Fluoride Action Network

Minnesota: 3M wastewater under scrutiny

Source: Star Tribune | January 27th, 2011 | By Jim Anderson
Industry type: Perfluorinated chemicals

With 3M Co. dumping more than 5 million gallons of water a day into the Mississippi River from its plant in Cottage Grove, city residents are asking for more time to scrutinize a new permit regulating how that wastewater is treated.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) opened a 30-day comment period last month on renewing 3M’s wastewater treatment permit.

The comment period for the permit is to end Wednesday. After that, the decision on the permit will go to the MPCA commissioner, MPCA Citizens Board or, possibly, an administrative law judge.

New MPCA Commissioner Paul Aasen will ultimately decide on extending the comment period.

The permit lays out strict limits on the levels of chemicals, metals and other materials 3M can dump into the river in its treated water. It covers water used in manufacturing of things such as abrasives, resins, polymers, tapes, insulation and ceramics. It also covers water used for scrubbing 3M’s massive hazardous waste incinerator, which destroys waste from all of 3M’s operations in North America.

The proposed new permit includes two significant changes, Scott Knowles, staff engineer for the MPCA, told a crowd of about 50 people at a public meeting on the plan Wednesday in Cottage Grove.

First, it will regulate discharges of millions of gallons of tainted groundwater being pumped out of sites in Washington County where 3M dumped perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, decades ago. PFCs were produced at the Cottage Grove plant from the 1940s to 2002.

Second, the new permit targets a particularly harmful kind of PFC — called perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS — to keep it from further impairing the Mississippi River.

PFOS was a key ingredient in Scotchgard products before the company voluntarily phased out its production. Groundwater and soil around the Cottage Grove plant, however, are still contaminated, and MPCA data show PFOS still making its way to the river.

The complexity of the new permit, combined with strong emotions evoked by the issue in Cottage Grove as well as a lawsuit between 3M and the state over PFC cleanup, is driving a consensus for more time to look it over.

State Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, has asked the MPCA for a 30-day extension of the comment period, as has the Cottage Grove City Council. The Coalition of Concerned Cottage Grove Citizens, a group focused on issues surrounding the hazardous waste incinerator, is also adding its request for an extension.

The permit itself is more than 40 pages of highly technical engineering- and chemical-related language, heavy on acronyms and virtually impregnable to the layperson. The half-dozen MPCA experts who spoke Wednesday acknowledged that complexity.

But in comparing the previous permit with the proposal, Knowles said, the bottom line is “this permit reduces pollutants to the environment.”

For the first time, he said, the MPCA is making 3M meet new emission standards for PFOS of 7 nanograms per liter (a nanogram is one-billionth of an ounce; a liter is slightly more than a quart), and is requiring the company to install new technology to do it.

Along with the technology, MPCA is setting up a compliance schedule and a treatability study to make sure the goals are being met.