Lake Elmo family has been fighting 17 years for city water after state pushed PFAS into their well
The Blackford family has been waiting 17 years for someone from the government to bring them clean city water.
Minnesota government, after all, failed to prevent 3M from contaminating the east metro with chemicals that the giant corporation dumped in an unlined gravel pit.
And that same government told the Blackfords their water was safe before they built their house a half mile away from an old landfill. And the government wrongly assured them their water was safe from chemical contaminants because it was upgradient — or upstream — of the landfill.
Before Jim and Judith Blackford built their cedar-sided, solar-paneled home in 1980, Judith called county officials to see what was in the closed landfill, since it could end up in their well water. She was in her late 20s. The land had been in her family since the 1950s, right about the time 3M began making toxic chemicals used in everything from Teflon to Scotchgard, which have since spread across the world and been linked with human health problems.
The Washington County Landfill was the first of its kind permitted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, in 1969.
The MPCA was supposed to monitor what went into the landfill, which accepted municipal and industrial waste from 1969 to 1975, a time when landfill regulations focused less on toxins and more on sanitary issues like litter and pest control. Liners weren’t required until much later.
By 1996, the state had taken over the closed landfill, one of 112 closed, unlined landfills it manages statewide.
3M dumped chemical waste in Lake Elmo, Oakdale and Woodbury landfills for years, but didn’t notify the state until 2003. The state health department began sampling the landfills in 2004 once it developed the right technology.
Judith’s family farm was close to an Oakdale dump site where her father remembered seeing burning barrels of 3M chemical waste that produced “rainbow colors.”
“We drank water there,” she said.
In 1974, 3M disposed of wastewater containing PFAS from its Cottage Grove plant into the Washington County Landfill, after which the waste was capped. The landfill was added to the EPA’s Superfund list in 1984, and removed in 1996, when the MPCA took it over through the state’s Closed Landfill Program.
The Legislature created the program to manage closed landfills and avoid federal Superfund status, in which the polluter pays to manage and clean up contaminated sites. The Legislature wanted Minnesota to take over because figuring out who’s responsible for the pollution in closed landfills can be nearly impossible, involving hundreds of businesses and waste haulers, and thousands of residents.
MPCA officials agreed to monitor the Blackfords’ well water for years, but wanted to stop in the 1990s, saying they saw no need because groundwater flowed south and southeast of the landfill, not 2,800 feet uphill to their home.
State officials repeatedly said the Blackfords’ well water was fine — until 2006, when 3M chemicals were detected. The Blackfords’ well water was tested in 2006 for seven types of PFAS chemicals; two were detected. One exceeded the state safe drinking water levels at the time: PFBA, which was used to make photographic film and is a byproduct of other chemicals used in stain-resistant fabrics, paper food packaging and carpets. 3M was a major manufacturer of it until phasing out production in 1998.
The state has provided bottled water to the Blackfords since the chemicals were found. But for the 26 years prior, they unknowingly drank contaminated water.
The Blackfords’ story is just a more extreme version of what the entire east metro — and really the entire planet — is confronting with greater urgency every day. Chemicals once considered miraculous, chemicals that can repel water, oil and stains, are piling up in the environment — water, earth, animals, humans — and are here to stay.
‘I thought it was a pretty stupid idea’
The MPCA learned in 1981 that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and heavy metals were in the Lake Elmo landfill groundwater and nearby drinking water wells.
Minnesota began pumping groundwater from the closed landfill and spraying it in the air to strip out the VOCs, which at high levels can cause kidney, liver and nervous system damage.
This went on for years, and inadvertently sent PFAS pollution into area wells, including the Blackfords’, former MPCA hydrogeologist Ingrid Verhagen publicly acknowledged in 2013.
Prior to that, Verhage had written letters to the Blackfords assuring them their water was safe because the contaminated water wouldn’t flow uphill.
“The laws of physics indicate that groundwater does not flow uphill or upgradient rather groundwater flows from higher elevation to lower elevation,” she wrote in a 1999 letter to the Blackfords.
Former MPCA hydrogeologist Mark Toso’s first job at the agency in 1992 included working on the VOC remediation at the Washington County Landfill. Donning a raincoat, he would put a bowl under the giant sprinklers the MPCA was using to aerate the groundwater, wait for the bowl to fill with water and grab it for analysis.
“I thought it was a pretty stupid idea to begin with,” Toso told the Reformer. “You’re blasting this stuff into the air.”
The state was focused on VOCs, not the PFAS-contaminated water falling on Toso’s head and expanding the PFAS plume below him.
“That definitely expanded the size of the groundwater contamination,” Toso said.
Toso quit in 2001 after repeatedly complaining that the agency failed to clean up and protect groundwater and private drinking water wells. He filed a whistleblower lawsuit, which was settled last year.
‘How long have we been carrying those bottles up here?’
The Blackfords are now both 70 years old, have elevated PFAS levels in their blood, and are still grappling with the government over what was dumped in the landfill — which they call Mount Trashmore — and then leached into the soil and into groundwater that supplies their well. Each month, they lug huge jugs of spring water up a spiral staircase to their living quarters.
“How long have we been carrying those bottles up here?” Judith Blackford asked her husband, who has Parkinson’s disease. “We’re tired.”
They haven’t been able to convince anybody at 3M or in the government — city, county or state — to spend the money to bring city water to their home. The state estimates connecting the Blackfords to city water would cost nearly $247,000.
MPCA documents indicate the agency hired a consultant to look at extending city water to the Blackfords and a few nearby homes, but concluded a whole-house granular activated carbon treatment system was the more cost-effective option, at an installation cost of $2,500.
The MPCA said the treatment system uses the same technology employed to remove PFAS from municipal systems, and is used in hundreds of other homes in the east metro, where there’s a 200-square-mile underground plume of PFAS contamination.
The Blackfords prefer city water. They don’t trust the state to keep paying for the filter service.
“The Blackford family has basically been abandoned by all levels of government,” Jim Blackford said. “It is clear to me that they are all waiting for us to die or move away.”
Meanwhile, an upscale housing development called Tapestry at Charlotte’s Grove was built just east of the Blackfords, with about 80 colorful, custom homes along winding roads — supplied with Lake Elmo water.
In 2006, 3M paid the cost to connect about 200 homes near the landfill to Lake Elmo water, but went around the Blackfords’ place.
“We can see the (city) fire hydrant from our kitchen window,” Jim Blackford said. “They didn’t even try.”
Why don’t they sell the home?
“Who’s gonna buy it?” Judy Blackford asked.