Report: Removing PFAS from Minnesota wastewater would cost billions

Hands wearing blue gloves holds a water sample in small plastic bottle.
Minnesota Department of Health student paraprofessional Carolyn Enright holds a water sample from a private well in West Lakeland Township, Minn.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2019

A new report published by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found it would cost $14 billion to $28 billion over the next two decades to clean up so-called “forever chemicals” from wastewater streams across the state.

The report was funded by the Legislature as part of the state's efforts to fully understand what it will take to remove and destroy PFAS chemicals from water systems. 

Katrina Kessler, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said there's no playbook for how to tackle the problem.

“This is just something that's been started to be explored,” Kessler said.

Huge costs

The report is the latest indication of the staggering environmental cost of PFAS, a class of human-made chemicals found in a range of consumer products. 

Known for their durability, they don’t break down in the environment, and have been found in water, soil, wildlife and humans around the globe. Some PFAS are linked to negative health effects, including cancer, kidney problems and low birth weight.

This year, state lawmakers passed new measures aimed at reducing the levels of PFAS in the waste stream, including a ban on non-essential uses of the chemicals.

PFAS can enter wastewater through everyday use of consumer products that contain the chemicals, through industrial processing, or when products containing PFAS are discarded in landfills.

Wastewater facilities are really good at removing organics and nutrients, Kessler said. But PFAS are outside of the suite of contaminants that treatment plants are traditionally designed and operated to remove.

While wastewater treatment plants have started monitoring for PFAS and working to identify where they’re coming from, they don’t yet have the ability to remove and destroy the chemicals. 

Unknowns mean wide range of costs

The report’s cost estimates are based on the upgrades to Minnesota’s existing wastewater infrastructure required to treat and destroy PFAS using currently available technology. Kessler said the costs could vary based on the type of wastewater treatment plant.

“When you try something for the first time and you're scaling it up … you have a lot of unknowns, and so we're going to have a wide range in cost,” she said.

The report also found that new types of PFAS with shorter carbon chains, widely used and touted by chemical manufacturers as safer alternatives to traditional longer-chain PFAS, are more difficult and expensive to remove and destroy.

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