The 3M Co. and state regulators signed off Wednesday on a plan to start cleaning up groundwater in Cottage Grove that for decades has been contaminated with industrial toxins used in some of the company’s best-known consumer products.
Though it brings the long, controversial cleanup one step closer to completion, the parties still haven’t agreed on how to address a far more difficult problem: removing the contaminants, known as PFCs, from the water before it is discharged from the company’s Cottage Grove manufacturing plant into the Mississippi River. The river above Hastings is also contaminated with the toxins, and, as a result, the state Health Department has said fish there are not safe to eat.
Early this year both 3M’s groundwater cleanup and the water treatment plan were presented to east metro communities affected by contamination from PFCs, chemicals that 3M used for years in the manufacture of Post-it Notes, fire retardants and other products.
But many local residents objected to the plan. It gave 3M two years to reduce the concentrations of the most critical contaminant, called PFOS, down to the level that would protect the Mississippi — seven parts per trillion. At that level, pollution in the river would gradually improve, eventually making the fish safe to eat again.
But even with the best available technology, company officials said, 3M has been able to get the PFOS level down only to 100 to 500 parts per trillion.
Jeff Stollenwerk, program administrator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said the agency is trying to determine how much time 3M should have to resolve its technological problem.
Federal law requires the company to achieve the standard “as soon as possible,” he said. “But what does that mean when the technology does not exist?”
In the meantime, the state and company agreed to move forward with cleaning up the groundwater, which finds its way naturally to the Mississippi. That project is part of a 2007 agreement between 3M and the state on how to clean up decades of ground and water pollution at four sites in the east metro area. The company already has spent $68 million on providing new drinking water systems for some communities, cleaning up dump sites and removing contaminated sediment.
‘Meeting our commitment’
Moving forward with the next phase is “meeting our commitment to do what we agreed to do under the consent order,” said Jean Sweeney, 3M’s vice president of environmental, health and safety operations.
The company has dug two wells on its property and will begin tests to determine how much groundwater it needs to pull up to stop the contaminated plume of groundwater from moving into the Mississippi. The water will be treated, used in its manufacturing process and then discharged into the river — about 5 million gallons per day. Even though it can’t meet the state’s stringent standard, it will reduce the amount of PFC discharged into the river.
Local government officials said even a little progress is better than none.
“The longer we delay, the more water is pumped into the Mississippi untreated,” said Jennifer Levitt, city engineer for Cottage Grove. “We’d like to see it treated as soon as possible.”
Sweeney said the company also plans to move forward with plans to build a state-of-the-art water treatment plant that will likely be completed within two years.