Tests will be conducted this week to determine if the elevated levels of a toxic chemical found in Brainerd's treated wastewater was a one-time event or a continuing problem.
The decision to perform further tests was reached following a meeting Tuesday in St. Paul between officials from Brainerd, Baxter and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Brainerd's wastewater treatment plant, along with 27 other plants throughout Minnesota, were sampled by the MPCA in April and tested for 13 perfluorated chemicals. The results from Brainerd's facility were significantly higher than the other facilities surveyed.
According to the MPCA, Brainerd's sample contained 1.5 parts per billion of perfluorooctane sulfonate or PFOS - chemicals used for decades to make products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water. The Brainerd plant had compound levels 14 times greater than those found at the main treatment plant in the Twin Cities and 214 times greater than those discharged from a St. Cloud treatment plant.
The result of the test meant a delay in issuing a permit for Brainerd's wastewater treatment facility expansion, which is projected to cost $35 million and is scheduled to begin operations in 2009. The delay could add $5 million-$6 million onto the project's cost.
Officials from Brainerd and Baxter, which contracts with Brainerd for wastewater services and will pay for a third of the plant expansion, learned of the MPCA's test results Friday.
On Tuesday, officials from both cities met with MPCA staffers in St. Paul to outline steps to correct the perfluorooctane sulfonate problem.
Paul Hoff, supervisor of the MPCA's Environmental Reporting and Special Studies Unit, said the MPCA and the two cities agreed to conduct their own tests on wastewater coming into Brainerd's plant, the solids removed from the wastewater, the treated wastewater that will be released from the plant and possible points the chemicals could be sitting.
"The sample we took, we're confident it's an accurate sample but we're not sure if it represents a continuous discharge or we happened to be there on a day when one higher concentration level happened to be moving through," Hoff said. "That's why we need more than one sample."
Tom Phelps, Brainerd Public Utilities superintendent, said the city's consultant, Barr Engineering, started testing the city's complete system, wastewater and water included, on Tuesday.
Phelps said it was unknown from where the elevated levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate were originating.
"We have to identify the source and take corrective measures after that," Phelps said. "(Perfluorooctane sulfonates) are all new to me."
Added Baxter City Administrator Dennis Coryell: "At the very least, we will know if the first test was replicated. It will probably take a third test to understand the meaning of it."
The MPCA will begin its testing later this week. Hoff said he hopes the results from both the cities' and the MPCA's tests will be back in two to three weeks. The samples from Brainerd will be sent for analysis to a lab in Pennsylvania. The MPCA's samples will be studied at a lab in British Columbia, Canada.
Hoff said that typically, results aren't returned for more than two months, but because it is holding up Brainerd's permit application, the tests have been fast-tracked. Phelps said the results of both tests will be cross-checked against each other.
Also, the MPCA later this week will test the water at four points along the Mississippi River between Bemidji and St. Cloud and, with the assistance of the DNR, test fish downstream from Brainerd's wastewater treatment facility.
MPCA officials have said that there are no immediate health concerns for the public because nobody drinks the discharged wastewater and it's unlikely that area residents are directly exposed to the treated wastewater. The greatest concern is the bioaccumulation of the compound in fish.
As a precaution, the Minnesota Department of Health intends to test Brainerd's water wells and water treatment plant on Thursday. Though city water systems are checked on a regular basis, Bob Smude, supervisor of the administrative unit in the drinking water section of the Minnesota Department of Health, said they are not checked for perfluorated chemicals, which include perfluorooctane sulfonate.
The results of testing on the city's drinking water should be available by the end of the week, Smude said.
"We seriously expect not to find anything because the problem was on the wastewater side, but you never know," Smude said.
The MPCA has indicated that the likely culprit of the perfluorooctane sulfonate is commercial businesses or industry.
According to the MPCA, 3M was the sole manufacturer of perfluorooctane sulfonate until the company stopped making it in 2002. It was used in Scotchgard products made by 3M, Smith said, but also has been used in carpets and furniture, as well as automobile interiors, firefighting foam, denture cleaners, paper coatings and some shampoos.
Until the perfluorooctane sulfonate problem is resolved, a decision by the MPCA Citizens' Board on whether to approve a permit for Brainerd's wastewater treatment plant expansion has been postponed.
If the source of the problem is found and can be corrected, Hoff said Brainerd's permit application for expanding its wastewater plant will be back on track for consideration.
"We certainly are aware of the environmental benefits of opening a new plant. The (perfluorooctane sulfonate) issue was sort of a curveball thrown in at the end, but I think we have good plan for following up on this," Hoff said. "If it's possible to isolate the location and shut it off, that essentially would take this particular issue off the table. Without having the issue resolved, it's an open question of where it's coming from and whether an expanded wastewater discharge would be able to meet water quality standards."
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5857.
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