Where we are now, and how we got here: Hastings’ PFAS

By Graham Johnson
Posted 6/19/24

In the midst of discussions of treatment plants, bonding bills and an alphabet soup of acronyms, keeping up with and understanding the significance of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to …

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Where we are now, and how we got here: Hastings’ PFAS

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In the midst of discussions of treatment plants, bonding bills and an alphabet soup of acronyms, keeping up with and understanding the significance of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to the Hastings community can be difficult. Given that complexity, a broad overview of how we got here in the context of the Hastings community might shed some light on lingering questions: what are PFAS and where did they come from? Are they dangerous to consume? What is the basis for the 2010 lawsuit against 3M? Why was Hastings left out of the 2018 3M settlement? What is that money going towards and will Hastings see any of it?
This article will focus on how Hastings arrived at this point, with an article next week looking forward at what the community is doing about PFAS, where we are going, and what you can do in the meantime.

What are PFAS?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFAS are a family of manufactured chemicals dating back to the 1940s. These artificial chemicals are often known as “forever chemicals” because they break down extremely slowly, if at all and therefore can build up inside organisms over time. PFAS are used in a variety of consumer goods from food packaging to non-stick pans to fire extinguisher foam. Thousands of different PFAS exist which is why many different acronyms can be found across lawsuits and studies.
3M in particular has used PFAS extensively, even inventing several, and still uses them to this day. According to their website, PFAS are used to protect fuel lines, seals and batteries in cars, within non-stick cookware, food packaging, cosmetics, clothing, and a myriad of medical devices and technologies, as well as within semiconductors.
In a 2022 press release however, the company promised to end the use of PFAS by 2025: “3M today announced it will exit per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) manufacturing and work to discontinue the use of PFAS across its product portfolio by the end of 2025. 3M's decision is based on careful consideration and a thorough evaluation of the evolving external landscape, including multiple factors such as accelerating regulatory trends focused on reducing or eliminating the presence of PFAS in the environment and changing stakeholder expectations.”
Several 3M employees who were reached out to for comment were legally restricted from discussing the topic of PFAS.

Why do we care?
On April 10, 2024, the EPA announced its Final National Primary Drinking Water Regulation for six PFAS. Those standards included maximum containment levels more strict than previous regulations, making Hastings’ water above the new legal limit and starting a five-year clock on when it had to be fixed.
“The city of Hastings water and contaminant for PFAS met our guidelines up until now. It’s not that the water’s changed, it’s that the guidance changed,” said East Metro District Engineer for the Minnesota Department of Health Public Water Supply Unit, Lucas Martin at the May 9 public meeting about PFAS in Hastings.

Why then did the federal guidelines change?
Attitudes about PFAS have been shifting for years in part due to just how widespread PFAS have become. It is worth noting their ubiquity, even before discussing if they are dangerous.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the federal agency responsible for implementing the health-related sections of laws that protect the public from hazardous wastes, “Nearly all people in the United States have measurable amounts of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their blood.”
Because PFAS are used so broadly within consumer goods, the average person is exposed to them from many, many different sources. According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), “For most people, consumer products that are grease, oil, stain and/or water resistant are a much greater source of PFAS exposure than drinking water.” Other sources of PFAS exposure according the MDH come from eating food packaged in materials containing PFAS as well as consuming food grown or raised near places with PFAS exposure.
Despite the decades of research on PFAS, it is hard to made definitive statements about them as a whole in part because there are so many. According to the EPA, exposure to certain levels of PFAS may lead to developmental effects or delays in children, increased risk of cancers such as prostate, kidney, and testicular cancer, lead to fertility issues, and interfere with the body’s natural hormones.
In the announcement of the April 2024 guidelines, the EPA said, “PFAS exposure over a long period of time can cause cancer and other illnesses that decrease quality of life of result in death.”
When it comes to specific PFAS, the evidence is more concrete. A majority of studies on PFAS focus on the most commonly found chemicals, two of which are Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). Both of which can currently be found in Hastings’ wells.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the agency often looked to for identifying carcinogens, classifies PFOA as carcinogen to humans, “based on sufficient evidence it can cause cancer in lab animals and strong evidence that it has some of the key properties of a carcinogen in people who are exposed to it.” The group classifies PFOS as “possibly carcinogenic to people.”

