3M’s Legacy is Lake Elmo’s Tribulation

posted on:
October 8, 2006

author:
Staff

category:
Environmental

Lake Elmo, Minn. Recent tests have found toxic chemicals in private drinking-water wells in Lake Elmo, Minn., that are thousands of times higher than allowed by state environmental standards.

The likely culprit, regulators believe, are toxic chemicals that had been stored by the 3M Company at a dumping ground in nearby Oakdale, Minn. The company removed large numbers of toxic drums in the mid-1980s, but didn’t remove a class of toxin known as fluorochemicals—which scientists at that time didn’t know were dangerous.

The chemicals, formerly used to make Scotchgard and nonstick cookware, have been found in tests to cause changes in the liver and other organs in animal studies, as well as developmental problems in the offspring of rats.

So far, 216 households in Lake Elmo, east of St. Paul, have had to abandon their private wells and get hooked up to city water. State health and environmental officials, who ordered 3M to investigate the source of the contamination, are now studying the findings to determine how to prevent the underground plume of contaminated water from spreading.

Gary Krueger, project manager for the state Superfund program, said 3M removed a large number of barrels containing solvents and other organic compounds from the Oakdale dump in the mid-80s. But no one at the time knew that fluorochemicals would one day present a problem of their own.

“It’s like restarting the investigation all over again,” Krueger said.

3M spokesman Bill Nelson said it’s premature to say if the company will need to further clean up the Oakdale dump, which it owns. “What these data mean will be determined jointly by the state of Minnesota with input from 3M,” he said.

3M manufactured fluorochemicals at its plant in Cottage Grove and at a plant in Decatur, Ala., from the 1950s until 2002.

Nelson said the company disposed of fluorochemical waste in the Oakdale dump between 1956 and 1960, and in the former Washington County landfill in northern Lake Elmo from 1969 to 1974. Both sites are now suspected of leaching chemicals into the groundwater.

The recent tests at the Oakdale dump showed chemical levels as high as 23,700 parts per billion in groundwater for one class of fluorochemical, and up to 3,343 parts per billion for another. Respectively, the Minnesota Department of Health’s well-advisory guideline for those two classes is 1 part per billion and 0.6 parts per billion.

Those guidelines gauge the amount of a chemical in water considered safe for people to drink daily for a lifetime.

In January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked companies to phase out the use of perfluorooctanoic acid, one of the fluorochemicals, by 95 percent by 2010 and entirely by 2015. A month later, a science advisory panel for the agency recommended that the acid be classified as a likely cause of cancer in humans.

3M officials said that company employees who manufactured the chemicals in Minnesota and Alabama and were exposed to much higher levels than the general public have shown no adverse health effects during 25 years of monitoring.

Health officials haven’t definitively determined that the fluorochemicals are the source of Lake Elmo’s water contamination, but believe it’s likely. John Linc Stine, division director for environmental health at the Minnesota Health Department, said figuring out how the groundwater moves and potential sources of pollution are critical.

“We need to know where it’s coming from and where it’s going so we can get ahead of it in terms of how we manage the drinking water,” Stine said.

Martin Rafferty, the city administrator in Lake Elmo, said the city is trying to plan for the possibility it will have to hook up other neighborhoods to city water. But city officials up to now have been occupied by immediate concerns, including issuing bottled water and carbon filtration systems to affected homes. Construction crews are now rushing to hook up the 216 h
ouseholds to the city’s water system before winter.

3M volunteered to pay the $4.3 million cost of extending the city’s water system, Rafferty said, and also donated eight acres to the city for a new water tower.

Rafferty said he expects state officials and 3M will reach a long-term solution for the city, but not all citizens share the optimism. Gary Carlson, who’s lived in Lake Elmo for 32 years and is now drinking bottled water, is among the homeowners getting hooked up to city water.

“This is 2006,” he said. “We’ve got missions to Mars, and they can’t dig a damn hole and remove some barrels.”

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