-contaminated drinking water crisis threatening the karst region in southeastern Minnesota and provide safe, alternative drinking water for impacted residents.

The federal agency sent a letter detailing its expectations to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Department of Health, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture Nov. 3. The letter was in response to a petition filed to the EPA by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) and ten other environmental organizations this past April asking the federal agency to intervene in the ongoing public health crisis because of state agencies’ failure to adequately do so.

In its letter, the EPA mandates steps the state must take to address the immediate public health needs of communities with contaminated water supplies. It also calls on the state to implement longer-term prevention measures that will reduce the contamination. 

“It's significant that this is addressed to multiple agencies because this problem calls for a ‘one Minnesota solution,’” MCEA’s director of strategic litigation, Leigh Currie, said of the letter. Currie added that she’s hopeful Governor Walz’ office will also see 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.” 

Since the filing of the petition, nearly 1,000 Minnesotans have signed on to a campaign calling on the state to act, including a groundswell of support from the karst region, the area of the state most vulnerable to nitrate pollution due to its unique geography. Runoff from cropland sources, in particular fertilizer and animal manure from large-scale industrial agricultural operations and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOS), are the biggest sources of nitrate-pollution in the state. The runoff seeps quickly into groundwater in the karst region due to the particularly porous bedrock found in the area. 

In its letter, the EPA thanked Minnesota agency staff for meeting with them to discuss the issue over the summer, but said “there is an evident need for further actions to safeguard public health.” 

“To address these priorities, EPA requests that the Minnesota agencies develop a coordinated and comprehensive work plan to identify, contact, conduct drinking water testing and offer alternate water to all impacted persons in the Karst Region, as soon as possible, and to sustain these efforts for as long as nitrate concentrations in the groundwater of the Karst Region remain at or above the (Maximum Contaminant Level),” the letter reads. 

The EPA further instructed the state to “develop a long-term solution to achieve reductions in nitrate concentrations in drinking water supplies,” and underscored that zeroing in on the potential sources causing the nitrate pollution should be an “immediate step.”  

The federal agency listed both Minnesota’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) and the State Disposal System permit programs as areas worth examination, particularly in relation to the operations of CAFOS. MCEA has long advocated for more stringent permit requirements. 

The federal response is particularly meaningful to residents in the karst region who have been living with fear about the safety of their drinking water for years. 

According to the EPA, nearly 400,000 Minnesotans live in the karst region, nearly 95,000 of whom rely on private wells. Private wells are more vulnerable to nitrate pollution due to lack of public oversight. Previous testing conducted in the region found that at least 9,200 residents had nitrate-pollution levels in their drinking water that exceeded safe limits. 

Nitrate pollution has been linked to the potentially fatal newborn condition known as Blue Baby Syndrome, as well as a host of other birth defects, pregnancy complications and various cancers and other health conditions. 

“The EPA has sent a clear signal to the state agencies named in this letter that the status quo of largely voluntary solutions they have relied on to date aren’t working to protect public health,” said Carly Griffith, water program director at MCEA. “We are so glad that private well owners who have had to live with uncertainty and fear about the safety of their drinking water for years finally have help on their side and a path forward.”

The EPA instructed state agencies to reply to its letter within 30 days, and asserted that the state’s response must include an anticipated timeline for the development of a work plan to address the crisis and alleviate the immediate public health risk impacting residents. 

Questions about the EPA letter as well as interview requests can be directed to Sarah Horner.