WOODBURY — A preliminary plan mapping how to spend $720 million the state received in a settlement with 3M is expected in December, state agencies said, with the public invited to comment on the plan throughout January and February 2020.

A more complete plan, including what the state called "good/better/best" solutions, is scheduled for release in March. What would follow is state agencies working with local governments to begin distributing money and implementing solutions laid out in the plan, with the priority of ensuring safe drinking water for current and future residents, said Kirk Koudelka, an assistant commissioner with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

This information was part of an update given to a crowd of more than 50 people gathered in the Woodbury High School auditorium Thursday evening. Representatives from the Minnesota Department of Health, the PCA and the Department of Natural Resources presented background on PFAS and the settlement, addressed possible future actions and answered audience questions. A similar meeting was held in Lake Elmo on Oct. 22.

PFAS is a group of chemicals that were used in products like stain repellents, non-stick coatings and firefighting foam beginning in the 1950s but have since been phased out in the United States. Referred to as a "forever chemical," PFAS can persist in the environment for a long time and can build up slowly in the bodies of continuously exposed people. Some — though not all — studies have shown adverse health effects in lab animals, but more research is needed to determine the effect of chronic exposure in humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Working groups were formed and began meeting after the state of Minnesota and 3M Corp. settled a lawsuit in February 2018 related to the dumping of PFAS in the east metro.

The meeting comes nearly a week after it was announced a sixth public well in Woodbury exceeded health parameters regarding PFAS. The city has 19 wells in total.

City utilities manager Jim Westerman clarified that a health advisory issued for a city well in Woodbury doesn't mean it's been shut down, but that it's been put lower in rotation and would not be used until the remaining 13 wells cannot produce enough water to meet demand.

"If we have 19 wells, not all 19 wells run all the time," Westerman said. "It's an on-off type basis, based on a demand. And so what we have done ... is taken those now six wells and we have put them at the bottom of the rotation, so they will be the last wells to come on and the first wells to turn off."

Westerman explained that doing this effectively takes the six affected wells completely out of use until late spring.

"And then over the summer on these peak-demand days where the remaining 13 wells can't produce enough water, it is possible that one or more of those wells that have the health advisory would come back up and produce water," he said.

The city is currently working on a hydraulic modeling analysis project to "determine to a higher level of confidence the mixing (of water) that may be taking place in our system," Westerman said.

"The results of that model, I believe, will be very helpful for us going forward on whether we can use these wells or to what extent we can use these wells and still maintain water to our customers that (is) below any state or federal standard for PFAS," he said.

The project is being funded with $96,000 of the $25 million set aside by the state to be spent on time-sensitive projects related to ensuring safe drinking water in the east metro. It was one of three projects submitted by the city for possible use of these funds.

City wells are tested regularly to ensure they meet health-based guidelines issued by the Department of Health, which are continuously decreasing.

"It isn't like everything's getting worse ... it's just that our guidance values are dropping, so we issue more advisories, and that's what makes it seem like the situation's getting worse," said Ginny Yingling, a Department of Health research scientist.

A poster displaying amounts of PFAS that have been found in Woodbury's public wells, pictured Oct. 24, 2019 at an open house addressing water quality at Woodbury High School. Hannah Black / RiverTown Multimedia
A poster displaying amounts of PFAS that have been found in Woodbury's public wells, pictured Oct. 24, 2019 at an open house addressing water quality at Woodbury High School. Hannah Black / RiverTown Multimedia

Of the six Woodbury wells with advisories, two have decreasing trends of PFAS, two have stable trends and two have increasing trends because of the movement of groundwater, Yingling said.

Jim Kelly, the Department of Health's environmental health manager, explained during the Thursday meeting that the measures are "overprotective" and are in place mainly to protect young children. The younger a child is the more their diet consists of liquids, meaning more opportunities for exposure. PFAS has also been found to have the ability to cross the placenta or get into breast milk.

Kelly said the point is to protect the most vulnerable.

"For everybody else, our guidance values are probably overprotective," he said.

But Kelly also stressed that the Department of Health is not advising mothers in the area to stop breastfeeding babies due to any concerns about the chemicals.

"I think the benefits far outweigh small risks that would come from doing those practices or any small levels of contamination that would be passed on," Kelly said. "But ultimately, we want to protect those moms-to-be so that they don't have levels that would ever be of a concern."