State of Minnesota vs. 3M Company
In 2010, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson brought a case against 3M alleging that the company had disposed of wastewater containing Perfluorocarbons (PFCs), a chemical closely related to PFAS, that polluted both Minnesota ground and surface water. In specific, the suit claims that:
3M knew or should have known that as a result of its regular disposal of PFCs and PFC-containing wastes, it was reasonably likely that PFCs would be released from the disposal sites and would reach the groundwater, surface water and sediments […] 3M knew or should have known the potentially harmful effects that PFCs have on human health and the environment. 3M knew or should have known that the discharge of PFCs would pollute groundwater and surface water of the State, making them unavailable to the citizens of the State for their normal and designated uses, including as sources of drinking water and habitat for fish which may be consumed as food.
The case focused on four dumping sites within Washington County and their effects on the surrounding communities. Those sites are the 3M Oakdale Disposal Site, the 3M Woodbury Disposal Site, the Washington County Landfill where the company is alleged to have buried waste containing PFCs in unlined dumps, and the Cottage Grove industrial facility where the company is alleged to have discharged wastewater containing PFCs into surface water that flowed into the Mississippi.
The state was seeking $5 billion in damages with the case. In 2018 the case settled for a fraction of that initial sum: $850 million. After legal fees and other expenses, $720 million was set aside to treat the water of 14 East Metro communities. Those communities are Afton, Cottage Grove, Denmark, Grey Cloud Island, Lake Elmo, Lakeland and Lakeland Shores, Maplewood, Newport, Oakdale, Prairie Island Indian Community, St. Paul Park, West Lakeland, and Woodbury.
As per the 3M Settlement annual report and spending plan for fiscal year 2023, “As of June 30, 2023, the State has spent $83,538,133 in settlement funding and from interest earned.” These funds have been and are being spent on various projects within these communities including constructing interim water treatment plants, designing long-term water treatment plants and wells, installation of whole-home water filter systems, maintenance, and other studies and projects.
According to Cottage Grove Public Works Director Ryan Burfield, all of the work done to address PFAS contamination within Cottage Grove water supply wells has been paid for by either settlement funds or from funds that came from the consent order within the settlement.

Hastings and PFAS
Even before the 2010 lawsuit in 2004, “PFOA was detected in one of five Hastings municipal wells in ‘trace’ amounts at that time ranging from 25 to 50 parts per trillion (ppt),” according to the City of Hastings website. The current legal levels of PFOA that are considered safe to drink are 4 ppt.
By 2011, the first consistent detections of PFOA were reported in Hastings by the MDH, and Hastings wells have been sampled quarterly ever since. Current PFAS levels in Hastings’ wells vary, but according to the most recent quarterly data, levels of PFOA range from 3.1ppt (which is below federal standards) to 21.5ppt.
Currently, Hastings’ plan is to build three water treatment plants in order to remove PFAS from city drinking water.
Hastings in notably excluded from the 14 affected communities listed in the 2010 lawsuit and therefore doesn’t have access to settlement funds, despite being across the river from the affected area. In order to fund the proposed water treatment plants, several sources of funding are being explored including low interest loans and raising water rates for residents.
According to MDH Assistant Commissioner Kirk Koudelka from the May 9 public meeting, “there is a path in that document [3M settlement] that if a community is impacted and can be drawn back into those disposal sites, that they will also be eligible for those funds.”
Extensive testing to Hastings’ water is currently being undertaken in order to better understand the contamination and where it might have come from. Hastings Public Works Director Ryan Stempski is optimistic: “we expect to be pulled in at some point.”
That is where we are at. The most optimistic plans for the completion of the three permeant water treatment plants in Hastings stretches out to 2027, but those plans are far from settled, especially when it comes to funding them.
Next week’s article will be prospective, examining that plan and looking to the path ahead for the Hastings community. It will look forward to questions of how Hastings can be added to the settlement fund and what can you do to limit exposure to PFAS until treatment plants are constructed.
For more information about the City of Hastings’ water treatment plan, visit https://www.hastingsmn.gov/city-government/city-departments/public-works-and-engineering/water-supply-management/pfas/pfas-treatment-plans
To learn more about limiting your PFAS exposure, visit https://www.hastingsmn.gov/city-government/city-departments/public-works-and-engineering/water-supply-management/pfas/pfas-treatment-plans