Richard Eder sometimes still reaches to fill his glass with tap water when he’s thirsty. Then he realizes he can’t do that.
The Lake Elmo resident lives in one of eight households in the Tablyn Park area that must use bottled water after health officials found an unsafe level of a contaminant in their well water earlier this month.
“They recommended that we not drink or cook with the well water but I’ve caught myself once or twice,” Eder said. “I guess you always find it a little alarming.”
The finding was one in a string of contaminated-water problems in Washington County. Officials are working to alleviate concerns and deal with the presence of trace amounts of chemicals believed to contribute to cancer, liver and other organ problems, and birth defects.
In Lake Elmo, city leaders and state health officials will hold an open house this week at the Lake Elmo Elementary School to discuss the matter and answer residents’ questions. In Oakdale, where low amounts of perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, were found in January, the city posts updates on its Web site and has hired a water consultant to monitor tests and study treatments.
A confluence of factors from large-lot suburban developments served by private wells to the proximity of industrial waste contributed to the county’s situation, said Ginny Yingling, hydrogeologist with the state Health Department.
Yingling said she hopes new developments in the county will move toward community rather than individual wells so the Health Department can have better oversight over them. County officials are already beginning to do so: The Washington County Board recently required a community well to serve a new Baytown development.
“Anytime there’s municipal oversight or some sort of oversight where it’s being routinely tested and under someone’s watch, I think from a public health standpoint, that’s a much better option,” said Cindy Weckwerth, program manager in the county’s health department.
It’s been almost a year since officials found a major source for the chemical solvent that contaminated at least 140 wells in eastern Washington County.
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency officials found trichloroethylene, or TCE, concentrations of almost 50,000 parts per billion, or 10,000 times the recommended exposure limit, in the ground near Hagberg’s Country Market in Lake Elmo the site of a former metal fabricating shop. TCE is used mainly to remove grease from metal parts.
TCE, which has been present in the area’s groundwater since 1987, also was found in two of Bayport’s municipal wells. The latest tests show the level in one well is 4.4 ppb, up from 3.4 ppb a year ago and closer to the state Health Department’s current threshold of 5 ppb, above which contamination is considered unsafe. A trace amount 0.2 ppb was also recently found in a second well.
Bayport officials are studying a number of TCE treatment options, including building a carbon filter plant to treat all three city wells; abandoning the contaminated well and drilling a replacement; installing a carbon filter on the contaminated well; and diluting contaminated water with non-contaminated water.
If the level reaches 5 ppb, the state pollution agency has said that state Superfund money could be used to pay for the installation of a treatment system, administrator Mike McGuire said. Superfund money is derived from taxes on industries that produce hazardous waste. The state agency also is working on treatment options at the source.
Next month, Baytown Township officials will begin requiring filters to be installed on wells of new homes that show even a trace of TCE. Before, filters were not required if the TCE level was under 5 ppb.
The township keeps residents updated on the situation through its monthly newsletter.
“The awareness is way up,” said Kent Grandlienard, township board chairman. The big issue was, ‘How is this going to affect resale?’ It hasn’t seemed to have affected land values at all. There really hasn’t been any issue.”
FILTERS, CITY SOURCES HELP
Health officials first tested for perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, at the former county landfill last summer and found low levels on the landfill property. In August, small amounts of PFOA were found in seven private wells near the landfill site, south of Lake Jane in Lake Elmo.
The levels were not considered dangerous the highest level detected was 0.9 parts per billion; levels higher than 7 ppb are considered unsafe. Then in January, health officials said that five municipal wells in Oakdale contained PFOA and perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS.
On average, less than 1 ppb of each chemical was found, which is below the safety threshold for each.
Last month, health officials discovered trace amounts of both chemicals in eight private wells in Tablyn Park.
Jim Kelly, a health risk assessor for the Health Department, said the PFOS levels ranged from 1.2 ppb to about 3.5 ppb; levels above 1 ppb are considered unsafe. Those residents, like Eder, were given bottled water to drink.
Officials have since tested more than 140 private wells in the area and expect results in the next month. They are also trying to determine the source of the chemicals.
Two possibilities are the old landfill and the former Abresch waste site near Minnesota 5 and Granada Avenue in Oakdale, Kelly said.
3M Co. used to dispose of the synthetic chemicals used to make protectants such as Scotchgard at both sites, Kelly said. 3M stopped production of the two chemicals in 2000 because of concerns about the environmental impacts.
In Lake Elmo, private wells with unsafe levels of PFCs will receive carbon filters, and the city is discussing extending city water to that area.
For some residents, like Jennifer Keeler, whose well water tested positive for the chemical, going without tap water is more of a nuisance than anything else.
“We can’t use ice cubes so we’ve had to buy ice and brushing your teeth, things like that it’s problematic,” she said. “When I do the cooking, I sometimes forget and start boiling water; then I have to pour it out and start over.”
Kathy Henke, who lives nearby and has grandchildren who visit often, said she’s using bottled water even though she’s not required to do so.
“I certainly wasn’t going to take any chances with my grandchildren,” she said. “I’ll stay on until I find out what the readings are.”