Camanche in talks with 3M to fix ‘forever chemical’ contamination

By: - November 16, 2022 4:49 pm

The Mississippi River, a source of drinking water for thousands of eastern Iowans, has PFAS, according to Iowa DNR tests. (Photo by Mark D. Tomer/Agricultural Research Service, USDA)

A major manufacturer of toxic chemicals that persist indefinitely in the environment will pay for a new drinking water source or a water treatment system for Camanche in eastern Iowa.

The town of about 4,600 residents lies across the Mississippi River from a 3M Company facility near Cordova, Illinois. The facility has been producing and emitting perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — commonly known as PFAS or “forever chemicals” — for more than 40 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Those emissions have gone into the air, into the Mississippi River via wastewater and stormwater discharges, and into soil via wastewater sludge from the facility that is spread onto nearby land.

The company has agreed to provide water treatment systems to people with private wells within 3 miles of the facility and to ensure Camanche residents are not drinking water tainted by its chemicals in unsafe amounts.

The company identified nearly 200 private water systems in that area, according to a recent EPA order.

“We may be the first city involved in getting something accomplished,” Camanche City Administrator Andrew Kida said.

State has found PFAS in more than a dozen cities’ water supplies

Camanche is among more than a dozen community water supplies in Iowa that have detectable amounts of the two most-studied PFAS in their treated drinking water, according to tests conducted by the state Department of Natural Resources over the past year.

In June, the EPA issued new health advisories that said even miniscule drinking water contaminations — as low as 0.004 parts per trillion for one of the PFAS — might be unsafe if consumed over a lifetime. A test in July of Camanche drinking water showed a contamination of 7.2 parts per trillion from that PFAS.

The chemicals have been used to make non-stick and waterproof products, firefighting foams and other items. They have been linked to cancers, liver damage, diminished immune systems and childhood development delays, and they can accumulate in people’s bodies over time.

The two most prominent PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — are no longer manufactured in the United States. 3M switched away from the two PFAS starting about 20 years ago, according to its website. The company now manufactures similar chemicals that are believed to be safer.

Iowa cities with drinking water contamination have responded in varying degrees. There is no requirement currently for them to adhere to the health advisory limits, which are unenforceable. However, federal regulators are considering an enforceable maximum contaminant level.

Some cities have opted to do more water testing to better understand their contamination problems and wait for the EPA to determine the enforceable requirements. Others, such as West Des Moines, have idled contaminated wells with success.

Camanche has identified two options

That is not an option for Camanche, which has three active wells, according to state records. Two of them are shallower — at depths of 65 and 164 feet — and those are contaminated by PFAS, Kida said.

The city has a third, uncontaminated well at a depth of 1,290 feet, but it cannot produce enough water to meet the town’s demands and is often used as a backup during high water use.

Generally, deeper wells are less susceptible to contamination. Kida said his two discussions so far with 3M representatives have entertained two potential solutions:

— Drill two more deep wells to replace the two that are contaminated.

— Install a treatment system to remove PFAS from the drinking water. Kida worries about the longer-term costs of such a system: “As you’re treating that water, and you create a byproduct that has PFAS in it, what do you do with that? Where does that go? It’s not going back into the river.”

Kida was unsure whether the city might pay part of the project costs. An EPA order from early this month said 3M has 30 business days to submit a plan to offer alternative water or treatment “at 3M’s expense.”

The EPA also ordered 3M to offer PFAS testing to private well owners up to 4 miles from its facility and to public water systems up to 10 miles away, along with the Quad-Cities metro area, which is downstream about 20 miles and has PFAS-contaminated drinking water.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.