House Discusses Chemical Contamination Issue Important to Cities

February 24, 2020

A bill would provide funding to investigate how to reduce potentially dangerous chemical compounds being found in water and other city systems.

The League of Minnesota Cities and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities have worked together to craft a legislative proposal to identify the sources of problematic chemical compounds that are being detected in drinking water, wastewater effluent and biosolids, and stormwater in Minnesota and around the world.

They are found in every person and in lakes, rivers, and soil, even in extremely remote locations.

HF 3638 (Rep. Peter Fischer, DFL-Maplewood)/SF 3414 (Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point) would allocate $500,000 to the state to gather source information so that regulators and utilities have the information they need to reduce levels of these compounds that are finding their way into our water, wastewater, and stormwater systems.

These bills were just introduced and were sent to the Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committees of the House and Senate.

Where do the chemicals come from?

These chemicals end up flowing through public infrastructure, but that infrastructure is not the source of the chemicals. Treatment is extremely expensive for drinking water and not yet technologically possible for wastewater effluent, biosolids, or stormwater discharges. This problem will need to be addressed at the consumer, manufacturing, and product disposal level, not at public expense at the end of the treatment process.

This class of chemicals includes per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). They have recently been referred to as “forever” chemicals and are found virtually everywhere in our modern lives. The compounds come in a massive range of products and sources, including food packaging, metal finishing, water-repellant clothing, carpet cleaning solutions, and many thousands more.

The group includes over 4,000 separate chemical compounds that are extremely long-lived and some of which have started to be linked to significant potential health effects.

Additional legislation

The Legislature is considering other legislation related to this topic, as well. HF 3180 (Rep. Anne Claflin, DFL-South St. Paul) prohibits food packaging intentionally containing PFAS. That bill has passed through the House Commerce Committee and will next be heard in the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee.

There is also a bill (HF 3182/Claflin) that would immediately declare perfluorochemicals, an even broader category that includes all PFAS chemicals, as hazardous substances.

That change would make it far faster and simpler for the state to address specific cases of PFAS contamination in Minnesota. But it would also expose city wastewater, drinking water, and stormwater systems to environmental liability exposure under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act.

The League and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities have been working with the author of HF 3182 and the committee on an amendment to help prevent city systems from being subject to environmental litigation over these chemicals. The sources of the chemicals should be the ones facing liability for public impacts and remediation costs, not public utilities and their ratepayers. The bill has not yet been heard.