ST. PAUL — Nearly every shuttered landfill that state regulators monitor in Minnesota has leaked chemicals known as PFAS into groundwater sources, according to new findings released Thursday, March 18.

And more than half of those dumps have caused contamination at levels exceeding state safety guidelines, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Officials say that drinking water supplies across the state will have to be monitored for signs of the "forever chemicals," which can be hazardous to human health, as a result.

"These closed landfills are throughout the state. They are in suburbs, Greater Minnesota, regional centers and small rural communities. They are next to our homes, our businesses and our farms," MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop said during an online news conference Thursday. "While the MPCA has addressed it where we have found it in a few drinking water wells, we also do not have that complete picture of the reach and impact of contamination."

The MPCA has found perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — or PFAS coming from sites belonging to its closed landfill program at a time when the consequences of their widespread use are coming more clearly into focus. The man made chemicals have been popular with manufacturers for decades and can be found in everything from nonstick cookware coating to fire-extinguishing foam.

But PFAS can leach away from products containing them after they are discarded and, because they do not decompose easily, linger or even recirculate throughout the environment. They turn up occasionally in human blood samples and have been linked to a host of health issues including hormonal imbalances, decreased fertility and cancer.

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(Courtesy Minnesota Pollution Control Agency)
(Courtesy Minnesota Pollution Control Agency)

Officials say they have now been identified in groundwater sources near 98 of the 101 landfills recently tested by the MPCA. Fifty-nine of them — more than half of the 110 total landfills in the agency's monitoring program — were found to have caused contaminations in 41 counties at levels above what is considered safe to drink.

Another 15 were linked to contaminations of levels 15 times above the safety limit. In one extreme case, involving the Gofer Landfill outside of Fairmont, Minn., PFAS were found in groundwater sources at concentrations 1,300 times greater than the limit.

Though not every groundwater source sampled by the MPCA is used for drinking water, officials said, that doesn't rule out the possibility that more drinking water supplies have been impacted by PFAS than are presently known.

MPCA Assistant Commissioner Kirk Koudelka during Thursday's news conference pointed to the Northwoods Landfill near Ely, Minn., to illustrate that point. A water well near the dump that serves the neighboring transfer station was found to contain unsafe levels of PFAS, he said, but there are three other wells within a mile of the site that still need to be tested. (Workers at the station are being given bottled water to drink.)

"Northwoods is an example of about 60 sites that we have where we have not been able to sample all the nearby drinking water wells to determine if there are potential exposure pathways to residents of Minnesota," Koudelka said.

Created in 1994, MPCA's landfill program deals with inoperative dumps leaching contaminated liquids and gasses, most of which trafficked during their lifespans in a mix of municipal and industrial waste. Unlike comparable federal programs, which often require the private owners and operators of a contaminated site to pay for clean-up costs, it remedies problem landfills using a special fund backed mostly by Minnesota taxpayers.

Permission to tap into the fund, however, can be granted only by the Minnesota Legislature, whose approval the MPCA said it is now seeking. Koudelka said the agency does not have an estimate of what it could cost to tend to the landfills in question.

But remediation work, he said, could include the sampling of additional water wells, the collection and treatment of contaminated liquids known as leachate found leaking from the landfills, and the locating of new drinking water sources for those whose wells have been polluted. The work could vary considerably from dump to dump.

"It's important to note each of these landfills are unique, not only in their design and what might be in them, but also what is around them" Koudelka said.

Bishop said Thursday that the MPCA will also ask the Legislature to be granted more flexible use of the landfill fund so it can respond more nimbly to "any unexpected future incidents." Without it, she said, "the MPCA will be forced to wait until the legislature is in session and agrees to fund responses to urgent or emergency situations."

"This existing structure really impedes our ability to act quickly and use discretion in addressing the most pressing needs of each site," she added. "Minnesota families and communities should not have to wait until the legislature acts to release the funds."

Whether the legislature would agree to such an arrangement is an open question. Members of environmental groups active in Minnesota and two state lawmakers, Reps. Rick Hansen, DFL-St. Paul, and Ami Wazlawik, DFL-White Bear Township, did voice support for it Thursday, however.

Hansen said the Legislature should look at ways to prevent PFAS from contaminating the environment, and at requiring polluting parties to chip in on clean-up costs. He likened the presence of undetected PFAS in nature to a "sleeping giant."

"And here we are in 2021, and the giant is waking up. And it's angry," he said.

Closed landfills over the limit

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency announced per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)

contamination in groundwater at 59 closed landfills in 41 counties. Fifteen closed landfills have PFAS contamination that exceeds state health-based guidance values by at least 10 times.

The landfills, substances and amount over health-based values include:

  • Gofer (Martin County), PFOA, 1,343

  • Freeway (Dakota County), PFOA, 714

  • Washington County, PFOA, 657

  • WDE (Anoka County), PFOA, 197

  • Chisago Isanti County, PFOS, 49

  • St. Augusta (Stearns County), PFOA, 29

  • Louisville (Scott County), PFOS, 22

  • Faribault County, PFOS, 21

  • Watonwan County, PFOA, 19

  • Minnesota Sanitation Services (Le Sueur County), PFOS, 19

  • Korf (Pine County), PFOA, 18

  • Crosby American Properties (Dakota County), PFOS, 15

  • East Bethel (Anoka County), PFOA, 14

  • Tellijohn (Le Sueur County), PFOS, 13

  • WLSSD (St. Louis County), PFOS, 12