Increasingly alarmed by what it’s learning about the health ramifications of PFAS, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency wants to launch a major offensive against the chemicals -- and it wants the Legislature to give it authority to dip into a “closed landfill” fund to help pay for it.

Some closed landfills in this area -- near New York Mills, Wadena, Sebeka and Barnesville -- are leaching unhealthy amounts of PFAS into the groundwater. In some cases two or three times the amount considered safe by the state Health Department, but usually less.

Fortunately for Becker County, the closed landfill near Detroit Lakes doesn’t yet have any known issues with PFAS.

But some closed landfills in the Twin Cities and southern Minnesota area have an even bigger PFAS problem, over 10 times the level considered safe. A closed landfill near Fairmont is leaching PFAS at 1,300 times the safe level, for example.

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Before you go pooh-poohing PFAS, you should understand that they love each other very much.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a happy clan of chemicals that repel grease and water and are resistant to heat. They make non-stick cookware nonsticky, can smother burning liquids without flinching, and make themselves useful in all sorts of products.

They don’t degrade in the environment because they have one thing in common -- those intrepid PFAS molecules are made of chainmail links of carbon and fluorine atoms -- and they form a marriage made in heaven. Or hell, depending on your point of view.

“The carbon-flourine bond is the strongest bond in organic chemistry,” said Sophie Greene, PFAS coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. That means they’re highly durable and hard to destroy. “They don’t break down, and they stay in our bodies and the environment over time,” she added. That’s why they’re called “forever chemicals.”

The most consistent health risk from PFAS to humans, oddly enough, is high cholesterol. But studies have also shown an impact on infant birth weights, effects on the immune system, cancer, and thyroid hormone disruption. And the more the MPCA finds out about PFAS, the less it likes them.

Health risks occur at very low doses, measured in parts per billion. Take for example just one PFAS chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid.

The highest concentrations in this area were found in the closed landfill off Highway 10 northwest of New York Mills, in a test well that showed concentrations of 0.13 parts per billion, about three times the 0.035 level considered safe by the state health department.

A well at the Barnesville site tested double the safe level, while a well at the Wadena site tested about two-thirds over, and a well at the Sebeka site tested about a third over the safe level.

How big is the problem?

But the MPCA is most concerned about what it doesn’t know.

“As our tools have improved, our understanding of toxic effects have improved,” said Greene. PFAS can get into humans through meat, fish, plants and water. And it seems to be everywhere. “Essentially, anywhere we look for PFAS, we tend to find it,” Greene said.

So the MPCA badly wants to find out the scope of the problem and act on it -- and for that, it needs cash.

A candy jar of cash has been set aside by the state Legislature just to handle problems with the 110 closed landfills in the state program.

For over 20 years now, lawmakers have been putting money into that jar, borrowing big chunks of it in hard times, paying it back with interest in good times, and now there is $123 million in the Closed Landfill Investment Fund.

By statute, that money was supposed to become available this fiscal year, which started in July. But the MPCA and the Legislature disagreed on how the money could be accessed, and now the agency is waiting for clarifying legislation giving it authority to use the money.

It’s a frustrating wait for Eric Pederson, supervisor of closed landfills for the MPCA. “We’d appreciate any help we could get to gain access to the Closed Landfill Investment Fund,” he said. “Right now we don’t have access to it.”

For starters, he said, “we could figure out the magnitude of all the contamination (at the closed landfills). “That’s step one. After finding out how far and wide it is, we can decide what to do about it.”

Will Closed Landfill fund be drained 'too quickly?'

State Rep. Rick Hansen, a DFLer from Minneapolis, said (in a recent online meeting with top MPCA officials and news media) that he supports opening the Closed Landfill fund.

But he has concerns. “This is an unanticipated problem, and I’m concerned that when we open up the Closed Landfill Investment Fund, we drain it too quickly,” he said.

While $123 million seems like a lot of money, the state’s Closed Landfill Program is projected to need $309 million through 2050, with that money to come from a remediation fund, state bonding money, and the closed landfill investment fund.

And one major project can eat up a lot of money: It’s expected to cost $120 million just to clean up the closed Freeway Landfill in Burnsville, which is contaminated with PFAs, heavy metals and other toxins.

For years, an adjacent quarry operation has pumped groundwater that has limited the extent of contamination there. But groundwater levels will rise when the quarry pumping stops -- putting chemicals and toxins in the landfill in direct contact with the groundwater. That could contaminate the Minnesota River and the drinking water for Burnsville and Savage.

The state is forever responsible for the long term care of these 110 closed landfill sites, said Kirk Koudelka, MPCA’s assistant commissioner for land policy and strategic initiatives. He said the agency wants to tap into interest raised by the closed landfill investment fund.

“The goal is to make sure money is there into the future to address issues at the sites, so we plan to use the earnings on the corpus of the fund to have money in the future, too,” he said.

Meanwhile, the MPCA is asking the state for separate pots of money to get started on the problem:

  • $700,000 to identify potential PFAS sources and prioritize investigations of problem sites.
  • $500,000 over two years to look at how waste going to landfills, compost facilities, and wastewater treatment plants is affecting PFAS levels in the water that leaves those areas.
  • $400,000 over the next two years to sample fish and water for PFAS.
  • $1.4 million to better understand the impacts of elevated levels of PFAS in wastewater biosolids, compost contact water, and landfill leachate and to look at treatment options.

See the news release on statewide blueprint to address PFAS