A day after the state declared that fish in Minneapolis’ Lake Calhoun were tainted with a 3M chemical, legislative efforts to protect the public from harm from the company’s chemicals gained momentum at the Capitol.
The state Senate voted overwhelmingly to strengthen the public-health guidelines for two 3M chemicals in drinking water, and to order state health officials to study what’s known about the chemicals’ risk.
The 60-3 vote comes amid a bolder approach by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in trying to contain the spread of chemicals once used in Scotchgard and Teflon that have contaminated drinking water and fish in parts of the metro area.
“State government for a period of years has been in a state of denial about these chemicals,” said Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis and chairwoman of the health and human services budget committee. “We are now moving toward a state of action. The time of trying to ignore it is over.”
The bill would require the Minnesota Department of Health to establish maximum concentrations in water — called health-risk limits — by Aug. 1 for PFOS and PFOA, two of 3M’s chemicals. State health officials already have established drinking-water guidelines for the compounds, but the bill would take that a step further and expand the rules so they would apply to wherever the chemicals may be found in the state.
In some studies, the chemicals have been shown to cause cancer, liver and thyroid problems in animals, but no adverse health effects have been found in humans. Still, public concern has grown after the chemicals were found in the drinking water of Lake Elmo and Oakdale near dumps that 3M used to dispose of chemical wastes decades ago, in landfills that received wastewater sludge in more recent years, and in fish in the Mississippi River downstream from the company’s Cottage Grove plant. Earlier this week, the state warned that people should limit their consumption of fish from Minneapolis’ Chain of Lakes, after testing showed bluegills in Lake Calhoun contained high levels of PFOS.
3M stopped making the family of compounds, called perfluorochemicals, in 2002.
The bill also would require that health officials move forward more quickly to learn about a third 3M chemical, PFBA, that was detected early this year in the municipal water of six communities: Woodbury, Cottage Grove, South St. Paul, Newport, Hastings and St. Paul Park. Little is known about PFBA; the bill would require health officials to study the latest research and report back to the Legislature by early next year. A similar bill is pending in the House.
Holding ‘feet to the fire’
Sen. Kate Sieben, DFL-Newport and author of the bill, said that it “holds the Health Department’s feet to the fire” by establishing deadlines and reporting requirements. “Residents are rightfully concerned about the safety of the water that flows from their taps,” she said.
3M spokesman Bill Nelson said the company agrees that it’s appropriate for health officials to establish maximum concentration limits for PFOA and PFOS. However, Nelson said the state should follow “the normal procedures and criteria that are well established under Minnesota law,” and that allow extensive public comments during the rulemaking process.
Nelson said that 3M is currently studying the effects of PFBA on rats, and will be sharing those research results later this year with state officials, as it has done with dozens of previous studies.
John Linc Stine, environmental health division director for the Minnesota Department of Health, said that to meet the bill’s Aug. 1 deadline, the department’s commissioner would use emergency rulemaking authority, reserved for high-priority chemicals. The rule to be promulgated for what is safe in water — 0.3 parts per billion of PFOS and 0.5 parts per billion of PFOA — would be the same as the current guidelines, Stine said, but would apply to the entire state.