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Nov 07, 2023

Press Release: New report underscores role wastewater plays in Minnesota’s PFAS problem

Findings document PFAS contamination from sewage sludge application


New report underscores role wastewater plays in Minnesota’s PFAS problem

Findings document PFAS contamination from sewage sludge application


DATE: 11/07/23   CONTACT: Sarah Horner, MCEA, shorner@mncenter.org, 612-868-3024


St. Paul, Minnesota – A newly released report co-authored by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) and Dr. Matt Simcik, a professor from the University of Minnesota, makes clear that the next phase of Minnesota’s PFAS fight must include wastewater streams if the state wants to stand a chance at ridding our environment of the toxic “forever chemicals”.

In 2023, the Minnesota Legislature adopted “Amara’s Law,” named after Amara Strande, who died of cancer she attributed to PFAS exposure at her school and home. While this critical law prohibits the non-essential use of PFAS “forever chemicals” beginning in January 2025, the state must now turn its attention to eradicating the PFAS already ubiquitous in our state from decades of widespread use of the compounds in many household items and industrial practices. 

As it stands, wastewater treatment plants throughout Minnesota collect PFAS-contaminated wastewater from industrial facilities, landfills, airports, and other known or suspected dischargers of PFAS. Since wastewater treatment plants are not equipped with technologies capable of removing PFAS, the “treated” wastewater discharged from the plants into surface waters as well as the sewage sludge left behind contain dangerous levels of the chemicals. The sewage sludge, also known as biosolids, is routinely applied to farm fields as a fertilizer. This means that without intervention, wastewater will continue to be a primary pathway for PFAS’ spread across our state.  

Field testing conducted for MCEA’s report on three streams in the St. Cloud area - a region with widespread biosolid application on agricultural fields - showed much higher PFAS levels than rivers in the area that did not have biosolids application sites along its banks. All three streams serve as tributaries to the Mississippi River, which supplies drinking water to both the St. Cloud and Twin Cities areas. 

The report also includes the results from water testing at the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant in St. Paul, which show PFAS concentrations in wastewater discharges that far exceed the proposed drinking water limits from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The findings were not surprising to Simcik, a local PFAS expert and the University of Minnesota professor who helped author the report. 

“There was a map published a few years ago showing all these dots in Michigan of places found with high concentrations of PFAS that often leads people to ask why levels are so much higher in Michigan. The answer is they aren’t so much higher in Michigan, it’s just that Michigan has looked, “ Simcik said.  “If you look for it, especially in places that have biosolid applications in the watershed, you’re going to find PFAS.”

The problem is Minnesota largely isn’t looking for PFAS in biosolids, despite widespread application of them on farm fields, according to Carly Griffith, MCEA’s water program director. It’s also not doing enough to address the other ways wastewater is exacerbating the PFAS problem. 

That’s why testing for and regulating biosolids, as well as wastewater treatment plants, needs to be a key focus for Minnesotas in its continued efforts to eradicate PFAS. 

“We took a really important step forward when the Legislature passed the partial PFAS ban last session, but we can’t just pat ourselves on the back and say we took care of the PFAS problem because we haven’t,” Griffith said. “This is the next critical step.” 

It will take time to phase in the PFAS ban, Griffith said, not to mention all the PFAS already everywhere in our environment. Zeroing in on wastewater, as well as the biosolids they’re processed into, is the most efficient and effective place to focus. 

The report highlights three steps agencies can take now to intervene: 

  • Use the Clean Water Act permitting system to require industrial facilities that use PFAS to invest in technologies to remove it from their wastewater BEFORE sending it to wastewater treatment plants. 
  • Add PFAS as a pollutant under Minnesota’s Biosolids Rule
  • Require wastewater treatment plants to monitor effluent and biosolids for PFAS. 

Other states, including Maine and Michigan, have already taken similar measures with great success, as outlined in MCEA’s report. 

Implementing these steps will become increasingly important for Minnesota if and when the EPA adopts its new proposed drinking water limits for PFAS, which are significantly lower than the current limits and will place exorbitant costs on wastewater treatment facilities to meet. 

The full report can be downloaded here. Griffith and Simcik will discuss the report and answer questions at a free webinar open to the public today at noon. Click here to register to attend. 

Additional questions or requests for copies of the report can be directed to Sarah Horner at the contact information listed at the top of this release.