Cottage Grove, Woodbury prepare for 3M settlement disbursements
Cottage Grove and Woodbury may finally be getting financing for water treatment after a settlement between 3M Corp. and the state of Minnesota for $850 million was flagged for use in east metro water improvements.
The state and 3M settled just before trial was scheduled to start the morning of Feb. 20, after a 22-hour negotiating session, Attorney General Lori Swanson said.
The settlement funds will be used to improve water quality and sustainability in the east metro, mitigate environmental damage from perfluorochemical pollution and, if funds remain, for varied recreation or statewide opportunities.
Swanson said it will be spent “first and foremost” to solve east metro drinking water problems.
After a long period of waiting, Cottage Grove and Woodbury are now able to start seriously pursuing long-term water treatment solutions with funds from the settlement announced Feb. 20 possibly coming their way.
“We’ve got our finger on the pulse, we were ready when we heard about the announcement,” Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey said at the Feb. 21 city council meeting.
Last May, the Minnesota Department of Health lowered its health-based values from the Environmental Protection Agency’s 70 parts per trillion of PFCs in the water to 35 parts per trillion PFOA and 27 parts per trillion PFOS. Eight of the city’s 11 wells were over the recommended value after the change, triggering a summertime watering ban and temporary treatment solutions.
Woodbury also had four of its 17 wells over the recommended values, and one of St. Paul Park’s three wells was over. Neither city had to institute a water ban or temporary treatment.
Klayton Eckles, Woodbury engineering and public works director, said Woodbury will also be looking for some release of the settlement for their water system.
“Although we’re able to meet our goal of providing safe drinking water to residents, our ability to do that successfully is reduced,” he said. “Our system has been damaged.”
To fix the problem — for the long-term — Cottage Grove is looking to construct one or more water treatment facilities in the city that could take on a regional flavor by linking in have also Woodbury or St. Paul Park.
Meetings between the cities and the area’s Legislators began in earnest Friday.
Cottage Grove is also planning to hold community meetings to for residents to give feedback on what they need in their neighborhoods for water treatment.
If none of the settlement money is allocated to Cottage Grove, the city can still be reimbursed for some costs by 3M due to a consent order between them and the Pollution Control Agency in 2007. The city has already spent $2 million on temporary treatment that is set to be reimbursed through the order.
No matter what, Bailey said, “it’s not coming out of the taxpayers of Cottage Grove.”
Swanson said Feb. 20 that Cottage Grove or regional treatment facilities could “potentially” be funded by the settlement, and Bailey said he’s hopeful and encouraged by what the state has communicated so far.
“I feel confident now more than I have ever before,” he said.
Though funds may soon become available to them, Cottage Grove and Woodbury do not plan to start any construction immediately.
“(We’ll) not jump to a solution until we understand the needs of the area,” Eckles said. “There’s a whole number of possible solutions that we want to talk about … We probably should be looking for a solution or solutions that serve everyone in the region.”
Though it’s unclear yet what that solution will be, both Cottage Grove and Woodbury are looking through that regional lens.
“We’ve been talking with Woodbury for a quite a while,” Bailey said. “And doing something with St. Paul Park, (which) may be as simple as their water system hooking up with ours.”
Since the pollution is concentrated in the groundwater, city officials are aware that the plume could continue to move or expand. They also know all too well that health-based values or recommendations regarding PFC levels could change in the future.
Both Bailey and Eckles said they share one goal: that even if these factors change, they will not have to deal with fixing it again once facilities are in place.
“Generally this is an emerging issue, a very complicated issue, and will probably take some time to develop an overall approach,” Eckles said. “But (we’re) also very pleased that we can take a look at it without having to wait around.”
With questions remaining about whether the PFC contamination could cause higher rates of cancer and other health issues, Swanson emphasized that the settlement and the lawsuit concerned the natural resources and not individual cases of health or home.
“This was a natural resources damages case, meaning the lawsuit’s aim was to fix the natural resources, so monies can be used for conservation projects,” Swanson said. “This was not a case for personal injury. We don’t have authority to bring a personal injury case on behalf of the people of Minnesota, and also we don’t have the authority to bring a case directly for the people to get back the diminution in their home values.”
However, Swanson said they will direct funds to the 650 east metro homeowners whose private wells are polluted by PFCs.
Bailey said they are looking for ways to get treatment to those private wells and rural areas of the community.
One consideration is running lines from the treatment facility or facilities once completed, to provide treated municipal water to neighborhoods such as old Cottage Grove or River Acres, located near Grey Cloud Island.
“I have had homeowners in that particular area asking, ‘What does that mean for us,’” Bailey said. “People are looking for a more permanent solution.”
These homes currently have granular-activated carbon (GAC) filters on their wells or are being provided with bottled drinking water. Many of these residences are also covered under the 2007 consent decree.
Beyond water quality
The $850 million could be used for projects beyond just water quality improvements.
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the grant money could be used for various natural resources remediation projects, including habitat rehabilitation or cleanup.
Landwehr said they have also started considering recreation projects, so that the 50,000 people in Washington County that get fishing permits each year can use them, instead of being rebuffed by fishing advisories in areas where PFC levels are too high.
“Imagine an angler in the Mississippi River fishing in a place where the fish might be bioaccumulating,” Landwehr said. “You don’t eat those fish. We want to make sure that we can also provide alternatives to people who fish in those areas.”
One such alternative could be building new fishing piers in less contaminated areas for Washington County fishers to use.